Juan Vicente Gómez

Juan Vicente Gómez
Juan Vicente Gómez

The dictator who controlled Venezuela from 1909 until 1935, Juan Vicente Gómez was officially president on four occasions, from 1909 until 1910, from 1910 until 1914, from 1922 until 1929, and from 1931 until 1935. As a result of the brutal manner in which he ran the country, he was either known as El Brujo ("the sorcerer") or simply El Bagre ("the catfish").

It is not known for certain when Juan Vicente Gómez was born, although it was probably on July 24, 1857. He was of Indian ancestry, and he was born at San Antonio del Táchira in the northwest of Venezuela, close to the border with Colombia.

Despite having no formal education—he was barely literate—he rose to prominence around his hometown and joined the private army of Cipriano Castro in 1899. When Castro captured Caracas in October 1899, he became president and appointed Gómez his vice president. In this capacity Gómez was able to crush attempts to oust Castro.

However, on December 20, 1908, when Castro was in Europe recuperating from an illness, Gómez seized power, and in February 1909 he took the opportunity of appointing himself provisional president, becoming president when Castro was formally deposed on August 11. From then until his death, he controlled the country either directly or through "puppet" presidents.

On April 19, 1910, Gómez formally stood down as president, appointing Emilio Constantino Guerrero acting president. However, Guerrero was replaced 10 days later by Jesús Ramón Ayala, who lasted just over a month, until June 3, when Gómez became president for the second time.

On April 19, 1914, he was replaced by Victorino Márquez Bustillos, who remained in office as provisional president for eight years until Gómez reassumed the presidency again on June 24, 1922.

For most of that time, all important decisions were still made by Gómez from his home at Maracay. He then relinquished the position to two successive acting presidents, Juan Bautista Pérez and Pedro Itriago Chacín. On July 13, 1931, Gómez began his fourth term, which ended with his death.

During his time running Venezuela, Gómez ensured that the country achieved a degree of economic independence but with rampant corruption managed to make himself reputedly the wealthiest man in South America.

Much of the wealth of the country came from oil, which in 1918 was found near Lake Maracaibo. Gómez drove a hard bargain with the British, Dutch, and U.S. oil companies, using the newly found wealth to pay off Venezuela's national debt as well as enrich himself.

By the late 1920s Venezuela was the world's largest exporter of oil. Gómez was ruthless to political opponents, who were jailed by the thousands. Many were put in huge leg irons, crippling them for life, and others were hung by meat hooks until they were dead.

At the same time Gómez started acquiring companies, farms, and industrial concerns for himself. He had spies and agents keeping a constant watch on the population, and his army was always one of the best equipped in South America.

Gómez destroyed much of the power of the local political caudillos and also the Roman Catholic Church. He protected his own herds of cattle from disease but allowed those of others to suffer.

Although he personally did not like coffee, he owned many coffee plantations as well as sugarcane plantations and ranches. Gómez himself lived in the governor's palace in Maracay, which was equipped with escape passages. It was said that the reason why the town had such good roads was in case he had to flee.

He never drank or smoked but had affairs with many women and boasted that he had fathered between 80 and 90 children. Many of these were given jobs in the public administration, giving rise to charges of nepotism. Even when he was dying, Gómez was still searching for a woman to marry so that he might have at least one legitimate child.

He died on December 17, 1935, at Maracay and was buried in a massive mausoleum he had built some years earlier in the town's cemetery. As soon as news reached Caracas and other places, people rushed into the streets to cheer and celebrate for two days.

In an orgy of pent-up rage, they looted or burned down houses of his relatives and supporters and even attacked the oil installations at Lake Maracaibo. His political opponents and some allies turned on his family. His property, valued at $200 million at his death, was seized by the state, and most of his children were forced into exile.