GONZALO BARRIOS was one of the founding fathers of modern Venezuelan democracy. His death at the age of 91 comes at a time when Democratic Action (AD), the social democratic party he helped to form in 1941, is at its lowest ebb: President Carlos Andres Perez, elected on the AD ticket for a second term in 1988, has had to step down pending impeachment on corruption charges, after surviving two military coup attempts last year. Divided and demoralised, the party has little chance of winning December's elections, and its tribulations have helped bring the entire political system into disrepute.
Since the death in 1982 of AD's founder, Romulo Betancourt, Barrios had acted as a symbol of party unity and continuity; he was proclaimed 'president for life' of the party, and remained in close touch with internal matters until a few months before his death. But, ironically, his career also embodied the squabbles that progressively sapped AD's legitimacy. His selection as the party presidential candidate in 1968 lost it the election, as it provoked a left-wing breakaway led by Luis Beltran Prieto Figueroa, a mulatto schoolteacher who felt he had been passed over for the candidacy by the party's white elite. Barrios, the personal choice of the outgoing President Betancourt, was beaten by 30,000 votes by the Christian Democrat candidate, Rafael Caldera.
More recently, Barrios took sides against Carlos Andres Perez, an imperious and charismatic personality who fell out with the party machine. But in his youth Barrios was a heroic figure. As a student leader he fought against the dictatorship of the 'Tyrant of the Andes', Juan Vicente Gomez, who ran Venezuela like a personal fiefdom from 1909 to 1935, and was sent into exile for his pains. Like other future founders of AD he returned from France on the old autocrat's death full of reformist ideas, only to be excluded again in 1948 when the first AD government was overthrown by the military.
AD and Barrios were back in 1958, and the party has governed Venezuela for all but 10 of the years since then. Barrios served as deputy, senator, minister, chairman of Congress and of the party. In his later years he became the guardian of right-of-centre orthodoxy. Optimists feel that his death removes one of the last obstacles to the internal reforms and change of image that the party badly needs to survive. It has already made a start: the AD presidential candidate this year, Claudio Fermin, is black.