Leoni, Raúl (1906–1972)

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Leoni, Raúl (1906–1972)

Raúl Leoni (b. 26 April 1906; d. 5 July 1972), Venezuelan president (1964–1968). Raúl Leoni was one of the founding fathers of Venezuela's most important twentieth-century political party, Acción Democrática (AD). He began his political career when, as president of the Venezuelan Students Federation, he organized a Students' Week in February 1928 to protest the repressive regime of Juan Vicente Gómez. Although the protest sparked a more general outcry against the regime, including an aborted rebellion led by young army officers, it also forced Leoni and his colleagues into exile for eight years. While in Barranquilla, Colombia, Leoni and other exiles plotted their return and drew up the Plan de Barranquilla, a nationalist reform document that foreshadowed the program of the AD. The plan stressed the need for political democracy and social justice in Venezuela and sought to curb the virtually unbridled power of the country's foreign-owned petroleum companies. Leoni returned to Venezuela after the death of Gómez, and in 1936 he was elected to the Venezuelan Chamber of Deputies as a member of the Partido Democrático Nacional (PDN), precursor of AD. However, Leoni was deported by President Eleazar López Contreras in 1937 and was unable to take his seat.

After earning a law degree at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, Leoni returned to Venezuela, where he became one of the main organizers of AD, which was legally recognized in September 1941. Leoni and Rómulo Betancourt led the party into power for the first time by cooperating with dissident army officers who, in 1945, overthrew dictator General Isaías Medina. As minister of labor during the heady years that followed, Leoni oversaw the unionization of Venezuelan workers and supervised the first collective bargaining agreement between the oil companies and their workers in 1946. When AD fell victim to its own mistakes and a military coup against President Rómulo Gallegos in November 1948, Leoni left the country again, this time to work for the International Labor Organization of the United Nations and with fellow AD exiles who formed part of a larger community of exiled Caribbean democratic-left leaders.

With the fall of the dictatorial General Marcos Pérez Jiménez in January 1958, Leoni returned to Venezuela to help his party regain power. After becoming president of AD the following year, he succeeded his old ally Rómulo Betancourt as president of Venezuela between 1964 and 1968. Relying initially on support from the AD-affiliated labor groups, Leoni largely continued the nationalist, reformist policies inaugurated by Betancourt. These included promotion of industrialization, agrarian reform, and expansion of public education. Leoni also proved to be an innovator by seeking conciliation with the radical Left which had launched a guerrilla war several years earlier, and by legalizing the Communist Party in 1968. Finally, by proposing a law to levy an excess profits tax on the oil companies, he goaded the latter into accepting a compromise arrangement that increased the industry's benefit to the national government. This step paved the way for future efforts to increase the government's share of Venezuelan oil wealth.

See alsoPérez Jiménez, Marcos; Venezuela, Political Parties: Democratic Action (AD).


Robert J. Alexander, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Latin American and Caribbean Political Leaders (1988).

John Martz, Acción Democrática: The Evolution of a Modern Political Party in Venezuela (1966): Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile: The Antidictatorial Struggle in the Caribbean, 1945–1959 (1974).

Additional Bibliography

Arráiz Lucca, Rafael. Raúl Leoni: (1905–1972). Caracas: Editora El Nacional: Banco del Caribe, 2005.

Rivas, Ramón. Acción Democrática en la historia contemporanea de Venezuela, 1929–1991. Mérida: Universidad Popular "Alberto Carnevali," 1991.

                                    Pamela Murray