Childhood & Early Life
Rafael Antonio Caldera Rodríguez was born on January 24, 1916, in San Felipe, Yaracuy, Venezuela, to Rafael Caldera Izaguirre and Rosa Sofía Rodríguez Rivero. He was raised by his maternal aunt and uncle.
Rafael Caldera attended a primary school in San Felipe and later joined the Jesuit-run Catholic school 'San Ignacio de Loyola' in Caracas. He studied there until he turned 15. He then attended the 'Central University of Venezuela' to study law.
He was 19 when he published his first book, ‘Andres Bello,' which was a thorough analysis of the life and works of the great Venezuelan–Chilean humanist, diplomat, poet, legislator, philosopher, educator, and philologist Andrés Bello. The book was widely appreciated and honored by the 'Venezuelan National Academy of Language’ in 1935.
Rafael Caldera graduated with a degree in political science and law. In 1939, he defended his thesis, 'Derecho del Trabajo,' which law schools in Latin America later adopted as a standard textbook for labor rights.
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Caldera’s articles on labor issues caught the attention of the erstwhile Venezuelan president, López Contreras, and he hired him as the deputy director of the newly established 'National Labor Office.'
In this capacity, Rafael Caldera took a significant step and drafted Venezuela’s first “Labor Law” (reformed in 1990). He became Venezuela’s first 'International Labor Organisation' correspondent.
In collaboration with international lawyer Wilfred Jenks, who had drafted the 'Declaration of Philadelphia,' Caldera continued to work on labor rights.
While studying law, Caldera actively participated in student politics and was a member of the 'Venezuelan Federation of Students' (FEV).
Despite being one of the youngest ‘FEV’ members, he dared to oppose the leaders of the group when they demanded anticlerical reforms to dismiss the Jesuits and other religious orders from the country. He hence quit ‘FEV.’
A staunch Catholic, Caldera organized Catholic civic groups and established the 'National Student Union' (UNE) in 1936, which eventually took the shape of the Venezuelan 'Christian Democratic' movement.
For 2 years from 1936, he served the 'Ministry of Labor' and simultaneously published a comprehensive review of the nation’s labor laws.
Following his university graduation, Rafael Caldera initiated the political movement called 'National Action' to participate in municipal elections. In January 1941, he was elected to the 'Chamber of Deputies' in Yaracuy.
He vehemently opposed the bill to pass the 1941 boundary treaty with Colombia. He debated the partial reformation of the 1936 constitution and revisions to the 'Civil Code.'
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He was instrumental in the introduction of progressive labor laws.
From 1943 to 1968, Rafael Caldera was a full-time law professor of labor law and juridical sociology at the 'Central University of Venezuela' and the 'Andrés Bello Catholic University' in Caracas.
On October 27, 1945, he was named the solicitor general. He co-founded the 'Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente' (‘COPEI,’ or the ''Independent Political Electoral Organization Committee'') on January 13, 1946.
The ‘COPEI,’ or the 'Christian Democratic Party,' eventually became one of Venezuela’s two largest mass political parties, which were viewed as the pro-capitalist alternatives to social democracy and communism.
However, Caldera was inclined more toward the 'Social Christian' tradition, favored state investment and social programs, and was less hostile toward communist parties.
On April 13, 1946, to protest against the government’s gruesome attacks on his party members, he resigned as the solicitor general.
That year, he was named a 'National Constituent Assembly' representative. On December 17, 1946, a legislative body was installed to draft a new constitution based on the principles of the 'October Revolution.'
Caldera lost the 1947 presidential run to Rómulo Gallegos of the 'Democratic Action Party.' He then represented the 'Congress' in the run and was re-elected to the 'Chamber of Deputies' (1948–1953).
His term was interrupted when military officers ousted Gallegos on November 24, 1948. Following this, military dictatorship was enforced in Venezuela for the subsequent 10 years.
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In 1952, Caldera was again nominated as the 'National Constituent Assembly' candidate. He, however, refused to participate, as the 'Military Junta' head, Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez, had expelled Jóvito Villalba, the founder of the ‘URD’ party (the 'Democratic-Republican Union') and did not recognize the electoral achievement of the party.
Along with Caldera, his other elected ‘COPEI’ party members also refused to participate in the new 'Constituent Assembly.'
Under Jiménez’s military dictatorship, Caldera was barred from the 'Central University of Venezuela.' Jiménez’s officers banned his political activities and got him arrested several times. He came under Jiménez’s surveillance.
In 1953, Caldera became an elected member of the 'Venezuelan National Academy of Political and Social Sciences.'
Jiménez came to know about Caldera’s confirmed participation in the December 1957 presidential election, representing all the opposition parties. He thus got him arrested and imprisoned on August 20, 1957.
In an attempt to remain in power, Jiménez exiled Caldera in January 1958.
Caldera was in New York City when the civil revolt and military coup to oust Jiménez broke out on January 23 1958.
Upon his return, the leaders of two of Venezuela's leading political parties of the time, the 'Acción Democrática' (AD) and the 'Unión Republicana Democrática' (URD), along with the ‘COPEI,’ signed the 'Puntofijo Pact,' accepting the 1958 presidential elections and ensuring democratic stability in Venezuela.
Even though Caldera lost the 1958 elections, the ‘COPEI’ party still represented the cabinet in the new ‘AD’ government.
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He lost the 1963 presidential run, but his party helped to consolidate democracy in Venezuela. He controlled the 'Chamber of Deputies' between 1959 and 1961.
Caldera finally won the December 1968 presidential run.
As the President
In his campaigns, Caldera had promised to introduce reforms in the agricultural sector, improve the economy, and build 100,000 homes in a year. His party, however, could not keep the promise, as the ‘COPEI’ did not have a majority in the legislature and because Venezuela lacked the required resources back then.
To compensate for this, he shifted his focus and decided to gradually reform the 'Democratic Action' party’s socio-economic schemes.
His major achievement, however, was to strengthen political democracy in Venezuela. He restored political association and established diplomatic relations with the Soviet, Cuban, and Latin American (Argentina, Panama, and Peru) military dictatorships.
He forgave leftist revolutionaries and allowed them peaceful political entry. He lifted the ban on the 'Communist Party.' The party had been outlawed since 1962. These decisions bought political and social peace in Venezuela.
Caldera raised oil profit taxes (to 70%) in 1971 and decreed strict regulating laws on the U.S. oil companies operating in Venezuela. He nationalized the gas and oil industry.
In 1960, the 'Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' (OPEC) was established in collaboration with the Middle Eastern nations.
In 1967, he was voted to the 'Venezuelan National Academy of Language.'
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He prioritized the schemes for education and infrastructure. As a result, the number of educational institutions, public secondary schools, state university colleges, and institutes of technology increased.
By the time Caldera’s presidential reign ended in 1974, his oil industry reforms had improved the lives of many Venezuelans.
According to the 1961 constitution, which was designed by him, Caldera, then a former president, became a Venezuelan senator for life. Moreover, he served as the president of the 'Inter-Parliamentary Union' (1979 to 1982) and the 'World Congress of Agrarian Reform and Rural Development' (elected in 1979).
In 1980, he headed the 'International Committee' and established the 'University for Peace.'
Caldera knew the loopholes of his bi-system. His reformations in the oil industry led to corruption and a rise in oil prices.
Around that time, Caldera focused on his literary pursuits.
‘The Hebrew University of Jerusalem,' the 'University of Notre Dame’ in Indiana, the 'University of Perugia’ (Italy), and many such universities have honored Caldera with doctorates, degrees, and professorships.
Caldera was badly defeated by Jaime Lusinchi of 'Democratic Action' in the 1983 presidential run. Though Venezuelans venerated Caldera, the party lost only due to the social and economic problems that had risen under the rule of the 'Christian Democrats' since 1978.
In June 1989, Caldera became the president of the 'Bicameral Congress Commission for the Reform of the Constitution.' Previously, in February, in the wake of the Caracas riots, 'Caracazo,' Caldera had delivered one of his most bold and controversial speeches.
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The Second Presidential Term
On February 4, 1992, after the failed Venezuelan coup attempts by Hugo Chávez, under his 'Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200,' Caldera made a powerful speech, criticizing the neo-liberal and corrupt government of the then-president, Carlos Andrés Pérez.
That speech was highly applauded and became a major factor behind his narrow victory in the 1993 election as an independent candidate, backed by the newly established 'National Convergence' party. In his words, he had returned to politics at the age of 79 "to save a democracy threatened by corruption."
Caldera’s second term was marred by economic and political adversities. He could have imposed an austerity plan to control the situation, but he knew the prospect of another 'Caracazo.'
Hence, in the first 2 years, he implemented dirigisme economic policies, but his strategy failed to control inflation, recession, and the growing unemployment rate.
The fiscal deficit led to the creation of 'SENIAT,' a tax-collection agency. In 1996, Caldera implemented the 'Agenda Venezuela' economic plan, following the guidelines of the 'International Monetary Fund' that approved a 12-month stand-by credit to support the government's 1996–1997 economic program.
In 1997, the GDP was more than 5% and the inflation rate was reduced by half. However, the 1997 Asian financial crisis lowered the oil prices to such an extent that the government had to undergo massive cost-cutting.
In 1994, Caldera released Chávez, who had been imprisoned for the failed 1992 coup attempt. Ironically, the pardon led him to defeat Caldera in the presidential elections of 1998.
Though the country favored Caldera and his policies, it wanted a radical change and voted for Chávez.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Caldera was married to Alicia Pietri Montemayor, the founder of the 'Children's Museum of Caracas.' They had six children: Mireya, Rafael Tomás, Juan José, Alicia Helena, Cecilia, and Andrés.
He died on December 24, 2009, in Caracas.