Chavez Supporters and Opposition Commemorate Overthrow of Venezuela’s Last Dictatorship

Tens of thousands of government supporters turned out to official celebrations in the barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas today to commemorate 50 years since the civic-military uprising that overthrew US backed dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958.
Civil-military uprising in 1958 (El Universal)

Caracas, January 23, 2008 ( – Tens of thousands of government supporters turned out to official celebrations in the barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas today to commemorate 50 years since the civic-military uprising that overthrew US backed dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958.

José Gregorio Vielma Mora, head of Venezuela's Tax Office, who spoke at the event, said that 23 de Enero–paradoxically an area of high rise housing constructed under Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s and re-named to celebrate his fall–was always considered a "red zone," and a "bastion of the left" because its inhabitants are "strong fighters against injustice."

Vielma Mora also spoke of innumerable historical sacrifices of the inhabitants of 23 de Enero, in particular, the aftermath of the 1989 "Caracazo" uprising against neoliberal prices hikes during which thousands of residents of Venezuela's poor barrios were massacred, and in their role in leading mass mobilizations, which, together with rank and file soldiers, defeated an opposition coup against the government of President Hugo Chavez in April 2002.

In December 1957 the Pérez Jiménez regime, which had close links to the Pentagon and was characterized by its brutal repression of political dissidents, carried out a fraudulent plebiscite in order to maintain power. However, growing discontent was signified by a failed military uprising on January 1, 1958, then on January 21 a general strike called by the Patriotic Committee (a clandestine alliance of political parties which had lead the struggle against the regime since 1956), and a growing military rebellion signified the beginning of the end of the regime.

In the early hours of January 23, Pérez Jiménez fled to the Dominican Republic and Venezuelans woke up to hear the voice of Fabrico Ojeda, president of the Patriotic Committee, on national radio announcing the fall of the dictatorship. People flood into the streets to celebrate.

However, many Venezuelans say the "spirit of January 23" was subsequently betrayed by the leaders of the traditional political parties. On January 20, only days before the dictator fell, political leaders, such as Rómulo Betancourt (Democratic Action – AD), Rafael Caldera (Christian Democratic Party – COPEI) and Jóvito Villalba (Democratic Republican Union – URD), signed a power sharing deal known as the "New York Pact" in the presence of then US State Department Chief of Latin American Affairs, Maurice Bergbaum. This deal was then ratified on October 31, 1958 in the "Punto Fijo Pact," named after the residence of Rafael Caldera (COPEI), where it was signed and where they committed to establish a government of national unity.

Elected to congress in the general elections in 1958, Ojeda resigned from parliament in 1962 saying, "The 23 of January was only this; a change of names. The exploiting oligarchy, the servers of imperialism were immediately accommodated into the new government. Political power remains in the hands of the same interests."

Like many of his generation, Ojeda went underground and joined the guerrilla struggle against the "pseudodemocracy" of the Punto Fijo Pact. He was arrested by the Armed Forces Intelligence Service on June 20, 1966 and was found drugged and hanged in his cell the following day, the official version was suicide.

At another official ceremony commemorating the memory of Ojeda today, National Assembly Deputy, Dario Vivias said that Ojeda was betrayed by the leaders of political parties such as AD and COPEI, who also participated in the downfall of Perez Jimenez.

"He was persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and assassinated during the government of Acción Democratica and they are the same people that today are disguised as Un Neuvo Tiempo (A New Era – UNT, the party of former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales), Alianza Bravo Pueblo (Brave People's Alliance – ABP), Proyecto Venezuela and Primero Justicia (Justice First), that is to say, the same traitors as always."

However, the dreams and ideals of Fabricio Ojeda are finally becoming a reality today thanks to the Bolivarian Revolution, Vivas said.

In a separate event opposition groups, who say that democratically elected leftist President Hugo Chavez is a "dictator," also commemorated the day with the signing of another pact, this time a "unity pact," which they say represents "the spirit of January 23."

Buoyed by the defeat of Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms in December last year, representatives of opposition parties Acción Democrática (AD), Causa R, Copei Partido Popular, Movimiento Al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism – MAS), Primero Justicia (PJ), Proyecto Venezuela, Alianza Bravo Pueblo (ABP) and Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) signed a draft agreement of 10 points aimed at securing united candidates for regional and mayoral elections set for October.

Julio Borges, the leader of Primero Justicia, said the defeat of Chavez's reforms showed that "the Venezuelan people …have been the only thing that has put a stop to the Chavez government, here they have tried stoppages, coup d'états, but the only thing that has put a stop to him is the Venezuelan people."

Opposition groups also demanded amnesty for 11 metropolitan police officers that they say are "political prisoners" under the Chavez government. The police officers are charged with various human rights abuses, including the massacre of 19 civilians during the opposition military coup against Chavez in 2002.