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.

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