Obituary: Luis Castro

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LUIS CASTRO was Venezuela's most prominent and persuasive political intellectual, and had been talked of as a possible president. He died suddenly in Chicago where he was at the end of a visiting professorship - ready, he said a few days earlier, to return to Venezuela to do battle.

Castro was a philosopher and historian. He took particular pleasure in his election in 1992-93 to what was, to him, the ironically named Simn Bolvar Professorship of Latin American Studies at Cambridge and a fellowship at Trinity. There and in Chicago, and in what leisure he could find in Caracas, he had been working on what would have been his great work, a history of political thinking in Spanish America.

He was born in 1943, and studied philosophy and Roman Law in Caracas and Paris. It was in Cambridge, however, in the early Seventies, that he found his voice. He did so through the arcane route of a doctoral dissertation on "the history of the English jury as a fact-finding institution in the later middle ages".

The late medieval jury, he argued, remained a communal institution, but in the changing property relations of the period, respected social difference and took a sceptical line on truth. It coincided with the invention of the legal trust. Castro returned to Venezuela convinced that institutions of this kind, public spirited, independent, and uncorrupt, were England's distinctive contribution to public life, that F.W. Maitland (co- author of History of English Law, 1895) was their greatest historian, and that Cambridge was a model of what a society of trust could be.

Venezuela, he argued from his professorial chairs and his influential presidency - some years later - of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Caracas, was altogether less admirable. For nearly 200 years, the political class had been locked in pointless debate between an atavistic conception of honour, called republican, and one or another kind of abstract liberalism. The fantasy of the one, aristocratic and bellicose, imagined too much solidarity, the fantasy of the other, in dreams of lawyers and more recently, of economists influenced by the US, too little.

Venezuela's republicanism has been enshrined in the myth of its liberator, Simn Bolvar, and been protected by the army. At the end of another dictatorship, in 1958, civilians tried finally to remove the military from politics. They had some success. Rising incomes from oil bought 20 years of peace. In the later 1980s, however, the revenues shrank, exposed a large public debt, and brought austerities, a brief riot, and renewed paralysis. In 1992, the army decided that it must again save the republic from itself. Its two coups failed, but in December last year, out of prison and riding popular discontent, the leader of the first, Hugo Chvez, was elected president. The cycle appeared to have begun again.

Castro had been invited earlier that year to address the Congress (and through television, the country) on the problems ahead. His sense of these - moral, political, intellectual, above all emotional - was unparall-eled. It was an arresting speech, and there were calls for him to enter the presidential race. But he was the first to see the irony in yet another merely oratorical triumph. He had often reduced his foreign friends to helpless laughter in cruel imitation of a Latin American politician trying to demonstrate in English or French (he had a magical facility with language) what it was to belong to this or that party. He himself belonged to none.

He had friends from many sides, former guerrillas as well as wise liberals, and was a close confidant of the previous president. Even those opposed to him were forced to acknowledge his integrity. He augmented his small salary with visiting professorships and a popular Friday evening television programme on sport. (Friends could be nervous in their laughter as he drove through the rain in his decomposing car, one hand working the wiper from the outside, the other raised in vivid gesture). His warnings to Congress have proved correct. The new president is putting ex-soldiers into positions of power and threatening a constitutional coup.

Luis Castro had an astonishing understanding of people, events and ideas, and a mesmerising charm. His lectures, essays, and books - and for those in Venezuela and beyond who knew him, his wit and humanity - remain. His funeral in Caracas was a moment of great public as well as private grief.

Luis Hernan Castro Leiva, political philosopher; born Caracas 23 February 1943; Professor of Politics and Philosophy, Central University of Venezuela, and Professor at the Simn Bolvar University, Caracas 1978-99; married 1967 Beatrice Kervel (two sons), 1993 Carole Leal; died Chicago 8 April 1999.