Betancourt, Rómulo (1908–1981)

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Betancourt, Rómulo (1908–1981)

Rómulo Betancourt (b. 22 February 1908; d. 28 September 1981), president of Venezuela (1945–1948, 1959–1964). The founder of contemporary Venezuelan democracy, Betancourt was also a hemispheric leader and symbol of democratic values and practices. A strong critic and opponent of both Marxist and right-wing authoritarianism, he personified enlightened democratic reformism in the Americas. He was also the founder and organizational genius of Venezuela's political party Democratic Action (Acción Democratica—AD), which he regarded as among his most important achievements. Betancourt's AD has remained a dominant force in Venezuelan politics for a full half-century and survived his death.

Born to a modest family in Guatire, a town east of Caracas, Betancourt became absorbed by politics during his student days. Emerging as a leader of the Generation of '28, he was a major participant in the uprising which protested the government of long-time dictator Juan Vicente Gómez. The February 1928 uprising led to the exile of Betancourt and other young Venezuelans until Gómez's death in 1935. It also nourished their intellectual and political hunger for democracy in Venezuela, and led to a search for new political and doctrinal solutions to national problems, especially those related to the overwhelming influence of petroleum on society and national life.

Betancourt assumed a major role in building a reformist political organization following his 1936 return to Caracas. (He returned again in 1941.) He built the nucleus for what later became AD, formally established in September 1941. Having purged Marxist elements from the organization, Betancourt stressed the need for open debate and discussion of petroleum policy and other major issues. When the AD and lesser opposition parties were effectively barred from meaningful participation in elections set for 1945, Betancourt and his colleagues joined with junior military officers to overthrow the existing regime. This so-called October Revolution (1945) introduced a three-year period, the trienio, which was marked by dramatic and far-reaching reforms.

For more than two years a seven-person junta headed by Betancourt led Venezuela toward an institutionalized open political system. The Constituent Assembly wrote a new constitution (signed into law 5 July 1947) and national elections held 14 December 1947 brought to office a government headed by the AD's Rómulo Gallegos early in 1948. Betancourt and other members of the junta had pledged not to seek office in the next administration. When the government of Gallegos, an eminent writer but inexperienced politician, was overthrown less than a year after being inaugurated, Venezuela entered a decade of military authoritarianism dominated by Marcos Pérez Jiménez.

Betancourt spent a decade of exile in Cuba, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico. Other prominent party leaders had similar experiences, and those in the underground were persecuted and killed. When a massive civic protest finally led to the collapse of the Pérez Jiménez government in January 1958, Betan-court and other democratic leaders returned home. They created a new arrangement of power sharing, and Betancourt won election to the presidency in December 1958. Although he took office with the support of other democratic parties, he experienced an extraordinarily difficult incumbency.

Remnants of rightist militarism instigated two substantial uprisings. An assassination attempt planned by the Dominican strongman Rafael Leónidas Trujillo killed a member of Betancourt's party; Betancourt's hands were burned and his equilibrium was affected. Meanwhile, young admirers of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution mounted an armed insurgency that brought violence and terrorism in the cities of Venezuela at a time when Betancourt was grappling with a depressed economy left by the corrupt military dictatorship.

Betancourt courted the private sectors, encouraged properly controlled foreign investment, and moved toward a meaningful program of agrarian reform. Labor was supported, education received special attention, and other measures sought to correct social injustices. Betancourt also established warm relations with the Kennedy administration in Washington. The personal friendship of the two presidents grew strong as Venezuela emerged as the model of democratic reformism in Latin America.

As required by the 1961 Constitution, Betancourt left office after his five-year term (1959–1964). Once power had been transferred to Raúl Leoni, another member of the AD's founding generation, Betancourt went into exile for nearly five years, during which time he recuperated from the serious injuries suffered during the attempted assassination. After returning, he declined to run for the presidency in 1973, instead backing Carlos Andrés Pérez.

In his final years Betancourt was still a powerful force in AD. A tenacious defender of democratic values, he brooked no opposition to his vision of representative government throughout the hemisphere. He died after suffering a stroke during a visit to New York City and was buried in Caracas.

See alsoVenezuela, Political Parties: Democratic Action (AD); Venezuela: Venezuela since 1830.


Robert J. Alexander, The Venezuelan Democratic Revolution (1964) and Rómulo Betancourt and the Transformation of Venezuela (1982).

Charles J. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile: The Anti-Dictatorial Struggle in the Caribbean, 1945–1959 (1974).

Rómulo Betancourt, Venezuela: Politics and Oil, trans. Everett Baumann (1979).

Juan Liscano and Carlos Gottberg, Multimagen de Rómulo: Vida y acción de Rómulo Betancourt en gráficas, 5th ed. (1978).

John D. Martz, Acción Democrática: Evolution of a Modern Political Party in Venezuela (1964).

John D. Martz and David J. Myers, eds., Venezuela: The Democratic Experience, rev. ed. (1986).

Franklin Tugwell, The Politics of Oil in Venezuela (1975).

Ramón J. Velásquez, J. F. Sucre Figarella, and Blas Bruni Celli, Betancourt en la historia de Venezuela del siglo XX (1980).

Additional Bibliography

Schwartzberg, Steven. Democracy and U.S. Policy in Latin America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.

                                           John D. Martz

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