Rómulo Betancourt (1908-1981) was the most important political leader of Venezuela during the middle decades of the 20th century. Founder of the nation's first modern political party, he was twice president.
Born on Feb. 22, 1908, in a small town in eastern Venezuela, Rómulo Betancourt was the son of lower-middle-class parents. In 1927 he enrolled at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. He had his first political experience as a leader of the student movement called the "Boys of '28." This group directed its energies in opposition to the dictatorship of General Juan Vicente Gómez, "the tyrant of the Andes." When the student revolt of 1928 failed, Betancourt was jailed for several weeks, and then sent into exile in Colombia. From there he traveled to other Latin American countries in search of support against Venezuela's repressive government. In Costa Rica he was swept up in communist revolutionary ideology and became a founder of that country's communist party. However, when the party decided to become a full member of the Communist International, he withdrew. Betancourt later called his early association with communism "a youthful attack of small pox that left me immune to the disease."
After Gómez died in December 1935, Betancourt returned home. Founding and editing the left wing newspaper Orve beginning in 1926, he assumed leadership of those trying to organize a democratic party, which took shape as the Partido Democratico Nacional (PDN). The government of General Eleazar Lopez Contreras suppressed the party in mid-1937, and Betancourt went into hiding. Captured in 1939, he was forced into exile again, this time in Chile. There he wrote and published his first book, Problemas venezolanos (1940).
With the inauguration of President Isaias Medina Angarita in 1941, Betancourt was allowed to return to Venezuela. The PDN, now legalized under the name Accion Democratica (AD), constituted the major opposition party to Medina, and put forth a presidential candidate to face the current government in the promised upcoming elections. Once again Betancourt promoted his party's views and their candidate through publication, this time by founding the newspaper El Pais. When the president reneged on his promise to allow open elections to determine his successor, the AD joined young military leaders in a coup d'etat in October 1945. As a result, Betancourt assumed control of Venezuela as provisional president.
During Betancourt's democratic administration, he instituted numerous economic and social reforms. Rent controls were established, and profit-sharing arrangements were encouraged between employers and their employees. But of major significance, Betancourt implemented an agreement with foreign oil companies operating in oil-rich Venezuela that they would pay 50 percent of their profits to the government. With the greatly increased revenues that resulted, the government established the Venezuelan Development Corporation and expanded the number of schools, teachers, and hospitals. The government also strongly encouraged organized labor and for the first time supported establishment of a peasant movement. It drew up an agrarian reform law and wrote a new constitution providing for universal adult suffrage and full democratic guarantees. After free elections in 1947, AD presidential candidate Rómulo Gallegos succeeded Betancourt to the presidency in February 1948.
President Gallegos' term would be a short one, however. Because of the radical changes promised in his campaign, he was overthrown in November by conservative military dictator General Marcos Perez Jiménez. Betancourt, although immediately forced into exile by the new military government, was the principal leader of the opposition to Jiménez's government. Despite Betancourt's efforts, the military dictatorship remained in power until January 1958; after its overthrow Betancourt was free to return to Venezuela. He was elected president for a second time on a coalition government platform in 1958.
Profound social, economic, and political changes took place in Venezuela during Betancourt's second administration, many of which the president outlined in his Romulo Betancourt: Posicion y doctrina (1958). Land was distributed to over 50,000 families, organized labor grew, and collective bargaining became common. Through the Development Corporation and aid against foreign competition, industrialization was encouraged. Large road-building and electrical power programs were carried out, transforming Venezuela into a modernized, Latin American nation.
Political democracy in Venezuela was maintained in spite of mutinies by right and left-wing extremists, scattered guerilla warfare, and an assassination attempt on Betancourt's life in 1960. Elections at the end of 1963 resulted in the choice of the AD candidate, Dr. Raul Leoni, to succeed Betancourt, who was prevented from running for ten years by the election reforms that he himself had instituted. He is remembered in Venezuelan history as the first individual to gain the presidency through democratic election and relinquish it to another through democratic election as well.
Upon leaving office in March 1964, Betancourt went to live in Europe and Asia. He resided for a time in Bern, Switzerland before returning to Venezuela. There he wrote several books on his political ideas and the accomplishments of his second administration. Two of his works on oil, politics, and economics were translated into English. Venezuela: Oil and Politics (1979) and Venezuela's Oil (1978) focus on a nation's ability to achieve economic independence only through political independence. He cited examples from Venezuela's own history, from the period where it was controlled by American and British oil companies through its later assertion of economic autonomy as the world's third largest oil producer. Betancourt's writings were of considerable influence during the 1960 formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Betancourt was respected for implementing the economic and social policies that enabled Venezuela to channel the benefits of its natural resources to its own people, rather than lose them to foreign interests. He was honored with numerous internationally sponsored awards during his lifetime, including honorary degrees from Harvard University and the University of California. Betancourt died of a stroke, September 28, 1981, at the age of seventy-three.
Although there is no full-length biography of Betancourt, extensive information on his career may be found in Robert J. Alexander, Venezuelan Democratic Revolution: A Profile of the Regime of Rómulo Betancourt (1964), and John Martz, Accion Democratica: Evolution of a Modern Political Party in Venezuela (1966). See also the chapter on Betancourt in Robert J. Alexander, Prophets of the Revolution: Profiles of Latin American Leaders (1962). □