522. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 89–64


The Problem

To estimate the outlook for political stability in Venezuela over the next two years.


President-elect Leoni will almost certainly take office without serious challenge, and will probably enjoy an initial period of relative political calm. Nonetheless, the problems of creating and maintaining a viable administration and of coping with underlying social and economic tensions—together with the likelihood of further terrorist activities—will almost certainly produce a series of political crises during the period of this estimate. The Leoni government probably will survive these crises.


Leoni is an experienced, generally capable political leader; but his ability to supply vital national leadership during a crisis is as yet untested. (Para. 15)
Leoni’s relations with Congress are likely to start out relatively peacefully. His political opposition will almost certainly turn more belligerent over time, but we believe he will be able to maintain control of Congress on key issues through 1965. (Paras. 16–20)
The Communist and Castroist insurgents almost certainly will be unable to force their way to power during the period of this estimate, although they will retain a high capability for hit and run terrorism, including attacks against US personnel and property. Leoni probably will have to resort at times to extraordinary measures such as suspension of constitutional guarantees to contain the insurgency [Page 1082] threat within tolerable limits (by Venezuelan standards), and his timing in initiating these measures may involve him in difficulties with either Congress or the military. (Paras. 22–28)
The armed forces, the ultimate arbiters of political power in Venezuela, are generally disposed to support constitutional government for as long as it proves reasonably effective in dealing with national problems. In any event, the military is anxious to avoid an arbitrary move against the government which might alienate a large segment of the population. Thus a military coup is not likely unless Leoni becomes generally discredited with the population. Under such circumstances, a military coup would probably follow a relatively moderate course and offer the leftist insurgents little opportunity for substantial gains. (Paras. 29–31)


I. Introduction: The Importance of Venezuela

1. Raul Leoni is scheduled to succeed Romulo Betancourt as President of Venezuela in March 1964. Leoni’s success or failure in office will be of great importance to the US. Venezuela is of strategic importance as the world’s largest exporter of oil. US capital investment in Venezuela totals about $3 billion, exceeded only by our investments in Canada and in the UK. Venezuela, moreover, holds great symbolic value for our policy in Latin America as a country attempting rapid social and economic progress through constitutional democracy. Venezuela remains a priority target in Communist efforts to promote violent revolution in Latin America, primarily because Fidel Castro cannot afford to allow such an important democratic reformist regime to succeed. Venezuela is also the only Latin American country in which leftist extremists, with moral and material support from Cuba, have been able to sustain an impressive level of insurgency.

II. Leoni’s Inheritance: Betancourt’s Problems and Achievements

2. President Betancourt’s political legacy to his successor is a mixed one. On the one hand, Betancourt has moved constitutional democracy an important step forward by the very fact of surviving his legal term and successfully holding free elections. He also initiated an extensive program of social and economic reform. Finally, the last few months have been marked by a subsiding of political tensions, leading to a relatively auspicious environment for the transfer of power. On the other hand, Leoni will inherit, to one degree or another, the problems which have created recurrent crises for Betancourt from 1959 to the present: acute social tensions, limited national experience with representative government, Communist and Castroist insurgency, and the threat of a military takeover.

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Political and Social Heritage

3. In addition to the direct assaults of leftist extremists and military dissidents, the Betancourt government has had to withstand harassment by opposition parties, obstruction of its program in Congress, and widespread popular indifference to the fate of constitutional democracy. These latter problems are rooted in Venezuela’s lack of experience and confidence in representative government and in the acute social tensions prevailing in urban areas.

4. Venezuela has traditionally been ruled by military dictators; its only previous experience with democratic reformist government (1945–1948) was terminated by a military coup which led to the repressive dictatorship of General Marcos Perez Jimenez (1948–1958). Following his election in December 1958, Betancourt was able to form a strong multi-party coalition, because of widespread concern over the threat of another military intervention. By 1962, however, this coalition had splintered, and the opposition parties had gained control of the lower house of Congress. Various opposition parties joined with Communists and Castroists in a systematic obstruction of government programs, particularly of measures to control terrorism. The primary objective was to discredit Betancourt’s Democratic Action party (AD). The political opposition apparently had come to fear AD’s domination of the 1963 elections as much as it did the consequences of a military coup. From time to time the opposition parties threatened to boycott the elections.

5. Thanks largely to its petroleum, Venezuela has the highest per capita income in Latin America (over $700), and its government is assured of substantial revenues, much of which the Betancourt administration has directed into programs to promote the welfare of the poorest classes. Nonetheless, one-half of the country’s eight million people lives under severely depressed conditions. Moreover, because of a large rural-to-urban migration in recent years, much of the country’s economically depressed population now lives pressed together in urban slums, without steady employment or other conventional social ties, and without much concern for Venezuela and the maintenance of orderly government. Particularly in Caracas, where lawlessness is prevalent among the 300,000 slum dwellers, much of the population has regarded the government and the police—not the terrorists—as its main antagonists.

Military Dissidence

6. Betancourt has had to contend with rightist military plotting throughout much of his term. Moreover, of the five garrison rebellions during 1960–1962, the last two, Carupano and Puerto Cabello, involved dissident military officers collaborating with leftist extremist civilians. Betancourt has survived these plots and assaults largely because the chief [Page 1084] military commanders, and through them the bulk of the armed forces,2 have remained loyal to the government. Betancourt, recognizing the military to be the ultimate arbiters of political power in Venezuela, assiduously cultivated this loyalty. He maintained military perquisites at a high level, flattered the military with frequent presidential attention and praise, and courted the personal friendship of key officers and garrisons. Most importantly, he maintained exceptionally good channels of communication between his office and all sectors of the armed forces as a means of explaining his policies and of monitoring the moods and anticipating the demands of the military. His efforts were favored by a growing political moderation among the military, stemming in part from an increasing professionalism among top officers and their fear that another military dictatorship would encounter stiff civilian opposition. At the same time, the military, keenly aware of Castro’s extermination of the prerevolutionary military establishment in Cuba, regarded nervously Betancourt’s politically motivated reluctance to crack down on leftist subversive agitation and violence. At times during 1963 a considerable restiveness spread throughout the military establishment.

Communist and Castroist Insurgency

7. Leftist extremists, led by the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), were the major disruptive force during the final years of the Betancourt administration. The PCV participated in the 1958 election, gaining 160,000 votes and nine seats in Congress. The party was propelled toward “armed struggle” against the government by its impatience with its limited opportunities to make gains through “political struggle,” by the example of Castro’s success in Cuba, and by the opportunities for violent action existing in Venezuela. The Communists found ready allies for insurgency in other extremist groups, most notably the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), a pro-Castro faction which split off from the AD party. They also found allies of convenience among rightist military dissidents.

8. The leftist extremists work through an organization called the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN). The PCV generally dominates FALN affairs, but undisciplined activists sometimes initiate terrorist activities on their own. The FALN is well organized and trained, aggressive and resourceful, but limited in numbers. Although the PCV and MIR combined probably can count on a political following in the tens of thousands, we estimate that the FALN has only some 600 to 800 active trained members, including those deployed in rural-based guerilla [Page 1085] bands. Most members are recruited from among urban youth, traditionally defiant of authority and extremist in politics.

9. The FALN has been able to obtain most of its funds, small arms, and explosives in Venezuela, primarily through robberies. Almost certainly, however, it has received material and financial assistance from Cuba. Most notably, government forces last November discovered a cache of small and medium weapons on the Paraguana Peninsula.3 In addition, more than a hundred FALN members have received paramilitary training in Cuba and elsewhere in the Communist Bloc. Cuban broadcasts to Venezuela endorsing the FALN cause and heralding its exploits have been an important boost to the insurgents’ morale. Castro’s moral and material assistance was an important factor in the early stages of the development of the FALN. Although Castro probably can call upon some elements in Venezuela to step up terrorism whenever it suits his purposes, at least over the past year the FALN has become an aggressive and effective terrorist organization that does not appear to need outside prodding.

10. The leftist extremists have used a variety of tactics in attacking the Betancourt government. During 1960–1962 they tried to force their way to power directly, first by means of a series of urban riots and then by a combination of guerrilla warfare in rural areas and the two garrison rebellions. These attempts only proved that they lacked sufficient popular and military support for the purpose. By late 1962, therefore, they turned to terrorism and sabotage as operations which could be conducted by a relatively few dedicated militants, but which would serve to discredit and weaken the Betancourt government while building up their own image and strength. In August 1963, they launched a major terrorist offensive to disrupt the December elections and provoke a military coup, hoping to profit from the resultant disorder and discord.

11. During most of 1963 the FALN was able to strike at a wide variety of targets, with a good chance of success, and very little risk of casualties or losses through capture. The police,4 handicapped by poor [Page 1086] organization, inadequate training, low morale, and legal restrictions established or enforced in reaction to the Perez Jimenez dictatorship, were no match for the terrorists. The political leaders of the FALN were protected from arrest by congressional immunity; rank and file members were able to take advantage of the legal sanctuaries provided by the autonomous universities and the de facto asylums of the slum districts. Moreover, even when arrested, terrorists often were able to regain their freedom through legal technicalities, bribery, or escapes.

12. FALN efforts to disrupt the election through terrorism were thwarted, however, by the combination of a well-timed government crackdown, a notable improvement in police performance, and a show of determination by the population not to be intimidated by the terrorists. Betancourt, using some measures of doubtful constitutionality, moved to reduce FALN’s disruptive capability, before military restiveness got out of hand, and after five anti-government candidates had committed themselves to the presidential race. On 30 September the military was called upon to assist in a roundup of known extremists and suspected terrorists, including those hiding out in slum districts. In all, some 300 to 400 were jailed, including several PCV and MIR congressmen. In October, in response to pressure from the government, school officials closed Caracas’ Central University, which further reduced the maneuverability of the terrorists. Starting in October, moreover, the police in Caracas, political nerve center of the country, proved to be a better match for the terrorists, inflicting more casualties and taking more prisoners than previously.5 The FALN still was able to undertake a large number of hit-and-run raids, especially outside of Caracas. But because of accumulated losses in manpower and morale, it was either unable or unwilling to mount an impressive last-minute attack. Its repeated threats against the voters probably proved counterproductive. On election day (1 December) the population went to the polls in overwhelming numbers; FALN attacks were few and ineffectual. Since the election, the terrorists have been relatively inactive, which is in large part responsible for the political calm of the final Betancourt months.

[Omitted here is the final section of the estimate, “The Outlook for the Leoni Administration,” which includes a detailed discussion of the Inauguration, President Leoni, Political Prospects, Social and Economic Issues, Leftist Insurgency, Leoni and the Military.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Job 79–R01012A, O/DDI Registry. Secret; Controlled Dissem. According to a note on the cover sheet this estimate was prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency with the participation of the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The United States Intelligence Board concurred in this estimate on February 19.
  2. The Venezuelan armed forces consist of four separate services with the following numbers of officers and men: Army—17,800; National Guard (a militarized constabulary)— 12,000; Navy (including Marines)—5,600; Air Force—2,500. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. Located in northwest Venezuela, the major area of FALN guerrilla activity (see map). [Footnote in source text. The map is not reproduced. On November 28, 1963, the Venezuelan Government announced that it had discovered a large arms cache on the coast of the Paraguaná Peninsula; that an internal investigation had determined that the arms were of Cuban origin, intended for use in a guerrilla operation to seize power in Caracas before the Presidential elections of December 1; and that evidence against Cuba would be presented to the Organization of American States thereby justifying retaliatory measures under the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, the so-called “Rio Treaty” of 1947. Documentation on the subsequent campaign to indict and sanction Cuba before the OAS is in Documents 1 ff., and Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XII, Documents 169171.]
  4. Civilian police forces in Venezuela number nearly 19,000 men. In the Caracas area, there are five separate civilian forces with a total of over 10,000 men and a National Guard contingent of 700 men engaged in police duties. [Footnote in the source text.]
  5. US advice and assistance contributed in large part to the improved performance of the police. Among other things, we were primarily responsible for the introduction of training in marksmanship and other practical subjects and the establishment of improved coordination among Caracas’ many and often competing police agencies. [Footnote in the source text.]