The last hours in power of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the general overthrown 65 years ago in Venezuela
- John Francis Alonso
- BBC News World
January 23, 1958. That day began as abruptly as the previous ones for the people of Caracas, especially those who lived to the east of the Venezuelan capital.
An unusual mechanical noise knocked more than one out of bed, but the darkness of the night made it difficult to identify the cause. We had to wait until dawn to clarify what happened.
“It fell [el general Marcos] Perez Jimenez”“Liquidated the tyranny” or “The dictator fled abroad”.
With these headlines, the newspapers gave an account of what had happened hours before: the military regime that for a decade governed the destinies of the South American country had collapsed.
65 years later, BBC Mundo spoke with historians and reviewed publications and interviews made with some of the protagonists of the event that allowed the reestablishment of liberal-representative democracy in Venezuela, to reconstruct the exile of the until then strong man.
Measuring forces until the end
“I left Venezuela without having a revolver put to my chest. no one pushed me (…) At that time we were not receiving shots from anywhere, nor was there any unit raised,” Pérez Jiménez stated in the book “Habla el general”, published in 1983.
This version, however, was refuted by historians who maintain that the dictator’s departure was indeed forced by an insurrectionary situation within the Armed Forces.
“The members of the General Staff told Pérez Jiménez: ‘You must go, but we will give you the conditions to leave‘Luis Buttó, a retired history professor at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, told BBC Mundo.
“The intention of those who deposed him was to negotiate with him to leave the country, because if not, they would have done the same thing to him that he did to General Isaías Medina Angarita (in October 1945), overthrow and detain him,” he added,
This opinion is shared by José Alberto Olivar, a member of the National Academy of History of Venezuela.
“There was no sneak escape or movie escapeeverything was part of some agreements within the military institution for an orderly transition, in military terms,” he said.
The year 1958 began convulsed.
On January 1, Air Force and Army units took up arms and attacked the Miraflores presidential palace and the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense in Caracas.
And although the government prevailed, it remained mortally wounded when it became clear that the military was divided, experts said.
In the late afternoon of January 22, the cadets of the Military School and units of the Navy stationed in the nearby port of La Guaira, some 50 kilometers north of the Venezuelan capital, revolted.
The uniformed officers took advantage of the agitation that had been taking place in the country since the 21st, due to the press strike and the general strike called by the banned political parties grouped in the so-called patriotic board. The high command would do the same later.
Pérez Jiménez spent hours calling different police stations to find out what support he had, but at midnight he put his papers in order, called his wife and asked her to get ready to leave the country.
At 1:00 a.m. on the 23rd, the general asked his driver, Juan José Montilla, to look for him in Miraflores, and about 15 minutes later he left his office for the last time and headed towards the Base of La Charlotte, east of the city.
one problem after another
At around 1:30 a.m., Pérez Jiménez and his wife, Flor Chalbaud de Pérez, their three daughters, and other relatives arrived at the military airfield.
The idea was to board the plane popularly known as “The Holy Cow”, a C 54 Skymaster that since 1949 served as a presidential aircraft.
The device coincidentally was on that base. Days before, the four-engine had returned from Colombia, where some of the leaders of the failed New Year’s insurrection took it.
Major José Cova Rey, who flew the plane, found that the officers commissioned to put it in a condition to fly had left their posts without completing their task.
When reviewing “The Holy Cow”, the uniformed man observed that did not have enough fuel.
And for this reason he suggested to Pérez Jiménez to use a smaller one, something to which the deposed president refused, because he would have to leave half of his companions, the historian Luis Heraclio Medina recounted in his article “The Sacred Cow: myths and realities”.
Medina assured that Pérez Jiménez then proposed to fly to the island of La Orchila, in the Venezuelan Caribbean and where he had a summer residence built. The reason? From there they would ask for more fuel to be sent to them, but Cova rejected that idea.
“Negative, My general, when this plane takes off you will no longer be president”the pilot would have said.
Then a fuel tanker was requested from the nearby Maiquetía airport and, although the new authorities granted it, it was set on fire by some exalted members.
However, a second truck, which was heavily guarded, did manage to arrive an hour and a half later, due to the despair of the travelers.
Once the fuel problem was resolved, a new setback arose: there was no co-pilot.
The mechanic who was supposed to join the crew refused to get on the device, although another uniformed officer later appeared and accepted the mission, Medina said.
Neither escape nor escape
At about 3 in the morning all the obstacles seemed overcome, but the last one appeared: the airport had no beacon lights; that is, it was not prepared for night landings or takeoffs.
To prevent the device from leaving the track and crashing, the cars in which the passengers arrived at the scene were placed on the sides with their lights on, in order to guide the pilot, said former deputy Juan José Caldera, son of whom later would be two times president of Venezuela, Rafael Caldera, in his book “My testimony”.
The rudimentary solution worked and the aircraft took off and headed for the Dominican Republic, where the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo received his former colleague.
“The plane was overloaded and had trouble taking flight”Edgardo Mondolfi, also a historian, added to BBC Mundo.
In “La vaca sagrada” there were not only Pérez Jiménez and his family, but 20 other people and their respective luggage.
Collaborators such as General Luis Felipe Llovera Páez, who was his Minister of the Interior and Communications; and relatives of these, were among the passengers.
Over time, some acolytes of the regime assured that the Ministry of Defense had the anti-aircraft batteries ready to shoot down the device, a version that experts reject.
“The departure of Pérez Jiménez was negotiated and proof of this is that he was even able to take his mother-in-law with him (…) It was a hasty departure, with inconveniences and a certain amount of drama, but it did not go on the fly, because he was able to make a list of those who would accompany him. When someone flees, this does not happen,” said Buttó.
Mondolfi, on the contrary, does believe that the dictator fled. “He is the only president of the 20th century who has fled. (…) and he did it to save his skin and avoid being arrested,” he said.
two big mistakes
“Mark the Evangelist [los nombres de pila de Pérez Jiménez], let’s go, what psting does not sprout“.
This phrase that General Llovera Páez would have told Pérez Jiménez between January 22 and 23, 1958 to convince him that his time was up has gone down in history.
But what caused the fall of a government that until recently seemed consolidated, that had the press silenced and its main opponents in exile, in prisons, in fear or in the graves?
“Pérez Jiménez decided to skip his own Constitution and instead of calling presidential elections he called a plebiscite [celebrado el 15 de diciembre de 1957]where the voter was asked if he wanted to extend his term for another five years,” explained Olivar.
“That caused a breakdown in the Armed Forces, which was the institution that supported his government, because truncated the aspirations of other military chiefs who they craved occupy higher positions“.
The fact that Rear Admiral Wolfang Larrazábal, then General Commander of the Navy and senior officer, ended up at the Head of State reaffirms the expert’s thesis.
However, until the end of his days, Pérez Jiménez denied that he had been overthrown.
“I got tired of quelling attempts [de golpes de Estado]“he declared.
Likewise, the general affirmed that he had enough support to impose himself on January 23.
Why didn’t you do it then? “I left, because if I wake up [en Miraflores] I was going to have to shoot a lot of people and I didn’t want to do it“, he responded in various interviews over the years.
Pérez Jiménez did not mind being called a dictator, but he did mind being doubted about his honesty.
This, despite the fact that he was extradited to Venezuela, prosecuted and convicted of acts of corruption in the 1960s, and then lived the rest of his life until his death in 2001 in one of the most luxurious neighborhoods in Madrid (Spain). without working.
The ex-governor confirmed one of the most famous facts of his departure and that has served those who accuse him of having illegally enriched himself during his term: left a suitcase with a important Amount of moneyin metalic.
“Everyone who goes on a trip takes their suitcases and they have to take the values they have in them (…) in one of my suitcases were values that I had in my house, the product of negotiations made with full honor, the product of savings, etc. And then I was foolish enough to say: take care of that suitcase. Some officers noticed it and at the time of boarding they appropriated the suitcase,” he confessed in the book “The General Speaks.”
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