Photo: retrieved

Rómulo Betancourt died at 73 years old; an age that would be below today’s Venezuelan life expectancy but, at the time, life expectancy was 68 years, so he was above the average. The story of his death is vividly rendered by his widow, Renée Hartmann de Betancourt, in her book Rómulo y yo (1984). Dr. Hartmann says that they travelled to New York on September 7, 1981, along with Betancourt’s assistant, Raúl Aristeguieta, and their dog Tutú, always close to the former president.

On September 24, Betancourt suffered a domestic accident. He was writing and he’d put a foot inside a bronze trash can. He did it to empty his pipe as many times as needed, but he forgot about it when he got up and tried to walk. Tangled up, Rómulo fell loudly even though he’d grabbed a sofa. He fell on his right side. Later, when Dr. Hartmann took off his slippers to put him to bed, she realized his left foot was in a strange position, which deeply worried her, but she said nothing. Fearing he might have suffered a cerebrovascular accident (which was indeed the case), she called for a doctor. He died four days later, after 4:17 p.m. on September 28, 1981.

Rómulo Betancourt died at 73 years old; an age that would be below today’s Venezuelan life expectancy.

“In my view,” Dr. Hartmann said, “he suffered the brain injury when he fell. I thought, and I still think, that the tremendous emotion of the fall increased his blood pressure, which caused the stroke.”

In other words, he didn’t have a stroke and fell, quite the opposite. In her book, the author details the entire issue of transporting him and the homages he received in Caracas.

Luis Piñerúa Ordaz spoke in Acción Democrática’s headquarters; Gonzalo Barrios and the President of the Republic, Luis Herrera Campins, spoke at the Federal Palace; and Jaime Lusinchi spoke in the Eastern Cemetery. There are 24 kilometers between the Federal Palace and the Eastern Cemetery, which a crowd crossed carrying the coffin, arriving to the cemetery at night and under the rain.

Rómulo Ernesto Betancourt Bello (Guatire, February 22, 1908) was the son of Luis Betancourt García, a Canarian immigrant, and Venezuelan Virginia Bello Milano. He spent his childhood in his hometown and his teenage years in the capital, attending high school in the Liceo Caracas, with Rómulo Gallegos as factotum. From those juvenile years, there’s a specific memory in the book written by his daughter, Virginia Betancourt Valverde, Vida en familia (1890-1958), where the author goes over the years he lived with Carmen Valverde, Betancourt’s first wife.

Thanks to the Caracas’ bourgeoisie being so open and welcoming of talent, Rómulo, a mulatto from Guatire, the son of a poor Canarian immigrant, was a part of that social group.

In that book of pleasant resonances, there’s a phrase that locates the character’s social origin: “Thanks to the Caracas’ bourgeoisie being so open and welcoming of talent, Rómulo, a mulatto from Guatire, the son of a poor Canarian immigrant, was a part of that social group.” What his daughter is talking about is the literary magazine Liceo, chaired by Armando Zuloaga Blanco and Rómulo Betancourt in 1920, two close friends of impossibly disparate origins, who met in the classrooms and became fast friends.

Those two boys never imagined how their lives would be so dissimilar: Zuloaga Blanco died at 24 in Cumaná, in the tragic episode of the Falke invasion, commanded by Román Delgado Chalbaud, 1929, while Betancourt died at 73 with all his dreams fulfilled. One of them was killed by a gunshot, the other fell because he’d put his foot in a trash can. Life is a mystery.

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