As a young man he was expelled from Venezuela for radical agitation and moved to Costa Rica where he founded, and led, a number of radical and Communist student groups. In the early 1930s, while in Costa Rica, he became at the young age of 22, the leader of that country's Communist Party. In 1937, after resigning from the Communist Party and returning to Venezuela, he founded the Partido Democrático Nacional, which became an official political party in 1941 as Acción Democrática (AD). The Colombian leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán claimed Betancourt had "offered him arms and money to launch a revolution in Colombia" which was part of Betancourt's alleged plan to build a solid phalanx of left-wing regimes in the Caribbean. It was alleged by Azula Barrera and Colombian President Mariano Ospina Pérez that Betancourt had supported the armed rising at the 1948 Inter-American Conference that left more than a thousand people dead, among these the political assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Which started a new volatile political period in neighboring Colombia some claim continues to this day with FARC.
He became president in 1945 by means of a military coup d'état and, during his time in office, completed an impressive agenda. His accomplishments included the declaration of universal suffrage, the institution of social reforms, and securing half of the profits generated by oil companies for Venezuela. His government worked closely with the International Refugee Organization to aid European refugees and displaced persons who could not or would not return home after World War II; his government assumed responsibility for the legal protection and resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees inside Venezuela. The refugee initiative was the subject of great controversies within his government with the winning side being led by Betancourt's secretary of Agriculture, Eduardo Mendoza Goiticoa.
In 1941, before AD's entry into policymaking, Venezuela received 85,279,158 bolívars from oil taxes, out of a total oil value of 691,093,935 bolivars. Before Betancourt's changes in the taxing system, the state of Venezuela was making only a fraction of what the foreign oil companies were making in profit. One of Betancourt's main objectives was to see the nationalization of the country's oil industry. Mexico had done so in 1938, because its economy was more diversified than Venezuela's, there was little to no backlash. Though oil nationalization became one of AD's main objectives, the economy was not stable enough to handle potential boycotts by big oil companies.
Rationalizing the complications of nationalization at the time, Betancourt's government raised taxes instead on oil production accomplishing the same goal: Venezuela's oil riches to benefit Venezuelans. In the late 1940s Venezuela was producing close to 500,000,000 barrels annually and as production climbed, the tax followed. At the time Venezuela was the top oil supplier for the Allies during the wars occurring in the European continent. Betancourt understood his nation's important historical role, and used it to its advantage. Germany then lacked reliable access to oil limiting troop movements, some historians identify this vulnerability as a deciding factor in Hitler's defeat.
According to Betancourt, the spike in taxes was just as effective as nationalizing as the profits from tax, "Tax income was increased from then to such a degree that nationalization was unnecessary to obtain maximum economic benefits for the people of the country". Oil companies were forced to cede to the demands of labor unions and were no longer entitled to make larger profits than the Venezuelan government. Betancourt's government generally had full support of the labor unions as the administration openly encouraged workers to organize and in 1946, 500 unions were created. Other notable achievement of the first Betancourt administration include the termination of the concession policy, the initial development of refineries within Venezuela, and a tremendous improvement in worker conditions and pay. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo served as Minister of Development in Betancourt's first term.
During the second term, Alfonso served as Betancourt's Minister of Mines and Petroleum and in 1960, through his initiative, OPEC was founded in Baghdad, Iraq. Triggered by a 1960 law instituted by American President Dwight Eisenhower that forced quotas for Venezuelan oil and favored Canada and Mexico's oil industries. Eisenhower cited national security, land access to energy supplies, at times of war. Betancourt reacted seeking an alliance with oil producing Arab nations as a pre-emptive strategy to protect the continuous autonomy and profitability of Venezuela's oil, thus establishing a strong link between the South American nation and the Middle East region that survives to this day.
In 1948, Marcos Pérez Jiménez overthrew the elected president Rómulo Gallegos, and forced Betancourt into exile in New York City. In exile he planned a political return sustained on democratic principles and open elections legitimizing his national leadership role. His forward vision and strategy was successful and Betancourt was elected president by his own people upon returning to Venezuela. He had been determined to expose to the world the political problems and dictatorships that plagued the country through most of its modern history - a risky proposition.
"Betancourt's third, and longest, period of exile was a time of enormous frustration. In the prime of his life --for roughly the decade of his forties-- he was forced into relative inactivity and obscurity. He traveled extensively, living in Cuba, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico, and remained a leader of an opposition-in-exile to the Perez Jimenez dictatorship. And of course wrote 'Venezuela: Oil and Politics'. A beach home outside of San Juan (Puerto Rico) provided a quiet refuge for this work," wrote Franklin Tugwell in his Introduction to the 1978 English publication of Betancourt's book.
"The preparation of this book has been as hectic as the life of the author. I wrote it first between the years 1937-39 while I was underground hiding from the police. It could not be published then because no Venezuelan publisher would dare risk printing a book written by one who was in such compromising position...The only typewritten copy was among my personal papers and it disappeared with them when a military patrol plundered the house I was living in when the constitutional government was overthrown on November 24, 1948. Thus most of the material from the first draft was lost.
"I believe that 'the dead command,' although not in the sense that reactionaries have traditionally given the phrase. When they die they give the command for an ideal of human excellence, obliging those who survive to finish their work," wrote Romulo Betancourt in the Prologue to the first edition of "Venezuela: Oil and Politics".
The book published in Mexico City by Editorial Fondo de Cultura Economica in 1956 was prohibited from circulating in Venezuela. Effectively censored; yet Betancourt persisted.
A decade later, after Pérez Jiménez was ousted, Betancourt was elected president. Having inherited an empty treasury and enormous foreign debts from the spendthrift Pérez, Betancourt nevertheless managed to return the state to fiscal solvency despite the rock-bottom petroleum prices throughout his presidency.
In 1960 two important institutions were created by Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, Betancourt's minister of energy: the Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation (Corporación Venezolana de Petróleos — CVP), conceived to oversee the national petroleum industry, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the international oil cartel that Venezuela established in partnership with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. Considered a radical revolutionary idea at the time by its opponents, but essential to Venezuela's independence and fiscal solvency by a visionary nationalistic Betancourt.
At an annual oil convention in Cairo, Venezuela's envoy, fluent in Arabic, convinced oil producing Middle Eastern countries to sign a secret agreement that promoted unity and control of their own national oil resources; under the noses of the British and American corporations that dominated the oil industry globally and had funded the event. Planting the seed for OPEC.
After numerous attacks, he finally arrested the MIR and Communist members of Congress. It became clear that a leftist Fidel Castro had been arming the rebels, so Venezuela protested to the Organization of American States (OAS). Yet it would not be the last time Caribbean military dictators tried to undo Betancourt's civilian government using violence and guerrilla tactics on his own soil, perhaps envious of Venezuela's oil prosperity in contrast to their island's prevalent poverty.
Photos of a wounded but living Betancourt were distributed around the world as proof he survived the assassination attempt that killed the head of security, and severely injured his driver. An incendiary device was detonated as his car drove by one of Caracas' main avenues. With both burned hands wrapped in bandages, Rómulo Betancourt walked out of the hospital, in front of a sea of photographers, looking more like a professional boxer ready to face his rivals; a victor survivor willing to fight. The incident elevated him in the eyes of the public opinion, and helped to destroy one his most ferocious Caribbean enemies.
He was the first democratically-elected president to serve his full term, and was succeeded by Raúl Leoni. It was Romulo Betancourt who established a democratic precedent for the nation that had been ruled by dictatorships for most of its history.
It was during the tense Cuban Missile Crisis, between the United States and Cuba, the relationship between President Kennedy and President Betancourt became closer than ever. Establishing a direct phone link between the White House and Miraflores (Presidential Palace) since the Venezuelan president had ample experience on dealing, defeating and surviving, machinations of Caribbean-based dictators against democratic regimes. The USSR was flexing its muscle in the Caribbean using Castro's Cuba as its regional proxy creating a direct security threat both to Venezuela and the United States of America.
These conversations between both presidents were translated by Betancourt's only child, Virginia Betancourt-Valverde, who served as interpreter and confidant to her father.
Later president Rafael Caldera rejected the doctrine, which he thought had served to isolate Venezuela in the world. A thesis that continues to be debated among academics and intellectuals who see in Betancourt not an isolationist but a courageous defender of democratic principles in the midst of adversity and ferreous enemies.
His last days were dedicated to writing and to his wife Dr. Renee Hartmann. He died on September 28, 1981 in Doctors Hospital in New York City. On his death US President Ronald Reagan made the following statement:
I speak for all Americans in expressing our heartfelt sadness at the death of Romulo Betancourt. While he was first and foremost a Venezuelan patriot, Romulo Betancourt was an especially close friend of the United States. During the 1950s he considered the United States a refuge while he was in exile, and we were proud to receive him. We are honored that this courageous man whose life was dedicated to the principles of liberty and justice — a man who fought dictatorships of the right and the left — spent his final days on our shores. We join the Venezuelan people and those who love freedom around the world in mourning his death.