A New Light Over the Shadows of the Betancourt Administration

After Tiempos de dictadura and CAP: 2 intentos, Carlos Oteyza premiered the new documentary Rómulo resiste, about the challenges, achievements and conflicts of the first term of Venezuelan democracy

The official visit by JFK and Jackie is one of the subjects revised in the documentary

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We live in an era when politicians in several countries are abandoning their careers because they can’t stand more hate mail and social media harassment, and when the Maduro regime calls economic sanctions a “blockade” as if an Armada were besieging the port of La Guaira. So there’s a good chance that the young viewers of the new documentary film by Carlos Oteyza will be surprised when they see how President Rómulo Betancourt went to Miraflores Palace to broadcast a live message with his hands burned, a few hours after the presidential vehicle exploded in 1960. 

That day, Betancourt was the victim of an attempted murder ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who wanted revenge after Betancourt led the Latin American pressure against Trujillo’s brutal regime. The documentary shows how this happened, and not only the images, but also the context. While a right-wing autocrat like Trujillo wanted the Venezuelan president killed, a left-wing autocrat like Fidel Castro insulted him every time he could and supported a communist guerrilla to topple him. During his five-year term from 1959 to 1964, Betancourt also had to abort two military conspiracies trying to restore the dictatorship that had fallen in January 1958, plus a Navy uprising in Carúpano, another one in Puerto Cabello that left about a hundred dead, and the urban guerrillas of the armed far-left. The walls read “Rómulo must quit,” but not only did he refuse to quit, he managed to finish his term, handed the presidency through elections to Raúl Leoni, and led an administration where thousands of schools were built and the OPEC was created, after which Betancourt fulfilled his promise of not running for president again.

However, Rómulo resiste isn’t a Betancourist pamphlet and the movie will be screening starting  October 14th in cinemas in Venezuela and it’s available to stream on Ticketplate and Goliiive.  

“I had this idea for years,” says director Carlos Oteyza, “but it took shape around three years ago, when I chose to add my personal perspective and restrained the scope only to that Betancourt administration because my first approach was to tell the story of the Betancourt, Leoni and Caldera terms. It rounded up to focus on Betancourt’s, which was better to tell so many things that happened during those five years.” 

In this movie, Oteyza went back to the formula of combining well-chosen interviewees with valuable archive material and a parallel storyline where he remembers, through the narration of actor Sócrates Serrano, how Betancourt looked from his childhood home at Urbanización San Marino in Caracas: like a red menace.

This is a very interesting resource because it adds an intimate dimension to the tale of big historical processes, giving us a glance into the comfortable life of the Oteyzas in that prosperous Venezuela that was, at the same time, a nice and terrifying place to live in. 

Oteyza hired the Caracas and Los Angeles-based studio Titan Post to turn a storyboard drawn by Ana Black into an animated storyline, enriched with his family’s photo album, just like in Tiempos de dictadura he used this kind of animation to create an audiovisual narrative of the Resistance against the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship. 

As one should expect from a Carlos Oteyza documentary, Rómulo resiste abounds in archive gems. It contains footage many of us had never seen, coming from private collections or the Biblioteca Nacional, the Academia Nacional de la Historia and foreign archives like the JFK Library in Boston. All this is essential to refresh the memory of those who lived those years—my mother told me many times about the nights of fear in Caracas or the morning they found a dead man on their doorstep—and to make those who hadn’t been born at the time, see the intensity of the changes in that country that was learning the meaning of democracy in the hardest way possible. 

The images are fantastic but there’s a particular value in the complexity of the testimonies rendered in Rómulo resiste. You can hear researchers from several generations and people who were part of the armed left, Social-Chistian Copei party or Betancourt’s Social-Democratic AD, so the perspective is quite rich. Chavismo isn’t there, but during twenty years of propaganda we all know the chavista narrative about Betancourt and the whole of the democratic period: killers, genocides, thieves, with no nuances. 

One can learn many things crossing the film’s testimonies. For my generation, raised under democracy believing that Betancourt’s presidency was practically unavoidable, it can be surprising to see that he had a hard time winning over his democratic competitor, the interim president Wolfgang Larrazábal, and that he had many critics even within AD. “The year of 1958 is worthy of its own movie,” Oteyza says. “Among the things that happened was that a unitary democratic candidacy was considered, under what was called the Spirit of 23 de Enero (after the date when dictator Pérez Jiménez was toppled). But Rómulo didn’t like the idea and had to struggle to be the candidate for his own party. AD Youth didn’t want him, and during the elections he lost in Caracas. Betancourt won thanks to the votes in the rest of the country, where he had left a mark during the 1946-1948 administration. Caracas was still very perezjimenista.” 

Betancourt had to prove he wouldn’t make the same mistakes of 1946-1948, when he eroded his political base by being sectarian. This is why he signed, before the 1958 elections, the Puntofijo Pact with Rafael Caldera and Jóvito Villalba, according to which the three main parties would follow a common agenda to consolidate democracy. The movie is meticulous at painting the picture of the complicated context against Betancourt when he rose to power. We can see then that there were people who distrusted him because of his communist past and his performance in the Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno. There was a left wing in AD and, of course, in the Communist Party that hated Betancourt because he refused to subordinate to the then triumphant Fidel Castro. There was a part of the Armed Forces conspiring to restore the privileges they lost with the fall of Pérez Jiménez. And there were conservatives who feared Betancourt’s reforms but, in contrast with many others, had no doubts in defending democracy when it was needed. 

Betancourt’s was really a government absorbed by the effort of hanging on, but contrary to the current dictatorship in Venezuela, they were governing as well, and worked to produce both equity and wealth.

“A good part of the Left created the belief that they were the victims of a violent government,” says Oteyza, whose documentary acknowledges the repression exerted by the Betancourt administration. “This film shows the vision that Betancourt’s was the elected, legit government, and that violence was against it.” 

Rómulo resiste was written by Oteyza and Lorena González Di Totto. José Ignacio Oteyza, Daniela Nieves and Verónica Cañas are the executive producers. Yoselin Fagúndez is the producer and assistant director. The cinematography is by Gustavo Poleo and music by Álvaro Cordero. The movie was edited by Charles Ocando and mixed by Iván Gozón.