The Novelist Who Ruled Venezuela

In Venezuela, there have been politicians who have also been writers, but there’s only one case of a president who was a writer more than anything else, and his name was Rómulo Gallegos. He died this day, in 1969.

Photo: Televen retrieved

The life of the only writer who ruled Venezuela was never easy. Born in August 2nd, 1884, in Caracas, Rómulo Gallegos was one of six children by Rómulo Gallegos Osío and Rita Freire Guruceaga, a couple of meager resources. Rómulo was the eldest, admitted in the Seminar of Caracas at 10 years old, determined to become a priest for life, but he remained there for only 24 months: in 1896, his mother died and Rómulo returned home to help his father raise his siblings. To pay for high school, he worked as an elementary school teacher in Colegio Sucre, and thus he obtained his high school diploma, the only degree he attained in his life, since financial issues prevented him from continuing studying Law at the Central University of Venezuela beyond the second year.

The three main facets of Gallegos’s life, teacher, writer and public figure, developed almost simultaneously.

Gallegos was a man-bridge between the generation that had its greatest hour under Gómez, and those meant to modernize Venezuela, our famous “Generation of 1928”. Practically all of its members studied in Liceo Caracas, where Gallegos was deputy principal and taught psychology. They loved and respected Gallegos, turning him into their emblem of vigor, dignity, commitment and, above all, modern social conscience. They admired him so much that they invited him to become founding president of Acción Democrática (1941) and later propped him up towards the Presidency of the Republic in the first democratic, universal, direct and secret elections in 1947. He’d be removed from power and exiled by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez and his comrades, in November 1948.

The praise for Gallegos also came for his work as a writer. Although as a young man, Gallegos started writing essays of modern patriotic urgency in the magazine of the group he founded, La Alborada, in later years he reached the apex of his creation in novels. When Doña Bárbara was published in 1929, Gallegos was 45 years old and had already published a book of stories, Los aventureros (1913) and two novels: El último solar (1920), whose title changed in a second edition in 1930 to Reinaldo Solar, and La trepadora (1925).

When he published his masterpiece, Gallegos was full of doubts about his literary work. Rumor has it that he almost threw Doña Bárbara’s manuscript in the sea from the ship that was carrying him to Spain, but his inseparable wife Teotiste prevented it. Once he returned from Europe in 1930, he was completely changed, for he had tasted the sweetness of literary triumph, and the teacher gave way to the writer. Although he never again taught in schools, he continued doing so on other platforms.

Years ago, my friend Simón Alberto Consalvi told me that in 1967, when the Rómulo Gallegos International Award for Novelists (created by Consalvi himself during Raúl Leoni’s government) was presented for the first time, the maestro attended the event as Mario Vargas Llosa received the award for his work La casa verde. Back then, Gallegos’s memory was already failing, and he asked Consalvi why wasn’t he receiving the award. A year and a half later, on April 5th, 1969, he died in Caracas at 84 years old.