Gómez, Juan Vicente (1857–1935)

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Gómez, Juan Vicente (1857–1935)

Juan Vicente Gómez (b. 24 July 1857; d. 17 December 1935), president and dictator of Venezuela (1908–1935). During his twenty-seven-year dictatorship, Gómez created the modern Venezuelan nation-state. Like Porfirio Díaz of Mexico (1876–1911), Gómez brought an end to internecine struggles for power, established a strong central government, began the construction of a nationwide transportation and communication system, and put the economy on a stable basis through the judicious use of petroleum revenues. Along with Rómulo Betancourt, he is one of Venezuela's major twentieth-century political figures.

Gómez achieved power at midlife. A former butcher and cattle rancher from Táchira, he became involved in politics in 1892 when he joined Cipriano Castro in an abortive political movement. Forced into exile in Colombia following the failure of that struggle, Gómez returned in 1899 as an officer in Castro's small Army of the Liberal Restoration. At the age of forty-two, he entered Caracas for the first time. There he served Castro as a loyal and trusted associate, and played an instrumental role in defeating the many groups who rose up against Castro's regime. Gómez risked his life on numerous occasions to put down major revolts. In so doing, he won support from the Venezuelan military establishment, which considered him both brave and honest. He also gained allies among the civilian elites, who saw Gómez as an efficient, if ruthless, military leader. Like most caudillos, he also had a large following among the nation's campesinos, who revered him, in part because they believed he possessed supernatural powers.

In 1908, Castro named Gómez as acting president while he sought medical treatment in Europe. Gómez took advantage of his chief's absence to proclaim himself president of Venezuela. His pronouncement met with immediate success, both at home and abroad. Castro's enemies thought that Gómez was an individual they could control. Foreign powers, which had suffered through the Castro years, also believed they could trust Gómez. Within weeks of his coup, the United States recognized the new government, and European powers quickly followed suit. As a result, Gómez enjoyed good relations with the United States and European nations, all of whom played an important role in the development of Venezuela's oil resources.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Venezuelan scholars began to revise part of the Gómez legacy. While continuing to condemn him for the torture and imprisonment of opponents; his monopolization of land and concessions for himself, his family, and his friends; his high-handed use of censorship and police violence to silence his critics; and his seeming surrender of Venezuelan petroleum to foreign economic interests, they started to recognize Gómez and his associates as important contributors to Venezuela's modernization. Without the Gómez administration, they argue, Venezuela would have continued as a wartorn nation, with a predominantly agricultural economy that depended on the vagaries of international demand for its chief export crops, coffee and cacao. Under Gómez, the nation enjoyed unprecedented economic stability and growth, as well as political calm. A close alliance with bankers, financiers, businessmen, and representatives of the United States assured the former. Constitutions of 1914, 1922, 1925, 1928, 1929, and 1931 guaranteed the latter.

From the outset of his administration, Gómez gave generous concessions to foreign interests. His oil policy followed a moderate course based on his desire to develop the industry rapidly, with the aid of foreign investment. Under the direction of Development Minister Gumersindo Torres (1918–1922), a mining law of 1918 and a petroleum code of 1920 limited the freedom of companies. But under pressure from the U.S. State Department, Gómez had Congress remove some of the most restrictive measures from the 1920 code. In 1922, a new law gave foreign oil companies what they wanted: low taxes and royalty payments to Venezuela, slow exploitation rates, and no restriction on the amount of land the companies held.

Gómez also made important changes in the organization of the national armed forces. In 1910, the first inspector general of the army, Félix Galavís, opened the Military Academy, which trained the next generation of professional officers. Military profes-sionalization assured Gómez of an armed force that could defend the nation as well as put down domestic revolts. Since the officers often received higher salaries than their civilian counterparts, Gómez attracted candidates to the armed forces who had closer ties to the Caracas elites than did the older officers. Until his death, his brothers and fellow Táchiran officers comprised a separate and more powerful part of the officers, whereas the younger generation trained during his rule comprised the backbone of the post-Gómez generation of military leaders.

Perhaps as important as his reform of the military, his fiscal policies also had a long-term impact upon Venezuela. Gómez often showed his rancher background when it came to budgets. Like his minister of the Treasury, Román Cárdenas (1913–1922), he believed firmly in a balanced budget. Cárdenas's centralization of tax collection helped raise monies needed to run the government efficiently. Cuts in salaries and expenditures, along with amortization of foreign debts, turned Venezuela into a nation with no public debt by the mid-1920s. Vicente Lecuna [Salbach], who served as director of the Bank of Venezuela, also worked with Gómez on the national budget. His mastery of international monetary exchange placed Venezuela on a firm footing as the nation entered its oil boom. Gómez died in Maracay, Venezuela.

See alsoBetancourt, Rómulo; Castro, Cipriano; Venezuela: Venezuela since 1830.


Daniel Joseph Clinton [writing as Thomas Rourke], Gómez, Tyrant of the Andes (1936).

Luis Cordero Velásquez, Gómez y las fuerzas vivas (1971).

Domingo Alberto Rangel, Gomez, el amo del poder (1975).

Elías Pino Iturrieta, Positivismo y gomecismo (1978).

Angel Ziems, El gomecismo y la formación del ejército nacional (1979).

Stephen G. Rabe, The Road to OPEC: United States Relations with Venezuela, 1919–1979 (1982).

Brian Stuart Mc Beth, Juan Vicente Gómez and the Oil Companies in Venezuela, 1908–1935 (1983).

Additional Bibliography

Pla, Alberto J. La Internacional Comunista y América Latina: sidicatos y política en Venezuela (1924–1950). Rosario, Argentina: Ediciones Homo Sapiens, 1999.

Rondón Nucete, Jesús. Primeros años de gomecismo. Mérida, Venezuela: Universidad de Los Andes, Ediciones del Vicerrectorado Académico, 2003.

Velásquez, Ramón J. Confidencias imaginarias de Juan Vicente Gómez. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1999.

                                             Winthrop R. Wright

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