Rafael Caldera: President of Venezuela who helped forge an era of democracy and political stability in his country

Rafael Caldera was one of the main architects and upholders of democracy and political stability in Venezuela. A presidential candidate six times, and president twice, from 1969-74 and 1994-99, Caldera helped to ensure Venezuela's status as one of the very few Latin American countries to avoid military government in the last half-century. Venezuelans will probably remember him most for securing the pacification of the country at the end of the 1960s.

Caldera was steeped in Roman Catholic faith, ideology and politics, and he pioneered the introduction of Christian Democracy into Latin America. In 1946 he founded the Venezuelan Christian Democrat party (known as COPEI), one of the largest and most important in the Americas. Such parties were essentially set up, as in Western Europe, to be pro-capitalist alternatives to social democracy and communism. In this, Caldera was no exception. But he clearly fell more within the Social Christian tradition. Compared to many of his Latin American counterparts, he favoured more state investment and social programmes, adopted a more independent stance to Washington and a less hostile attitude to communist parties.

His early years shaped his convictions. He was educated at the San Ignacio Jesuit college in Caracas, and was immersed in Catholic youth politics at the city's Central University, from where he graduated in 1939 with a doctorate cum laude on labour law. He travelled to Europe, where he was strongly influenced by the examples of Alcide de Gasperi in Italy and Konrad Adenauer in West Germany. He was a deputy for his home state of Yaracuy from 1941-44, attorney general from 1945-46 and then a deputy again in 1946, representing the newly-founded COPEI party.

At the age of 31 he stood for the first time as a presidential candidate in the 1947 elections, coming second to the social democrat AD (Democratic Action) party, which was COPEI's great rival for most of Caldera's life. He suffered a brief imprisonment in 1957 during the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952-57), before having to go into exile.

In 1958 he was one of the main signatories to a deal which shaped Venezuelan politics for the next 35 years. COPEI and the AD were two of the three parties to put their names to what was known as the Punto Fijo agreement (named after Caldera's residence in Caracas) designed to guarantee democratic stability in Venezuela. Under the deal, the parties agreed to respect the electoral result, share out government positions and reduce political competition to a minimum. So even though Caldera came a poor third in the 1958 elections, COPEI enjoyed cabinet representation in the new AD government.

Caldera finally won the 1968 election, at his fourth attempt. He oversaw the pacification of the country by calling on the armed left to lay down their arms and pursue their ideology by peaceful means. He also established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and legalised the communist party. Such moves split the guerrilla movement, and armed clashes soon died out. Indeed, two prominent former guerrillas later served as ministers during his second term of office.

The bi-party system endured until 1994. The billions of dollars flowing from the country's oil reserves (the largest in the Western hemisphere) ensured that the Venezuelan state, unlike the rest of Latin America, had enough resources to finance imports, a huge public sector, a spoils system for the political elite and a sizeable middle class which often looked more to US-style comforts than political activism.

Even though Caldera was one of the main architects of the system, he was one of the first to realise its weakness. So much oil (by some estimates, in the decade after the 1973 oil price rise Venezuela received $240bn, or five times the Marshall Plan) had led not just to dependence but widespread corruption and growing resentment from the popular sectors left off the gravy train. A coup attempt in 1992, led by the current president Hugo Chávez, failed but had the tacit support of many poor Venezuelans. Caldera caught the popular mood and made a powerful speech before Congress lambasting the neo-liberal model of the corrupt outgoing president, Carlos Andrés Pérez.

That speech was a major factor behind his winning by a whisker the 1993 election. He was adroit enough to distance himself from the traditional parties by turning his back on COPEI and standing as an independent candidate for the Convergencia, one of 17 coalition parties. His own assessment was that he returned to politics at the age of 79 "in order to save a democracy threatened by corruption".

Caldera certainly inherited a country gripped by economic and political uncertainty, but his second term was marked by vacillation. Petrified by the prospect of a repeat of the Caracazo (a social explosion in 1989 which left at least 300 dead) if he imposed an austerity plan, Caldera spent the first two years following dirigiste economic policies, including the state control of a substantial part of the banking system, foreign exchange controls and the suspension of some constitutional rights. Such measures failed to curb inflation, recession and growing unemployment. The inevitable IMF-backed package ensued in April 1996. An exhausted nation largely accepted it but voted overwhelmingly for a radical change two years later when they chose the populist and former coup leader, Hugo Chávez.

Caldera was a consummate politician, at times haughty, and by repute more honest than most (although his son, Andrés, was forced to leave his last government because of obscure financial dealings). He was a man of learning: multilingual, an accomplished essayist and an expert on the Venezuelan writer and polymath, Andrés Bello. Such intellectual gravitas and personal probity ensured that he received, and accepted, the presidencies of several prestigious international organisations such as the International Christian Democrat Union (1967-68).

James Painter



Rafael Antonio Caldera Rodríguez, politician: born San Felipe, Yaracuy, Venezuela 24 January 1916: President of Venezuela, 1969-74, 1994-99; married Alicia Pietri Montemayor (three sons, three daughters); died 24 December 2009.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

Technical Project Manager - Software and Infrastructure - Government Experience

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Central Lon...

Head of Technology

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Head of Technology needed for a Outsta...

Maths teachers needed in Cromer

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teachers requir...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits