- Dictatorship and Politics: Intrigue, Betrayal, and Survival in Venezuela, 1908-1935
In addition to defining the Venezuelan twentieth and twenty-first centuries (so far), oil bequeathed to scholars the opportunity to write using rich metaphors. Intellectuals have called oil the permanent dilemma that produced an irrevocable stain on Venezuela's history, a substance that had to be sowed to create national prosperity and social harmony or else the nation would become a petroleum parasite. Oil has also inspired a sort of backwards teleology in which U. S. oil dependency in the decades subsequent to World War II shaped how we interpreted United States-Venezuelan relations as mutually dependent throughout the twentieth century, including during the presidency of Juan Vicente Gómez (1908-1935). Brian McBeth's book is neither limited by metaphor nor any sort of teleology to explain the Gómez regime. In the process of analyzing the fortunes of [End Page 570] those who opposed the regime internally and from exile, and who actively conspired with international forces to upend Gómez, McBeth presents us with one of the most nuanced and thorough assessments of the Gómez era to date. McBeth argues that it was not Gómez's use of multiple means of repression that resulted in his longevity, but instead his political skill to consolidate and maintain control despite persistent and pervasive opposition from within and without Venezuela that produced a regime that endured until Gómez's peaceful death.
Well publicized realities of Gómez's life (wealth, teetotaling behavior juxtaposed with a plethora of illegitimate children, etc.) led to the construction of Gómez as myth. That mythmaking has also limited historical interpretation. McBeth's analysis of Gómez, extremely well grounded in a vast collection of primary sources, shows Gómez as a much more complicated figure, a savvy politician who was as aware of his political strengths and weaknesses as he was of complex internal and international political dynamics. McBeth does not question Gómez's corruption. He argues instead that Gómez used his political acumen to strategically spread the wealth of the state to break regional loyalties and to definitively construct a centralized, modern Venezuelan state. The first chapters of the book in their close evaluation of regional and national machinations are as much a study in modern state formation as they are a study of the slow consolidation of Gómez's power.
Upon that foundation (the drawn out process of consolidation of power yielded the first of several crops of exiles) McBeth builds his assessment of the conspiracies against Gómez that began in the late 1910s and culminated in the late 1920s. Conspirators found supporters throughout the Caribbean basin, including the United States. In sum, groups of conspirators organized 25 movements against Gómez, including 12 invasions. They forced Gómez to reorganize the national military and his relationships with state presidents to insure as much loyalty as possible. McBeth's analysis of the multiple movements that wracked Venezuela in 1928 is particularly insightful. McBeth argues that more menacing to Gómez than threats from without were threats from within the cadre of his supporters. One of McBeth's arguments, innovative in Gómez historiography—that Gómez's son, Vicentico, was rumored to have spurred the March 1928 student uprising and more than likely participated in the April army revolt—adds credence to McBeth's overall argument that Gómez's rule was frequently much more precarious than historians previously presumed. Using repression and exile as the tools associated with political acumen enabled Gómez's survival.
No work is perfect. I wonder in particular to what degree conspiratorial exiles were aware of growing labor unrest in the 1920s and if said unrest in any way shaped how conspirators planned for action after coups began. Other flaws are equally minor. Despite McBeth's inclusion of lists of cabinet ministers, state presidents, and short biographies of important figures...