Rafael Caldera Rodríguez

views updated May 23 2018

Rafael Caldera Rodríguez

Venezuelan Rafael Caldera Rodríguez (born 1916) founded the Christian Democratic Party of Venezuela and served as his country's president from 1969 to 1974.

Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, the son of Dr. Rafael and Rosa Sofia Caldera, was born in 1916 in San Felipe in the north-central state of Yaracuy, Venezuela. An exceptional student, Caldera earned a doctor of philosophy degree in political science, taught at a leading Venezuelan university, and wrote a scholarly study of the distinguished Latin American educator Andrés Bello. His scholarly interests also included the rights and responsibilities of labor. He served in Venezuela's Ministry of Labor between 1936 and 1938 and published a comprehensive review of Venezuela's labor laws. In 1941 he married his wife, Alicia.

Caldera's political career began in 1936 when he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. A devout Catholic, he organized Catholic civic groups, and, in 1946, helped establish the Christian Democratic Party of Venezuela or COPEI. Christian Democrats espouse that there is a third or middle way between laissez-faire capitalism and Marxist socialism. They reject Marxist ideas of dialectical materialism and class struggle. But they also fear that capitalism without social safeguards produces a grossly inequitable society. Christian Democrats accordingly believe that they must work for social justice by promoting democracy, fair taxation systems, and social welfare programs.

In 1947 Rafael Caldera ran for president and finished second behind Rómulo Gallegos of the Democratic Action Party. But in 1948 military officers overthrew the Gallegos government and established ten years of military dictatorship in Venezuela. The officers, led by Col. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, banned most political activity in Venezuela, closely monitored Caldera's activities, and in 1957 jailed and then exiled the Christian Democratic leader.

Caldera returned to Venezuela in 1958 following the overthrow of the Pérez Jiménez regime. He again competed for the presidency in 1958 and in 1963. Though he lost these two elections, Caldera and his party helped consolidate democracy in Venezuela. As committed democrats, they respected Venezuelans' decisions and served as the "loyal opposition" to the ruling Democratic Action Party in the Venezuelan legislature. Caldera, for example, presided over the Chamber of Deputies between 1959 and 1961. Caldera's persistency was finally rewarded in December 1968 when he won the presidency by garnering 29 percent of the vote in a multicandidate election.

President Caldera's domestic accomplishments were relatively modest. During the campaign of 1968 he had pledged to revitalize the agricultural sector of the economy and to build 100,000 homes a year. But his party did not command a majority in the legislature and his country lacked the resources for implementing such ambitious reforms. Therefore, Caldera continued the gradual socio-economic reforms that the Democratic Action Party had initiated. Perhaps his major achievement was to strengthen political democracy in Venezuela by encouraging citizens and organizations to speak up and by holding weekly television talks and press conferences.

In international economic affairs, however, significant change occurred during the Caldera presidency. In 1960 Venezuela had established, with Middle Eastern nations, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). OPEC's major premise was that oil-exporting nations, like Venezuela, deserved a high price for the sale of a vital, non-renewable natural resource. Throughout the 1960s industrial nations ignored OPEC because oil was abundant. But in the early 1970s demand for oil began to exceed supply, and Arab nations embargoed shipments of oil to the United States in protest against U.S. support for Israel during the Arab-Israeli (Yom Kippur) War of 1973. The price of oil shot up from $2.00 a barrel in 1971 to $14.00 by 1974.

Oil production was Venezuela's major industry, and President Caldera took advantage of these momentous developments in the international oil trade. He raised taxes on oil production, nationalized the gas industry, and enacted stringent laws regulating the U.S. oil companies that operated in Venezuela. By the time he left office in 1974 the government had, because of this oil bonanza, the income to improve the lives of Venezuelans.

The Venezuelan constitution prohibits a president from succeeding himself for ten years. In 1983 Rafael Caldera made his fifth bid for the presidency. He was badly defeated by Jaime Lusinchi of Democratic Action. While Venezuelans admired Caldera, they apparently blamed Christian Democrats, who had ruled since 1978, for a host of social and economic problems that bedeviled the country. As a former president, Rafael Caldera was a member of the Venezuelan Senate for life.

After leaving the presidency of Venezuela, Caldera continued to pursue both scholarly and political pursuits with remarkable vigor. For three years (1979-82) he served as the president of the Counselors for the World's Interparliamentary Union, and in 1979 he served as the president of the World's Congress of Agrarian Reform and Rural Improvement in Rome. He presided over a United Nations committee to create the University for Peace from 1980-1981, and over another Bicameral Commission (1989-1992) concerned with reforming the constitution. All together he published twenty-two books in his life, plus innumerable essays, articles, and booklets. Over the years his elaborate work on Andrés Bello was translated to French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and English (1975). He also wrote a number of pieces on Simón Bolivar, including Bolivar Siempre in 1987 for the National Academy of History in Caracas. Throughout his lifetime Caldera was bestowed with honorary doctorates, degrees, and professorships from a dozen universities and academies in Venezuela and from over a score of foreign universities including Hebrew University of Jerusalem, University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and University of Perugia (Italy) He was decorated many times both in Venezuela and abroad. His numerous distinctions and achievements require many pages to list in detail.

Caldera and his wife had six children and nine grandchildren.

Further Reading

There is no complete biography of Caldera in English. For background and information, see Donald L. Herman, Christian Democracy in Venezuela (1980) and Judith Ewell, Venezuela: A Century of Change (1985). For developments in oil, see Franklin Tugwell, The Politics of Oil in Venezuela (1975). Other information can be accessed through the Venezuelan embassy's Web site at <http://venezuela.mit.edu:80/embassy/politica/caldera.html> □