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13 Feb 1959 - 11 Mar 1964 - Rómulo Ernesto Betancourt Bello

Following a military coup that ousted dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez on 22 January 1958, the five-man provisional military junta at first ruled without civilian participation. Under a new electoral law decreed in May 1958, the junta convoked elections for December 1958. The political parties that had participated in the Patriotic Junta found themselves unable to reach a consensus on a single candidate. In the Pact of Punto Fijo, drawn up in October, the top party leaders did agree to resume their cooperation after the elections. They drew up a common policy agenda and agreed to divide cabinet posts and other governmental positions among the three major parties, regardless of whose candidate proved victorious in December.

The social democratic Acción Democrática (AD Democratic Action Party) then nominated Rómulo Ernesto Betancourt Bello, the URD tapped the popular Larrazábal as its candidate, and COPEI again ran Caldera as its candidate. After a hard-fought campaign, Betancourt came out the victor with 49 percent of the total; Larrazábal, who also had the support of the communists, received 35 percent; Caldera garnered 16 percent. AD also gained a majority in both congressional bodies. Although few anticipated it at the time, Betancourt's inauguration as president on February 13, 1959, initiated a period of democratic, civilian rule of unprecedented length in the nation's history.

Historians invariably point to Betancourt's inauguration as the pivotal point in four centuries of Venezuelan history. Not since its discovery by Spanish explorers in the late fifteenth century had an event so clearly marked a new era for the country. After nearly a century and a half as perhaps the most extreme example of Latin America's postindependence affliction of caudillismo and military rule, Venezuela's political life after 1959 was defined by uninterrupted civilian constitutional rule.

This stark break with the past has been attributed most often to the government's petroleum-based wealth, which gave it the material resources to win a vast portion of the population over to the democratic consensus, and to the spirit of cooperation among the nation's various political entities (commonly known as the "Spirit of the 23rd of January," after the date of Pérez's fall from power) as embodied in the Pact of Punto Fijo. Betancourt and his AD colleagues had apparently learned from the disastrous consequences of their strident posture during their previous stint at governing. They now reversed themselves by granting concessions to a broad range of political forces that included many of their most bitter enemies during the trienio. They guaranteed, for example, the continuation of obligatory military service; improved salaries, housing, and equipment for the military; and, most important, amnesty from prosecution for crimes committed during the dictatorship. The Roman Catholic Church, whose active opposition to Pérez had impressed many doctrinally anticlerical AD militants, somewhat enhanced its political image and expanded its influence within the government.

In another pact written up during the weeks before the 1958 elections, known as the "Declaration of Principles and Governing Program," AD, COPEI, and the URD agreed on a broad range of matters with respect to the economy. In what amounted to guarantees to the foreign and local business communities, the parties agreed to respect the principles of capital accumulation and the sanctity of private property. Local industry, furthermore, was guaranteed government measures to protect it from foreign competition as well as subsidies through the state- run Venezuelan Development Corporation (Corporación Venezolana de Fomento--CVF). With respect to agrarian properties, any expropriation or transfer of title would provide for compensation to the original owner.

Betancourt made other conciliatory moves as well. A new labor code granted unprecedented government guarantees of the right to association and collective bargaining. Vastly enlarged state subsidies benefited the poor in such areas as food, housing, and health care. The objective was to institutionalize a "prolonged political truce" by including as many citizens as possible within a popular consensus in favor of the civilian, democratic project. The "Spirit of the 23rd of January" informed the 1961 constitution, which guaranteed a wide range of civil liberties and created a weak bicameral legislature, where partisan political conflict could be aired but would cause a minimum of damage. The president was given considerable power, although he was allowed to run for reelection only after sitting out two five-year terms.

The major group excluded from the political pacts of 1958 was the extreme left. This exclusion was the result, initially, of the doctrinal anticommunism of AD--and of Betancourt in particular. The exclusion was subsequently perpetuated by the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the revolution's precipitous radicalization during the early 1960s. The Cuban Revolution had a profound impact on the Venezuelan left, particularly among student groups, who saw it as a model for a successful revolutionary effort in Venezuela. In November 1960, the URD dropped out of the governing coalition with AD in protest over Betancourt's firm stance against Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz. AD also suffered the loss of most of its student wing, which in April of that year split from the party to form the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria--MIR), supposedly to protest delays in the implementation of the government's agrarian reform program.

In 1961 these groups, together with the PCV, consolidated their advocacy of antigovernment guerrilla warfare. The Betancourt government supported Cuba's expulsion from the Organization of American States (OAS), then broke diplomatic relations with the Castro government in December. In May and June of the following year, military officers sympathetic to the left instigated two bloody uprisings, first at Carúpano on the Península de Paria, then at Puerto Cabello. These provoked Betancourt into legally proscribing the PCV and the MIR, which promptly went underground and formed the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional--FALN). The FALN engaged in rural and urban guerrilla activities throughout the remainder of the 1960s. The activity reached its height in 1962 and 1963, when the FALN sabotaged oil pipelines and bombed a Sears Roebuck warehouse and the United States Embassy in Caracas.

The FALN failed, however, to attract adherents among the poor, whether rural campesinos or the residents of the makeshift shacks, known as ranchos (see Glossary), that made up Caracas's mushrooming slum areas. The guerrillas also proved unable to achieve their secondary goal of provoking a coup d'état that would lead to a repressive military regime and, hence, increase popular support for the insurgents. As political scientist Daniel H. Levine points out, the FALN's effect proved to be quite the contrary of what it intended: it actually consolidated the democratic regime by making AD look--to its many former enemies on the right--like the better of two alternatives. At the same time, the insurgency provided a vital military mission to the armed forces, one that removed them still further from direct participation in politics. Ultimately, the FALN's efforts to disrupt the December 1963 elections also proved futile. In the midst of this guerrilla campaign, the government arrested all PCV and MIR congressmen in September, and in November military forces discovered a three-ton cache of small arms--with clear links back to the Castro regime--on a deserted stretch of beach.

Castro was not Betancourt's only enemy in the Caribbean, however. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the dictatorial ruler of the Dominican Republic, was implicated in a number of antigovernment conspiracies uncovered within the Venezuelan military, as well as in the bombing of Betancourt's car in June 1960, in which a military aide was killed and the president badly burned. The Venezuelan president's strong-willed antipathy for nondemocratic rule was reflected in the so-called Betancourt Doctrine, which denied Venezuelan diplomatic recognition to any regime, right or left, that came to power by military force.

Highly unfavorable circumstances in the external sector of the economy handicapped the Betancourt administration. Having inherited an empty treasury and enormous unpaid foreign debts from the spendthrift Pérez, Betancourt nevertheless managed to return the state to fiscal solvency despite the persistence of rock-bottom petroleum prices throughout his presidency. He also managed to continue the effort, begun during the 1930s by President López, of "sowing the oil" by initiating a variety of reform programs, the most important of which was agrarian reform. Aimed not at addressing social grievances but rather at reversing Venezuela's protracted decline in agricultural production, AD's land reform distributed only unproductive private properties and public lands. Landowners who had their properties confiscated received generous compensation. By the end of the 1960s, an estimated 166,000 heads of household had received provisional titles to their new properties.

During 1960 two institutions were founded that made important contributions toward the development of a national petroleum policy: the Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation (Corporación Venezolana de Petróleos--CVP), conceived to oversee the national petroleum industry, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the international oil cartel that Venezuela established in partnership with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. Both organizations were the creations of Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, who, for the second time, served as Betancourt's minister of energy. During the trienio, Pérez Alfonso had earned the wrath of the foreign oil firms with his proposition that the state should gradually assume control of the petroleum industry; this idea now once again became government policy.

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