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An End to Interventionism in Venezuela
Venezuela: Secession in the Oil Zone
With the Venezuelan presidential election fast approaching on December 3, political tensions have reached a new high. Recently, the Venezuelan Attorney General initiated an investigation to determine whether a right-wing organization called Rumbo Propio ("Our Own Path"), which has placed banners in Zulia state advocating for regional separatism, is guilty of treason. Zulia, located in the westernmost area of the country, is home to much of the country's oil industry. Maracaibo, the Zulia state capital, is the second largest city in Venezuela.
President Hugo Chavez has accused his opponent in the presidential election, Manuel Rosales, the Zulia governor, of fostering a separatist movement, "together with Mr. Danger"—a reference to US President George W. Bush. Ever since Chavez returned to power after a brief coup in 2002, the United States has channeled millions of dollars to Venezuelan organizations, many of which are highly critical of the regime.
The United States, according to Chavez, is encouraging such unrest so as to benefit from the state's significant oil resources; Rosales denies the allegations. The Attorney General has stated that he has no evidence linking the US to a secessionist plot. However, he claims that the US Ambassador, William Brownfield, had a close relationship to Rosales and has frequently traveled to Zulia.
In light of the fiery accusations, it is instructive to revisit some of the murky history of US involvement in the region—and the long legacy of shadowy machinations by US oil companies in Zulia.
The United States and Zulia Secessionism in World War I
In 1908, the US helped to support a military coup d'etat in Venezuela launched by Juan Vicente Gomez. Gomez's primary goal was to establish a strong, centralized state. To achieve this, he would have to head off secessionist sentiment in Zulia. Shortly after Gomez's seizure of power, in fact, a former senator and diplomat from Zulia declared that his native state should have the right to select its own people for state government.
Initially, Gomez was cautious, preferring to appoint "sons of the soil" to Zulia's government. Gomez could ill afford political problems in the west. Measuring 63,100 square kilometers, with 178,388 inhabitants in 1908, Zulia was not only large in terms of sheer land mass, but also economically important. When Gomez took power, Zulia had the most substantial budget of any Venezuelan state. The largest city, Maracaibo, had a population of about 39,000 at the turn of the century.
During the First World War, the petroleum industry was just getting underway in Lake Maracaibo. Zulianos, who had long clamored for greater autonomy, now used Gomez's sympathy for Germany in World War I to justify greater independence from state control. The regime acted promptly to repress prominent citizens in Maracaibo who sought to rid themselves of military rule.
As the war in Europe degenerated into endless stalemate on the western front, Gomez chose to sympathize with Germany. "As a military man," writes Stephen Rabe in The Road To OPEC, United States Relations With Venezuela, 1919-1976, "Gomez respected Germany's military efficiency and prowess and approved of the position that its army achieved in German political life." Gomez openly displayed his allegiance by wearing a Prussian-style uniform, suppressing pro-Allied newspapers, and incarcerating journalists who were sympathetic to the allied cause. In a slap in the face to the US, Gomez kept Venezuela neutral in the war even after the US entered the conflict in 1917 on the side of the Allies and German defeat looked more likely.
Gomez's position incensed the Woodrow Wilson administration, which reminded the Venezuelan leader of his manipulation of the constitution, and even went so far as to claim that Gomez ruled through "a policy of terrorism." In late 1917, the State Department considered its options regarding the Gomez problem. Quietly, US diplomats consulted with Venezuelan exiles, who recommended covertly arming anti-Gomez exiles. Apparently, like his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson favored intervention in Venezuela. In early 1918, he queried his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, whether "this scoundrel" could be overthrown without upsetting peace in Latin America.
Unfortunately for Gomez, the deterioration in US-Venezuelan relations threatened to destabilize the political situation in Zulia. Though Gomez's sympathetic position towards Germany was likely to please the powerful German commercial colony in Maracaibo, the restive city population would shortly appeal to Wilson for help in breaking free from Gomez's control. In normal times, Gomez could ill afford to allow secessionist movements to flourish, but now with the oil companies in Zulia and revenue increasing from the industry the notion became unthinkable. In 1920 Venezuela settled the last of its external debts, and Gomez could not jeopardize a fall off in further income.
Dr. Pedro Rojas: A Dangerous Enemy
Santos Matute Gomez, the Zulia state governor, prohibited a pro-Allies demonstration in Maracaibo in late 1917. Santos Gomez has been variously described as Gomez's half-brother or the bastard son of Juan Vicente Gomez' uncle. The danger for Gomez and his associates was that pro-ally sentiment in the city might lead to U.S. intervention in Zulia. In order to head off further unrest, Gomez and his men would have to keep a watchful eye on prominent dissident voices. Of particular concern to the regime was one Dr. Pedro Rojas.
According to the US consul Emil Sauer, Rojas "is a man of thirty-five, of pure white race, of distinguished parentage, and is highly respected here." A prominent architect and manufacturer and contractor, Rojas was said to be "very popular among the residents of the city." Furthermore, Rojas was one of the few Venezuelans in Maracaibo who spoke English well. A potentially dangerous force to be reckoned with, he wrote an article for Panorama, a Maracaibo newspaper, praising the free institutions of the United States and the liberal policies of the US president. Fearing reprisals from the Zulia state secretary, Landaeta Llovera, who had warned the paper to avoid any praise for the US or President Wilson, the editor refused to publish the article. Undeterred, Rojas paid a visit to the US consul in early 1918 and proposed that the US offer nothing less than support for revolution in Maracaibo.
On behalf of the "Pro Patria Bolivare Society," Rojas wrote in a letter to the consul (in impeccable English) that the Maracaibo revolutionaries sought "to put, in the place of our present system of government which is unconstitutional and rests on military dictatorship, a wholly civilian organization headed by honorable, civilized and unmilitary men. With respect to our foreign policy, we want consistently to abide by the democratic inclinations of our national spirit, which unreservedly brings us to the side of the Allied cause. We are led to them not only by our political and social principles, but also by our economic interests and our commercial ties with the allied nations of Europe, and especially at this time and from now on in an ever higher degree, with the North American nation."
Rojas went on to complain about Juan Vicente Gomez's "apparent neutrality which hides a connivance with Germany." Rojas also complained that the government provided special protection of German interests in Venezuela. In any case, Rojas argued, the Zulia state government had been imposed on the people, and had to be overthrown through a coup d'etat. Once the state authorities were out of the picture, Zulia would rejoin other states which in turn would free themselves of tyranny, and relations with Germany would be broken.
Rojas requested airplanes, ammunition, guns and steamers. Rojas stated: "The national force of militia and police in these parts is so small that it does not reach 200, an in addition the men are suffering vexations and ill-treatment in the barracks and jail, which keeps them in a state of humiliation and disaffection." The Maracaibo businessman concluded: "P.S. In trusting you with my name, I stake my life, so this confidential statement is for you and your Government under the reservation of honor."
Rojas Appeals for US Intervention
What is striking is that not only did Rojas run the risk of contacting the US authorities, but also appeared to enjoy significant support. According to the US consul, the "revolutionaries here include a considerable number of the best people of Maracaibo, including over one-half of the State Legislature members, and people of means, some of whom are intimate friends of mine. They claim that over-whelming majority of the best people here sympathize with the revolution, though uninformed of any organized plan."
These influential citizens of Maracaibo not only supported the overthrow of Gomez, but there appeared to be little stomach in the city for ongoing caudillo rule. For prominent members of the city, revolution was bound to lead to yet more repressive rule, "unless the United States would establish a sort of protectorate, as in Cuba, to keep representative government on its feet." Faced with the specter of revolt, the US consul noted, "It appears quite certain that the local government here is looking for trouble and is nervous." The authorities, continued the consul, increased security for Santos Gomez, who was heavily guarded particularly at night.
The US consul himself was surprised by the "extraordinary secrecy" of the conspiracy. "I knew there was a good deal of opposition here to the Government," he remarked, "but this is the first intimation I have received that a definite plan of revolution was being worked out." Leaders of the proposed revolution attempted to convince the consul that their efforts would meet with success.
In the first phase of the revolt, the state legislature would denounce the election of Santos M. Gomez as having been made under pressure from the central government "and as therefore void." Later, the legislature would elect another Zulia state president and organize a government independent of the Gomez regime. "They," remarked the consul, "say that the capture of Maracaibo, perhaps without bloodshed, is practically assured, the army being almost entirely on the side of the revolutionists." However, the revolutionaries requested that the United States should prevent Venezuelan Federal warships from entering Lake Maracaibo.
The revolutionaries planned to enlist two thousand men from Maracaibo and five hundred from Coro. Despite this groundswell of support, the US consul was decidedly non-committal in his dealings with the rebels: "I could not see how the United States government could make any promises in advance, because that would be encouraging revolution." The consul refused to attend a meeting of the revolutionaries. However, he agreed to refer the matter to the State Department.
How might one explain this lack of commitment on the US side? Wilson, after launching the US into the war to supposedly make the world "safe for democracy" now failed to support political forces that wanted to rid Venezuela of dictatorship. Significantly, the State Department's Division of Latin American Affairs even covered up news of Gomez's crimes so that Americans would not call for his removal.
In seeking to explain the US response, one scholar, Judith Ewell in her book Venezuela and The United States, takes a cynical view of US foreign policymakers: "Gomez...benefited from Washington's judgment that the effort to remove him and keep peace over an outraged population would require too great a diversion of military resources." What is more, in the event that Gomez vanished from the scene, the US would have to contend with a new and unpredictable political milieu dominated by Gomez's capricious political opponents.
Without any tangible US support, massive anti-Gomez demonstrations in Caracas failed to materialize. "The influenza epidemic," writes Ewell, "Gomez's ruthless use of force, the lack of a coherent organized opposition, and the quiescence of the United States allowed Gomez to survive." In Zulia, the revolutionaries decided to postpone the revolt indefinitely when U.S. assistance was not forthcoming. In Maracaibo, Rojas was arrested and charged with plotting against the government. He was incarcerated in the military prison of San Carlos for six years.
Nevertheless, further unrest suggested that Gomez was not yet out of the woods. In early 1919, Cesar Leon, a retired merchant and writer in Maracaibo, wrote a personal appeal to President Wilson condemning the lack of democratic freedoms in Venezuela.
Oil and the "Filibustering" Conspiracy
In a rejection of Wilsonian internationalism, US voters elected Warren Harding in 1920. On the surface, a less interventionist foreign policy stood to relieve pressure on the Gomez administration. However, Harding attached singular importance to promoting the expansion of US oil interests abroad, and the State Department was riddled with officials compromised by conflicts of interest. For example, William TS Doyle, the resident manager of Shell Oil in 1919-1920, was a former head of the State Department's Division of Latin American Affairs. Jordan Stabler, another State Department official, went on to work for Gulf Oil. Francis Loomis, a powerful State Department official, later worked for Standard Oil.
In December 1921, Gomez received a shock when he was apprised of a plot for a military invasion of Venezuela. The plan was foiled when the Dutch authorities stopped a ship setting forth from Holland. The ship had been chartered to travel to Venezuela, apparently to engage in a "filibustering expedition." Another ship was prevented from setting sail from England. Both ships, the British Public Records Office stated, had been funded to the tune of $400,000 by "oil interests of the United States," which "had been pulling every possible string in order to block the development of the British Concessions which they ultimately hoped to get hold of." It's unclear whether the U.S. government had any knowledge of the plot. British reports, based on information supplied by Gomez authorities, stated that "a person named Bollorpholl of New York representing himself to be connected with State Department has handled the money." Diplomats hinted that Standard Oil, which had been disappointed with legal decisions which favored British companies, "would like to see Gomez's downfall and may have contributed to this expedition."
Apparently, oil interests had been conspiring with Venezuelan military officers, such as Gen. Carabana and Gen. Alcantara. (British officials were most likely referring to Francisco Linares Alcantara, son of the Venezuelan president of the same name, who ruled the country in 1877-78.) What is more, the Venezuelan Minister for Foreign Affairs, Esteban Gil Borges, had been "practically in the pockets" of American oil companies. "So far as I understand," remarked a British diplomat, "the filibustering expedition was arranged by the American Oil Interests with the express object of removing President Gomez and bringing Senor Esteban Gil Borges back into power." When Gomez was informed of the plot, Borges was removed from his post.
Though the plot hatched by "American oil interests" never came to fruition, the growing oil presence was a concern for Santos Gomez, the Zulia state governor. In 1923, he personally wrote Gomez, warning his chief that oil workers could be subverted by enemies of the regime. Of particular concern to Santos Gomez was the isolated oil field of Mene de Buchivacoa, located across the Zulia border in the state of Falcon. Santos Gomez worried that the area could be an easy target for enemies to the regime, who could land forces there and garner the support of oil workers before the government could respond. "Santos Matute Gomez," writes historian Sandra Flores, "deplored the absence of authority in an area of such importance and recommended the dispatch of a corps of police."
Gomez Buys Off Pedro Rojas
Having weathered many secessionist plots, the Venezuelan authorities sought to head off Zulia secession by monitoring the opposition. The new Zulia state governor, Febres Cordero, remarked to Gomez that he had received reports that the popular Pedro Rojas, now free from his jail cell at San Carlos, was using his position as president of a local athletic center for political ends. Febres Cordero stated that it was possible Rojas was trying to found an association of workers. While the governor personally doubted the veracity of the reports, he paid 1,200 bolivares to help the center acquire a new boxing ring, "with the idea", he wrote, "of putting myself in communication with the members of the club and observe them more closely."
In a long 1926 telegram, the dictator wrote Febres Cordero "to watch Dr Rojas carefully and to investigate rumors that he was actively engaged in preparing a nucleus of young men and laborers who might be used in the formation of a body of troops in the event civil trouble occurred." In a more forceful approach, Febres Cordero summoned Rojas personally, so as to speak candidly. Febres Cordero told Rojas point-blank that Gomez had received an anonymous letter, suggesting that Rojas had been instrumental in helping to form an athletic center for young men. Rojas, according to the anonymous letter, sought to become president of the organization in order to train members for military purposes.
Furthermore, Rojas was accused of having trained men employed in his factories, and "was trying by every means to increase his popularity among the Venezuelans and so far succeeded as to be elected the president of the strongest club in Maracaibo (El Club del Comercio) against most active foreign opposition." Seeking to maintain a public facade of neutrality, Febres Cordero told Rojas bluntly that he had not investigated the charges. While he personally doubted the veracity of the claims, Febres Cordero advised Rojas to meet with Gomez personally.
Rojas, no doubt concerned for his personal security, accepted Febres Cordero's advice. Traveling to the Venezuelan city of Maracay, he was granted an immediate interview with Gomez himself. One can easily imagine Rojas' growing discomfort as the dictator personally outlined the charges in more detail. Far from his native Maracaibo and now on Gomez' home ground, Rojas realized that he would have to soothe Gomez's suspicions. He reminded Gomez that he had completed a six-year jail sentence at San Carlos. He added that "he had received his lesson?he had not and did not intend to mingle in politics but wanted peace."
At this point, Gomez slyly answered that he had never believed the charges. However, in an offer of good faith, Gomez offered to award Rojas an engineering position in charge of improving the Maracaibo dock and aqueduct. No doubt feeling relieved, Rojas immediately accepted the position and returned to Maracaibo. Later, the Maracaibo native son was careful to stay in touch with Gomez, writing the dictator in April 1926 concerning preliminary work on the aqueduct. Having Rojas work personally on the project made political sense. In this way, the authorities could keep a careful watch on the respected one-time revolutionary.
Oil, Cocaine and the Lindblad Conspiracy
On the other hand Washington did not seem to pose much of a threat to the regime. The Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge officially espoused a policy of non-intervention in Latin American affairs. In late 1926, Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg personally wrote American oil companies in Venezuela, lobbying managers to restrain abuses of the native workforce.
Nevertheless, Gomez would shortly receive worrying reports suggesting that the US Navy was spying in Zulia. While it's unclear whether the US military sought to intrigue against state authorities on behalf of the oil companies, Gomez already had sufficient cause for concern. Though the dictator enjoyed a burgeoning alliance with the companies, and the spreading of prosperity from the industry allowed him to secure his position in power, Gomez had strong indications that US companies were plotting against him.
In the summer of 1926, British authorities made reference to a peculiar plot. "Information," remarked one diplomat, "has been received from a very reliable source, and should therefore be treated with the greatest secrecy, that steps are being taken to foment a revolution in Venezuela during the course of the next few months. It is stated that the funds for a revolution are being supplied by American oil companies with a view to obtaining further concessions and their agent on this side to be Captain Herold LINDBLAD of 20 Craven Hill Gardens, Lancaster Gate."
The plot, documented in cloak-and-dagger fashion by British authorities, involved a bizarre assortment of shady characters. Central to the effort was David Herold Lindblad, a former commander of the Swedish Navy and acting Norwegian Consul in Trinidad. Lindblad sought to recruit support for the conspiracy in England and Germany. The British authorities noted that Lindblad was married to an English lady in Trinidad, whose mother was related to Gen. Alcantara, of whom Lindblad himself was a close associate. Alcantara, who was resident in Trinidad, had received indications of growing dissension in the Gomez armed forces and hoped to militarily intervene in Venezuela with the idea of becoming president himself.
British authorities noted that Alcantara was born into a prominent Venezuelan family and his father was president of Venezuela. Reportedly, he had support not only in Ciudad Bolivar but also in the Orinoco districts, Margarita Island and western Venezuela "where he is in command." Alcantara was in turn linked to other sources, such as a certain individual described in cryptic manner as "D." This individual had traveled from New York to the Caribbean and was in communication with Lindblad. Apparently, "D" met with a certain "L" in New Orleans, who had agreed to supply six thousand pounds for purchasing equipment. The 6,000 pounds, noted British authorities, "was to be placed at the disposal of Lindblad for the purchase of a trawler and arms." Meanwhile, "D would seem to be an intermediary between General Alcantara and certain parties in New York (?Standard Oil?) [sic], who might be interested in financing the plot."
According to British authorities, there were indications that the plotters had approached Standard Oil, Shell, British Controlled Oilfields, "and some group in Germany," with the idea of raising financial support for Gen. Alcantara. Of these the only party which agreed to negotiate was Standard Oil, which "did not wish to appear openly in the transaction but agreed to act through an intermediary." In conversations with British Controlled Oilfields, Lindblad suggested that the company advance 10,000 pounds to charter a ship and purchase arms at Hamburg. If Gen. Alcantara came into power, British Controlled Oilfields would receive a "quid pro quo" in the form of oil concessions.
Alcantara required money to buy one thousand rifles, 30 machine guns and other arms and equipment, and to hire a 200-ton trawler in Germany to transport the weapons to Venezuela. The port of embarkation was Hamburg. According to British intelligence Lindblad was associated with a businessman in the German port city, who had a flourishing trade with South and Central America and who had smuggled cocaine and morphine. Little to his knowledge perhaps, British authorities sent an agent from Scotland Yard to be present at Lindblad's interview with British Controlled Oilfields in London. The authorities, who remarked that Venezuela had enjoyed stable government under Gomez and that British interests were well treated in the country, promptly passed word of the plot to Gomez directly through British diplomats in Caracas.
Apparently, the plotters grew concerned when it looked like British interests might work against their plans, and Lindblad's wife warned him: "Be very careful about choosing the crew. Shell might succeed in getting traitors on board by means of much bribery." When Gomez found out about the plot, Standard Oil grew alarmed and withdrew its support; the conspiracy promptly fell apart when the necessary funds did not materialize. For his part, Lindblad notified his conspirators that he would shortly return to Trinidad from Hamburg. However, word of the conspiracy alerted the authorities to the possibility that disgruntled caudillos could unite with the oil companies to create unrest. According to British authorities, "hopes are?still entertained that when matters have quietened down and President Gomez's suspicions have been allayed, through the intermediary of 'L' the Americans may again be induced to co-operate."
Gomez Consolidates Power
In the midst of this political intrigue, Gomez acted decisively to appoint a stronger and more competent state governor in Zulia, Vincencio Perez Soto. According to Gomez biographer Brian McBeth, rumors of oil companies sponsoring Zulia secession concerned Gomez and convinced the dictator of the need to appoint a stronger man as state president. What is more, as British authorities put it, "the peace enjoyed for so long by this country has been one imposed by General Gomez, now getting on in years and in uncertain health, and it is doubtful whether it will long survive him."
Additionally, if Gomez died, then "candidates to the succession will not be wanting," a British diplomat found. Most worrisome of all, "the prizes of government have increased tenfold in the last few years. The most obvious first step to successful revolution would be to gain control of the oil region with a view to extracting financial support from the oil companies." Clearly, the oil-rich Zulia region was increasingly critical. By 1928, in fact, Venezuela would become the leading world oil exporter.
In the 1920s, US economic interests in Zulia grew, with American oil companies such as Standard Oil and Gulf joining their British counterparts in the Lake Maracaibo area. Though US diplomats reported that authorities in Caracas were not overly concerned about rumors that Maracaibo would break free of central control, the US consul in Maracaibo, Alexander Sloan, alerted his superiors to widespread disaffection in the city.
Sloan said that Zulia natives as well as Maracaibo residents "do not now and have not for years felt any great affection for the central government." However, he added that Zulianos believed the economic and natural boundaries of the Maracaibo Lake united the area with the Cucuta district in Colombia and not with Caracas. Likewise, local residents argued that Cucuta was united to Maracaibo by much closer economic bonds than to other districts within Colombia.
Furthermore, reported Sloan, Maracaibo natives suspected that the central government purposefully isolated their city from the rest of the country and from the outside world for fear that an independence movement might arise there. Local residents were also incensed "that although there are many quite capable Maracaiberos [Maracaibo residents], not one has ever been placed in a position of power in the state of Zulia."
Upon assuming office, Perez Soto set about meeting with oil company officials, including Roy Merritt, a manager at Caribbean Oil Company. Writing later to Gomez, Perez Soto commented that Merritt "had opened up to me too much, showing me that he was alarmed at what he called claims and inconveniences which had been presented against his company, and saying that he sees that these matters could be leading to the same path as the Mexicans in 1911. And these phrases leave a lot to think about."
The Mysterious Mission of the USS Niagara
Meanwhile, Perez Soto was confronted with unsettling news. On July 2, 1926 the USS Niagara arrived off the coast of Zulia. The US consul requested that the sailors be allowed to celebrate the 4th of July in Venezuela. When an air officer attached to the Niagara requested permission to fly over Maracaibo in honor of the July 4th, Perez Soto grew suspicious. Reports reached the governor that the real reason for the over flight was to take aerial photographs of the region. Perez Soto barred the disembarking of the Niagara crew and refused to authorize the over-flight.
Kellogg and the State Department's policy of non-intervention notwithstanding, Perez Soto was concerned. Writing Gomez, the governor related that the US sought to station the Niagara in Venezuelan waters "as a kind of sentinel of North American interests in Venezuela." Perez Soto was concerned that the Niagara might be a bad omen of things to come, and remarked that "in this same manner the Americans placed battleships in Magdalena Bay in Baja California in 1914."
Perez Soto then employed his intelligence to obtain detailed reports concerning the activities of US marines from the Niagara on Zapara island, located in the mouth of the Maracaibo Bar. Perez Soto uncovered that the Niagara crew had mounted a wireless radio with a reach of 2,000 miles. Perez Soto was particularly concerned that powerful sectors of Maracaibo society might conspire with the United States to further Zulia secession with the aim of separating the state from the rest of Venezuela.
In an effort to lessen tensions with foreign interests, Pérez Soto assured oil company managers that he was "anxious to discuss their problems with them and to lend them any aid in his power." Perez Soto sought to assert his authority over the oil companies through diplomatic and legal means. As the US consul put it, Perez Soto and local officials were determined "that conditions such as existed in Tampico [Mexico] are not to be tolerated here, and [they] have become much stricter in enforcing discipline and obedience to the laws." In a note to Gomez, Perez Soto mused that perhaps the oil companies would put up with legality and honesty—"or maybe not, and they will try to undermine me," through their representatives in Caracas.
Redrawing the Region's Borders
Clearly, in many ways Perez Soto had been more a more forceful governor than his predecessors. For Gomez, however, the risk was that the more powerful Perez Soto became, the greater the possibility that the charismatic politician would become a rival in his own right. As Gomez consolidated power, he faced yet further military unrest, and there were ample opportunities for Perez Soto to create intrigue.
As Gomez approached old age, Perez Soto might have wondered about his own future and felt a certain degree of concern. In the first years of Perez Soto's term in office, the political situation in Venezuela looked increasingly murky, with Gomez's presidential tenure set to expire in 1929. (Under the Venezuelan constitution, Gomez was allowed to run for another seven year presidential term in 1929. But, in light of student unrest in 1928, he proclaimed he would not run as a candidate. In 1929, the constitution was revised and the position of "Commander in Chief" and President were separated. Congress elected Doctor Juan Baptista Perez as president, who had little influence. Gomez became commander in chief and continued to control real power behind the scenes.)
In July 1928 Col. Jose Maria Fossi, a trusted Gomez subordinate, turned against the dictator, taking the city of La Vela de Coro for a few hours. The military uprising, which called for revolutionaries to be reinforced by 300 Venezuelan and 90 Dominican rebels working in Curacao, was crushed by Gomez's troops.
McBeth has written that following the assault Perez Soto reorganized his small armory in order to prepare for future attack. However, Fossi later remarked that Perez Soto had approached him and offered him money in exchange for his support in fomenting a separatist movement. The ultimate aim was to form a new republic comprising the Venezuelan states of Zulia, Falcon, and the Catatumbo region of Colombia. The venture, added Fossi, would have the support of the oil companies in Lake Maracaibo.
While such reports must be treated cautiously, Colombian authorities were apparently concerned about a plot and Bogota's House of Deputies met in secret session to discuss "moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of Santander and Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement which, united to Zulia, would form the Republic of Zulia."
Perez Soto dismissed rumors of his involvement in Zulia secession as "treason against the Fatherland, and an immense dishonor." However, Perez Soto's credibility was further damaged when correspondence reached Gomez himself hinting at efforts to involve Perez Soto in Zulia secessionist plots. McBeth writes that "important oilmen with close connections with the State Department had enquired about the suitability of Perez Soto as President of Zulia."
What might have motivated Perez Soto to become involved? One possibility is that he was worried about the future political climate. In the event that Gomez were to fall or die in office, Perez Soto could face political vendettas or worse. Perhaps Perez Soto, having conducted successful negotiations with the oil companies in 1926, now hoped to cash in on his political capital.
The History in Light of the Current Controversy
At this point it's unclear how similar Rumbo Propio might be to earlier conspiracies. The evidence is suggestive that in the past prominent political figures allied to the oil companies and the United States sought to foment unrest in Zulia. Today, Chavez hasn't demonstrated any proof that Rumbo Propio is affiliated with Rosales or the United States.
On the other hand, the group shares Rosales' and the United States' contempt for Chavez. Rumbo Propio, led by an economist named Nestor Suarez, is an avowedly right-wing organization opposed to the government's economic policies. The group seeks to encourage "liberal capitalism" in Zulia.
The question, however, is whether Rumbo Propio is destined to become another historical footnote or to make real political problems for Chavez. When I recently traveled to Maracaibo, I put this question to Umberto Silvio Beltran, Zulia regional coordinator of the Bolivarian Circles, pro-Chavez grassroots groups organized locally throughout the country.
Beltran didn't deny the existence of real regionalist sentiment in Zulia, but downplayed the notion that the area would break away from Venezuela. "People here consider themselves Venezuelan," he said.
Nevertheless, with tensions rising in the run-up to the election, one cannot discard the possibility that the United States, or local separatists, might take advantage of the political climate to create unrest. If Chavez is right and the Bush administration is encouraging secession, this cynical American strategy will most likely anger Chavez's hardened followers in Zulia.
The president's support in Zulia state is not insignificant, and any U.S. meddling could ratchet up political conflict. According to Beltran, there are approximately 180,000 people involved in the Bolivarian Circles in Zulia. Hopefully, Zulia will not become a political battleground on Election Day and cooler heads will prevail.