This book surveys the role of the military in Venezuela. The development of a permanent army under Cipriano Castro and Juan Vicente Gómez is outlined, with emphasis on the gradual professionalization of the officer corps. This process is traced through a transitional period under López Contreras and Medina Angarita up to the revolution of 1945. The 1945-1948 period is seen to mark an era of increased politicization of the officer corps, culminating in the decade of military rule ended with the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez in 1958. An attempt is made to account for the apparent withdrawal of the military from politics since 1958.
The author relies heavily on professionalization and the growth of professional attitudes among officers as explanatory factors. Greater professionalization is taken to mean less intervention in politics. The data, however, reveal a series of coups, each one carried out, we are told, by more professional younger officers against their (presumably) less professional superiors. Is this less intervention? The author seems puzzled by the persistence of golpista attitudes among “more professional” officers, as with Castro León in 1958, and disappointed by the use of the army for non-professional purposes such as internal repression. But why expect professionalism per se to produce withdrawal from politics? Surely one could argue that in a situation of weakly developed civilian political forces, a professional, highly trained and educated military is all the more likely to see itself as uniquely capable of rule. The examples of Brazil and Peru today speak directly to such consequences of professionalization.
Moreover, the concept of military intervention which pervades the book is inadequate. Military intervention seems to refer only to situations in which officers “move against the prevailing government” (p. 195). It apparently does not encompass lengthy periods of direct military rule. For example, the author shows that after the 1948 coup, the participation of officers in non-military governmental functions increased sharply. Is this not military intervention in politics?
The definition of intervention is symptomatic of a disturbing feature of this book—its tendency, in describing events, to take the military point of view as neutral and to accept the military definition of the situation. For example repressive measures by López Contreras in 1936 are explained as a response to “public disorder” caused by the activities of the new political groups formed in that year. But the definition of disorder is a matter of controversy, and depends on the perspectives of those in power. Naturally, an authoritarian government like that of López Contreras will view any popular activism as disorder. The author glosses over this.
Because the concept of intervention is limited to coups, the author dismisses charges of military interference in politics all too easily. In a discussion of the pre-coup situation in 1948, quotation marks are placed around the word “civilian” in a reference to charges of military interference in civilian politics, but do not similarly mark off the word “military” in a reference to charges of civilian interference in the military sphere (p. 95). The use of quotation marks in this way indicates doubt about the validity of terms. But if “civilian” politics are in doubt, why not “military” spheres? If one, why not the other? In general, the entire account of the 1948 coup presents the military in a benign light, acting with “moderation and discretion” while President Gallegos is cast in a role of intransigence and being “beyond the point of reason” (p. 106). The military account is taken as a base-line. Had Gallegos caved in to military demands, and stayed on as a figure-head president, would the author have counted the demands and capitulation as military intervention in politics? One wonders.
The author accepts a common explanation of the 1948 coup, ascribing it to Acción Democrática’s sectarianism and it’s lack of a broad base. It is important to note, however, that AD had an overwhelming popular mandate. Its supposed lack of breadth really refers to its failure to touch base with traditional powers like the military, landowners, and foreign business. The question, then, was less one of the regime’s support or lack thereof, than it was one of clashing definitions of the political system itself: a new definition, espoused by AD and built on votes and popular support, opposed to a prior system built around consultations among limited elite groups.
In summary, a naive faith in professionalization as an effective cure for military intervention in politics, a shallow understanding of the meaning of politics and hence a narrow view of the meaning of intervention itself, and a one-sided attitude to the validity of sources combine to flaw this book. For these reasons, this reviewer feels that it is not a useful contribution, either to the study of Venezuelan history, or to the comparative analysis of the military in Latin America.