The "Gómez Era" in Venezuela lasted twenty-seven years, until the dictator finally died peacefully in his bed. During that time Gómez either occupied the presidency himself or put a "front man" in office and ruled from behind the scenes as minister of war and commander of the army. Though corrupt and high-handed, he seemed to have an obsession with maintaining a legal facade for his dictatorship. The constitution was rewritten six times: in 1909, 1914, 1922, 1925, 1928, and 1929. Beneath it all, Gómez managed to centralize all power in himself, to the extent that his approval was necessary for every political office: the cabinet, Congress, judges, state governorships, jefes políticos, even minor appointments. The dictator himself ruled the country from his fortified estate in Maracay, a modest town about sixty miles from Caracas, where he lived quietly and alone, except for family and bodyguards. He governed Venezuela as though it were his private latifundio and he were the nation's compadre (godfather). Although he had come from a large family, he never married - yet he was said to have fathered more than 100 children, and provided for them all. He put his family, friends, and close collaborators into government jobs: his younger brother and his eldest son both served as vice president. Other family members were situated throughout his administration; one was minister of the interior. Others were state governors, jefes políticos, army officers, directors of state companies, or managers of the Gómez family properties - which included extensive ranches (Gómez became Venezuela's largest landowner), coffee plantations, and light industries in the areas of textiles, cement, food processing, and meatpacking. When the dictator died in 1935, at the age of seventy-nine, his estate was estimated at over $200 million. It had been built up by property confiscations, under-the-table payments for oil concessions, and "sweetheart" contracts from the government for public works. Throughout his rule Gómez used the National Treasury as if it were his private bank account.
Fortunately for him, his rule coincided with a long period of prosperity for Venezuela. Even before oil was discovered, commerce with Europe and the United States was on the rise. Exports of meat and agricultural produces tripled between 1908 and 1913, and imports, mainly of consumer goods, almost doubled. When World War I came, Venezuela's foodstuffs were even more in demand. Gómez kept the country neutral and traded with both sides for as long as possible. Meanwhile, the first successful oil well was drilled in 1914. Oil exports were first recorded in 1918, amounting to 21,000 tons. Ten years later Venezuela was the world's leading exporter of oil, at 15 million tons a year. Gómez has been criticized frequently for allegedly granting foreign - especially U.S. - companies oil concessions on easy terms; but Malcolm Deas argues that he drove better bargains than he usually is given credit for, and that he skillfully played British interests off against the Americans. He created a state oil company (Companía Venezolana de Petróleo) in 1923 to deal with the foreign concessionaires, and a nascent nationalism can be seen in his use of oil revenue to pay off Venezuela's enormous foreign debt.
Oil revenues also were used to modernize the army. The War Ministry received, on the average, about a fourth of the government's annual expenditures. Much of that went to buy the latest military equipment. Gómez also was concerned to provide his officers and men with professional training. At that time Chile's German-trained army had the highest reputation in South America, due to its victory in the War of the Pacific, so Gómez hired Chilean officers to help reorganize his army and navy. The process began with weeding out holdovers from the caudillo days and replacing them with younger men trained in the recently created army and navy academies. The most promising academy graduates were even sent to Europe for advanced training. In addition to the academies, the government also created schools for military engineers and schools for noncommissioned officers. All of the officers and noncoms were well paid and enjoyed special privileges. Political criteria were not entirely absent, for it was no coincidence that a preponderance of the top officers were tachirenses (men from Táchira). Still, by the 1920s, Gómez had a military establishment that was better trained, better equipped, and able to overwhelm the forces of any of the regional caudillos, or any combination of them.
Oil revenue also went to improving Venezuela's infrastructure. Most significant, for political purposes, was the expanded road and railway network that linked all parts of the country to Caracas. Much of the road building was done under the supervision of military engineers. Following closely behind the extension of the road network was the construction of new military bases that gave the federal government and its professionalized army a more effective control of the regions. Whereas Guzmán Blanco had pacified the caudillos by bribing them, Gómez definitely established the federal government's superiority, making the caudillos obsolete.
Positivist intellectuals correctly credited Gómez, not just oil, with bringing political stability and economic progress to the country. Laureana Vallenilla Lanz, the best known of them, argued in his book Cesarismo democratico (1919) that strongman rule of Gómez's sort was the only kind of government that could bring order to Venezuela and establish the conditions for progress. The cold, impersonal northern European races might live peaceably under the rule of law, but Latin people see no special virtue in individual liberties, freedom of the press, elections, or the alternation of parties in government. Those might work in some distant future, after material progress and education have raised the cultural level; but so far all they have ever produced in Venezuela is anarchy. For the present, Venezuelans require a more personal kind of government: a "democratic Caesar" who understands the needs of the common folk. Vallenilla Lanz became a leading propagandist for Gómez, editing the official newspaper, Nuevo Diario, and heading the National Archives. Other Positivist intellectuals worked in the government as well: Pedro Manuel Arcaya, a lawyer and sociologist, became minister of the interior and plenipotentiary to the United States; Jose Gil Fortoul, a historian, served as minister of education; and Cesar Zumeta, a writer and diplomat, was minister of foreign affairs. Their correspondence with Gómez was full of effusive praise.
Gómez cared little for their opinions, and less for their philosophy, but they gave a certain polish to his regime's façade. The Positivists were correct in singling him out as the crucial linchpin in the system, however, for as Medrano reminds us, Gómez already had been in power for a decade when oil exports began and had "built up a tremendously solid political base, without oil having played an important role".
What Positivists preferred not to dwell on were the brutalities and injustices that accompanied their vaunted "progress". Gómez had an efficient and ubiquitous apparatus of repression, beginning with the army but also including paramilitary thugs who terrorized known and suspected opponents of the regime. At the national level they were organized into a force called La Sagrada. Most of them were tachirenses. Well armed and well trained, they constituted the political police. Below them, reaching down into every town, were other paramilitaries, under the orders of jefes politicos appointed by Gómez. Linked to these paramilitaries was an omnipresent network of spies and informers who infiltrated every organization suspected of having any political purpose. That included just about any private club or association. Indeed, Gómez once ordered the closing of a Rotary club in Caracas because he thought it might become a meeting place for his opponents. Spies operated in all the government ministries, throughout the ranks of the army, in the streets, and even among the exiles in neighboring countries.
Those who were arrested for real, or suspected, antiregime activities were brutally treated. Thousands were jailed without trial, put into leg irons, and thrown into a dungeon where they remained for as long as the dictator wished, without any contact with the outside world. Many of the prisoners died from torture, hunger, thirst, or disease.
Positivists also preferred not to dwell on the widespread corruption within the regime, starting at the top with Gómez himself, and his family and friends, and spreading throughout the government and the army, all the way down to the village level. As social Darwinists, they probably cared little about the fact that for the vast majority of the population the benefits of "modernization" failed to trickle down. Because the government saw no need to spend much money on improving education or public health, the average Venezuelan remained illiterate, underfed, and unhealthy. The infant mortality rate was high, and average life expectancy at birth was barely above forty years.
Gómez himself was ambivalent about the "progress" he helped bring about. Venezuela was becoming a more complex and pluralistic society, and the younger generation of students, raised in the post-World War I era, was beginning to reject the cold-bloodedness of Positivism and Social Darwinism. Social revolutionary ideas were circulating in the meetings of the University Student Federation, culminating in a strike in February 1928 at the University of Caracas. The students sent Gómez a telegram, demanding that he step aside and allow free elections. Gómez responded with the police, who arrested some of the student leaders. That provoked even bigger and more violent demonstrations, which led to more arrests. The strike dragged on from February to April, at which point some junior army officers joined the students in planning a revolt. The violence escalated. Eventually the protesters took over a government building, so Gómez brought in the army. Large numbers of students and junior officers were thrown into prison and put to hard labor. Others were exiled.
Gómez pretended to be humbled by the student strike of 1928. He announced that he would not run again when his term expired in 1929. Although a parade of his puppet congressmen went to Maracay to dissuade him, he insisted on retiring to private life. A hand-picked successor - an obscure judge named Juan Bautista Pérez - occupied the presidency for the next two years, until Congress "persuaded" Gómez to come back. He remained in power until his death, on 17 December 1935, but his last years were bitter ones. Aging, sick, and often bedridden, Gómez watched his regime being buffeted by the Depression. Nor had he found anyone in his family with the talent to take his place. In fact, when General Eleazar López Contreras took office as provisional president upon the dictator's death, one of his early acts was to order the Gómez family out of the country. The general also released all the political prisoners, lifted press censorship, permitted the exiles to return, and let the University Student Federation reappear. In the first heady days of the new government an excited mob stormed Vallenilla Lanz's Nuevo Diario and destroyed its offices.