13 DECEMBER 1963, Page 12

Quiet Revolution


TENEZUELA became an independent republic V about 150 years ago and for most of that time the place has been a junk heap of a

country. But with the results of the presidential elections finally confirmed this week and the victory of Raill Leoni secure it looks as though the Venezuelans may finally have turned their backs on the bad old days.

Leoni, a bull-necked lawyer in his fifties, has been chosen to take the place of his fellow member of the Accien Democratica Party, Remulo Betancourt, who lays down his office in March after five years as president. If he is spared the assassin's bullet he will be the first Venezuelan ever to take over legally from a democratically elected head of State.

This constitutional handing-over of office may seem a modest step forward by European stan- dards, but in fact it is a major achievement in a country that has a record of political anarchy and maladministration that stands out even in Latin America.

Venezuela was until recently regarded as the anus mundi. It was a pitiful place when the Spaniards discovered it, and its Spanish rulers had little interest in it. Charles V mortgaged it to a firm of German bankers for a while and Philip V gave it to a company of Basque merchants to run as they liked for half a century. As a jewel in the Spanish crown it had about as much lustre as Botany Bay had in the British.

And things got worse after independence. Contrary to the liberal dreams of the Liberators, Miranda and Bolivar, Venezuela was run by and for a small group of oligarchs who altern- ated in power with this or that dictator who was usually a ,general. Such riches as coffee and cocoa plantations could provide went into the pockets of a handful" of landlords while the mass of the people vegetated in poverty. Such conditions, in fact, continued virtually unchanged Tight down to the late 1950s, the only modifica- tion being that the discovery of oil in enormous quantities just before the First World War gave the minority the chance to become wealthier than ever before.

The Venezuelan ethos could be summed up in the career of one of its more flamboyant dic- tators, General Gomez, who ruled the country either as actual president or from behind the scenes from 1908 to 1935. A mestizo with Indian and Spanish blood in his veins, he amassed a fortune from oil, agriculture, cattle, industrial holdings and real estate. He kept his opponents quiet through censorship and the torture chamber and finally died in bed, a seventy-nine-year-old bachelor, leaving his country to chaos and his hundred children.

The two presidents who followed him were both generals too, but in 1946 there was a rare interval of democracy when Accian Democrdtica with Betancourt and Leoni came to power with a policy of moderate socialism. But they were turned out and sent into exile two and a half years later when the last dictator, General Perez Jimenez seized the presidency. After Perez Jimenez himself was tossed out in 1958 Betancourt was elected president in a wave of popular enthusiasm in 1959.

This sad history adds up to the fact that in a century and a half of independence. Venezuela has hardly had ten years of responsible admin- istration and, although Betancourt already holds the record as the constitutional president who has survived the longest in office, no demo- cratic president has yet served a full term.

Betancourt has had to display the most Machiavellian political sense in order to stay in office as long as he has done and to ensure a democratic succession. In addition to the con- stant disgruntlement of the right-wing oligarchy who tend to regard having to pay taxes of any kind as evidence that the Communists are in power, he has had to face increasing hostility from the far left, which feels that because a Cuban type of regime has not been set up then the President has sold the country down the river to the foreign oil companies.

Thus even until the middle of this year it seemed as though Betancourt's time in power might be terminated violently and the country relapse into the chaos with which it was so familiar.

Communists and Castro sympathisers, mostly young middle-class students, set up their own, guerrilla organisation in some of the mountain- ous regions. In attempts to gain publicity they hijacked the cargo ship Anzodtegui and a domestic airliner, kidnapped the footballer di Stefano, and the deputy head of the US military mission, Colonel Chennault, and mounted an assassination campaign against the police and their political opponents. They tried their best to persuade voters not to register for the December 1 elections, from which they were excluded, and they threatened anyone actually going to vote with a bullet. In addition to these direct dangers there was the danger that with seven candidates standing the presidential election itself would give an indecisive result which would lead to a period of vacillating administration.

In the event the elections went off better than Betancourt himself could have hoped. There was no right-wing agitation and the left-wing propaganda failed miserably. About 95 per cent of those entitled to the vote registered and the percentage who actually cast their vote was also well up in the nineties. In spite of the threats there were few violent incidents on the day. Most satisfactory of all, perhaps, Leoni got a third of the votes with Rafael Caldera, the can- didate of the Christian Democratic COPEI, Accion Democriitica's partner in the present parliamentary coalition, coming second with about 22 per cent. Future stability, therefore, seems a good deal closer than it did six months ago. Barring a right-wing coup, which does not (seem likely at the moment, or the murder of The president-elect by left-wing extremists, which would alienate sympathy from them more than ever, the outlook for the next five years is one of good government with Accien .Democratica pursuing its traditional goals of better education, land reform and a better dis- tribution of the national income. There are in- dications, then, that the spirit of Gomez has been laid.

All this is as surprising as it is welcome because it demonstrated that the mass of Venezuelans, poor people who have had every justification for bringing down bloody revolu- tion on the heads of their former rulers, are content to trust moderate, constructive reformers and to reject the violence of the extreme left.

In the context of Latin America as a whole tit .must be depressing for Dr. Castro and his 'supporters. With her economic difficulties and her increasing isolation from the rest of the 'hemisphere Cuba's star of revolution seems to be on the wane for the moment and 'after a series of reverses at the hands of the military over the past eighteen months the star of demo- cratic reformers like Betancourt and Leoni, Belatinde in Peru and the Christian Democrats in Chile is in the ascendant once again.