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Betancourt, Rómulo (1908–1981)

Venezuelan politician, provisional president (1945–1948), and president (1959–1964). Born into a modest family in Guatire, Miranda, on 22 February 1908, Rómulo Betancourt became involved in politics while attending the University of Caracas, where he led student protests against the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez. Arrested in 1928 and released after several weeks in jail, Betancourt was exiled to Costa Rica until Gómez's death in 1935.

A founder of the Costa Rican Communist Party, Betancourt became an admirer of the New Deal policies of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt after pragmatism and nationalism led the Venezuelan to renounce dogmatic, Moscow-directed communism. In September 1941 Betancourt helped establish Acción Democrática (Democratic Action), a left-wing anticommunist party that came to power in Venezuela's October Revolution of 1945. Appointed provisional president, Betancourt established a new constitution and initiated a program of moderate social reforms. He handed power over to a democratically elected president in 1948, but a coup a few months later led by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez forced Betancourt into exile again. He spent the next ten years abroad directing the outlawed Acción Democrática party.

After Jiménez was overthrown in 1958, Betancourt returned to Venezuela and was elected president in 1959. His reformist administration passed an agrarian reform law to expropriate large estates, initiated public works programs, and fostered industrial development to reduce dependence on petroleum reserves. Betancourt exercised greater control over foreign-dominated petroleum companies, increased government tax revenue from oil production, and supported the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Betancourt adopted a policy of nonrecognition of un-democratic governments. He praised President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress and supported U.S. efforts to isolate Fidel Castro's Cuba. Beleaguered by forces from both the Left and the Right, Betancourt suppressed an armed insurgency by leftist admirers of the Cuban Revolution, countered rightist military uprisings, and survived an assassination attempt planned by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

After his presidential term ended in 1964, Betancourt became the first Venezuelan in history to hold the presidency by a legitimate election and to relinquish the office to a popularly elected successor. He then lived for eight years in Switzerland, returning to Venezuela in 1972. Betancourt died on 28 September 1981 while visiting New York City.

David M. Carletta


Further Reading
Dávila, Luis Ricardo. "Rómulo Betancourt and the Development of Venezuelan Nationalism, 1930–1945." Bulletin of Latin American Research 12(1) (January 1993): 49–63.; Schwartzberg, Steven. "Rómulo Betancourt: From a Communist Anti-Imperialist to a Social Democrat with U.S. Support." Journal of Latin American Studies 29(3) (October 1997): 613–665.
 

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