The news spread on Christmas Day that Carlos Andrés Pérez (aka CAP), the two-time President of Venezuela, had suffered a lethal heart attack at his home in Florida. He was 88 years old, had been exiled from his homeland for over a decade and had been partially disabled since he suffered a stroke in 2003 – he was, in short, a faint shadow of the man he once had been, as faint had become the relevance of his legacy in the country he ruled and helped forge for so many years.
Born in a remote town in the Andes, Pérez moved with his family to the capital, Caracas in 1935. Politically active from a very early age, he was one of the founding members of Acción Democrática, a political party created in 1941, which would be instrumental in the political life of Venezuela for the following sixty years. Among those founding members featured, prominently, Rómulo Betancourt, a senior politician with liberal inclinations who had already fought as a dissident against the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez’ in the late 1920s.
But this was the mid 1940s, and Gómez’ dictatorship was a thing of the past, and the hot topic in the Senate in Venezuela was whether or not universal suffrage should be adopted for the first time in the country. As so often in Venezuela over the past two centuries, the discussion was settled with a coup that saw Rómulo Betancourt assume the provisional presidency until new elections were called. It was October 1945 – a date that would forever be highlighted in Venezuela’s history textbooks as a turning point in the direction of the country’s future. It was, likely, a turning point in Carlos Andrés Pérez’ political career, too, because his friend and mentor, Betancourt, chose him as his right hand and secretary.
Ultimately, Betancourt lost the power struggle he held with General Marcos Pérez Jiménez and the Venezuelan military, and both he and CAP were forced into exile following a new coup in 1948 against the duly elected President of the country, Rómulo Gallegos, who had been backed by Acción Democrática. During the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez (1948-1958) Carlos Andrés Pérez was imprisoned twice, before escaping to Costa Rica, where he remained a vociferous dissident. But the winds of change are prone to blow in Venezuela more often than not, and when a popular uprising forced Pérez Jiménez to flee the country in January 1958, Betancourt and CAP were among the first to return to the scene and take the reins.
From 1945 to 1958 things had changed dramatically, however, and not only in Venezuela. Thus, Betancourt, once seen as a liberal politician, was now repudiated and openly demonized by the Venezuelan left wing. Nevertheless, he came out on top in the 1959 elections and ruled the country until 1964, through one of the obscurest and most violent periods in the history of democracy in Venezuela. As well as strong opposition from the military elite, Betancourt had to face the guerrilla warfare waged by the Communist Party (declared illegal by the ruling parties), supported financially and strategically by Fidel Castro’s Cuba from 1960 onwards.
This is where Carlos Andrés Pérez comes back into the picture, as he was named Minister of Interior in 1960, when the resistance against Betancourt’s government intensified in the country, primarily among students. To this day, half a century later, foes of Carlos Andrés Pérez remember with acute bitterness the draconic posture he endorsed in his fight against the radicals, largely nestled and protected within the premises of the Universidad Central in Caracas. I have never been able to find documented confirmation of this, but, if nothing else, it has become part of the common lore that during the struggle against the guerrilla in Venezuela in the early 1960s, Carlos Andrés Pérez formally declared war on the students and announced, quite ruthlessly, that for every casualty registered by the custodians of public order at least two students would suffer the deadly consequences.
Somehow, however, Betancourt escaped six major attempted coups and an effort to assassinate him, and handed over the government to his fellow Acción Democrática candidate Raúl Leoni in 1964, with the country teetering under the threat of an open civil war. For the following ten years Carlos Andrés Pérez distanced himself from the spot light, simply representing his community in the Andes as a Member of Parliament. But ten years is a long time in Venezuelan politics, and when CAP reemerged as the main candidate of Acción Democrática for the presidential elections of 1973 the guerrilla had been defeated (actually, it defeated itself), the country had been pacified and the steep rise in the price of oil had turned Venezuela into the richest country in South America.
During his first term as President (1974-1979), Venezuela profited greatly from the income and power that its oil industry delivered. Consequently, the country was hotly tipped to become the first emerging nation in South America to become fully industrialized. Alas, CAP’s government never envisioned the volatility of the oil stock, failed to guard itself against future downturns, indebted itself greatly and ultimately was unable to transform the riches that filled the country’s coffers into lasting social or even infrastructural developments. Immigration was rampant and the large cities, notably Caracas, were swarmed with an excess of inhabitants that, through the lack of any urban planning or foresight whatsoever, led to the hostile and unhealthy layout that characterize them to this day. And yet, through the nationalization of the oil industry, the bolstering of the OPEP and a conscious foreign policy that sought to promote the development of Third World countries, Venezuela made its mark, perhaps for the first time, in the world stage, as it were.
The Constitution of Venezuela forced Carlos Andrés Pérez to stay away from the Presidency for ten years after the end of his mandate, during which time he remained active as a Member of Parliament. Then came his campaign for the 1988 elections. You might not be terribly surprised if I tell you that things ten years later were, of course, very different. The oil bubble had burst in 1984 and the inevitable consequences of a long period of irresponsible governance sunk Venezuela into a deep recession. Carlos Andrés Pérez was aware that much needed to be done in order to save the country from the imminent prospect of despondency, and, indeed, his main slogan for the ´88 campaign was manos a la obra (let’s get to work). Nevertheless, it was not the prospect of five years of hard work which led to CAP’s landslide victory in the elections, but rather a nostalgic sense of the feel-good Venezuela of the 1970s that was consciously or unconsciously related to his persona in the electorate.
For his second term as President, Carlos Andrés Pérez surrounded himself with an impressive group of highly capable specialists who devised a tough but coherent economic plan to deliver Venezuela from the grip of a generalized crisis. CAP’s greatest mistake, however, was to assume that the thorough victory he had achieved during the elections gave him the right to adopt any policy without consulting or even informing the public. Just a few months after taking the Presidency, the first steps in his economic plan of recovery gave rise to massive public demonstrations in what is know as the “Caracazo.” Hoards and hoards of people took to the streets in protests that soon got violent and led to looting in the city of Caracas. CAP was as ruthless in his handling of the situation as he had been against the guerrilla in the early 1960s, and while no official numbers were ever released, the toll of two days of public unrest is thought to have stood somewhere between 500 and 1000 deaths in Caracas alone. From that point onwards, Carlos Andrés Pérez faced internal opposition to his government that prevented him from carrying out any of the measures he and his team had devised. Few knew it at the time, but at that point the future of Venezuela was fed to the dogs.
CAP’s controversial second term was ridded with problems. In 1992 he managed to escape a military coup led by Hugo Chávez Frías by the slightest of margins. Later that year a second attempted coup threw the stability of the country up in the air one more time. And shortly thereafter CAP was accused of misappropriation of funds and removed from office. He was kept in house arrest for the duration of the trial, which saw him being sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 1996, by which time he had already served the sentence. In 1998 CAP returned to politics, earning a place in the senate representing his state, but the Chávez Revolution was already underway and he would soon fall victim to it. Following his defeat in new elections in 1999, Carlos Andrés Pérez sought refuge in the Dominican Republic first, and eventually in the Florida, from where he vowed to wage another campaign of dissidence and resistance, like he had done in the 1950s from Costa Rica, this time against Hugo Chávez. But time had taken its toll on CAP, and Chávez was armored with a degree of popularity that Pérez Jiménez never enjoyed, and ultimately Carlos Andrés Pérez lost his final battle.
The era that defined and characterized Carlos Andrés Pérez was over, long before his death this past Christmas Day. Nevertheless, a brief look back into his life and times gives us a clear and somewhat tragic picture of what might have been. Carlos Andrés Pérez was there through the forty years of democratic governance in Venezuela, from the fall of Marcos Pérez Jiménez to the rise of Hugo Chávez; he was there to make the decisions that ultimately mapped the great failure of the Venezuelan project, and he was there again in time to make the corrections that might have saved it (the project). That he was not allowed to do so is an indictment as much on himself as it is on the country, but that he was lucid enough to realize such corrections were needed, and to devise a viable plan that might have worked is a testament to his intellect. CAP was always likeable, charismatic, popular – but he was also capable: capable to do more than he did, when he could, and capable, too, to do more than he was allowed to do when he couldn’t. Like most accomplished South American politicians, perhaps, even, like Hugo Chávez, there were many facets to the complex character of Carlos Andrés Pérez: the good, the bad, and the ugly, all in one.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY JANUARY 17, 2011.