One of the leading figures of 20th-century Venezuelan history, Rómulo Betancourt is generally credited with playing a pivotal role in helping to establish viable and sustainable democratic institutions in Venezuela that endured from his second presidency (1959–64) to the 2000s.
A moderate social reformer and forerunner of latter-day Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in his advocacy of populist social democracy focusing on the needs of the poor, Betancourt founded the political party Democratic Action (Acción Democrática, AD) in 1941, which would play a major role in subsequent Venezuelan political life. Threading a difficult line between the far Left, the far Right, and the omnipresent specter of U.S. intromission in this oil-rich country, Betancourt contributed in enduring ways to the institutionalization of Venezuelan democracy.
Born in the town of Guatire in the state of Miranda to a family of modest means, he starting working at 14 years of age to put himself through high school, college, and law school. In 1928 he participated in student protests against the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez, events marking him as a leading member of the “Generation of 28” dedicated to democratization and social reform. After being jailed by the Gómez regime he went into exile and became active in various leftist political groups, including the Communist Party of Costa Rica.
At age 23 he penned the Plan of Barranquilla, a Marxist-inspired document outlining his vision of his homeland’s political future. After Gómez’s death in 1936, he returned clandestinely to Venezuela and became engaged in political activity against the military regime.
In 1940 he went into exile in Chile, where he published Venezuelan Problems (Problemas Venezolanos). A year later he returned to Venezuela and founded AD, gathering around him a team committed to reform that formed the nucleus of the party and skillfully using the press and other media to disseminate his ideas.
On October 19, 1945, a coalition of AD reformers and disgruntled army officers overthrew the military regime and installed Betancourt as president of a provisional government. During his first presidency (1945– 48), Betancourt’s government instituted a wide range of political, economic, and social reforms, including universal suffrage; mechanisms for free and fair elections; an accord with foreign oil companies that guaranteed a reasonable profit, decent wages, and ensured labor peace; agrarian reform; expansion of public education and public health facilities; and related initiatives.
Declining to run for a second successive term, in 1948 he transferred power to his successor, the novelist and activist Rómulo Gallegos. Later that year, in December, the military in collusion with conservative elements overthrew the Gallegos government, ruling Venezuela for the next 10 years under General Marcos Pérez Jiménez.
In 1958 a resurgent coalition of reformers and army officers overthrew the Jiménez regime, installing a democratic AD-dominated government, with Betancourt again as president, which broadened and deepened the reforms of the 1940s. Since 1958 Venezuela has been ruled by a succession of democratically elected governments.
Surviving an assassination attempt by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960, and promulgating the Betancourt Doctrine that denied diplomatic recognition to regimes coming to power by military force, Betancourt died on September 28, 1981, in Doctor’s Hospital in New York City.