Carlos Andrés Pérez

Carlos Andrés Pérez (born 1922) served as president of Venezuela and oversaw the nationalization of his country's oil industry. In May 1993 he was impeached on allegations of embezzlement and misuse of public funds. After more than two years of house arrest, Pérez was released in September 1996.

Carlos Andrés Pérez, the son of Antonio and Julia Pérez, was born in 1922 in the Andean town of Rubio in the western state of Táchira, Venezuela. His father, a member of the rural middle class, owned both a pharmacy and a small coffee hacienda. Even as a youth Pérez was devoted to politics. He headed student organizations and in 1935 joined in political demonstrations in Rubio which followed the death of Venezuela's long-time dictator, Juan Vicente Gómez (1909-1935). In 1939 his family moved to Caracas, where he completed his secondary education at the Liceo Andrés Bello. He then studied law at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.

In Caracas Pérez met the man who would become his political mentor, Rómulo Betancourt. He joined Betancourt's Acción Democrática (Democratic Action Party) and worked as a youth leader and organizer for the party. Acción Democrática's goal was to bring both democracy and social reform to Venezuela. In 1945 a coalition of Acción Democrática activists and junior military officers overthrew the government of General Isaías Medina Angarita. Betancourt headed the revolutionary junta and chose Pérez as his personal secretary. But Acción Democrática rule lasted only three years. In late 1948 military officers overthrew the government. Ten years of military dictatorship, principally under Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez, followed.

Between 1948 and 1958 Pérez spent time both in Venezuelan prisons and in exile in various Latin American countries. He and other Acción Democrática leaders returned to Venezuela in 1958 following the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez. With the election of Betancourt as president in late 1958, Venezuela was set on the course of political democracy. For the next 15 years Pérez served in a variety of governmental, legislative, and party posts. Most notably, he directed the Ministry of Interior between 1962 and 1963, using that office to suppress left-wing radicals who challenged the Betancourt government.

With crucial support from Betancourt, Pérez secured his party's nomination for president in 1973. An outgoing, energetic man, he conducted a vigorous campaign. Drawing on campaign tactics popular in the United States, Pérez, known popularly as "Cap, " brought his "democracy with energy" theme to the people by walking more than 3, 000 miles during his campaign. His efforts won him 49 percent of the vote, a broad mandate in a multicandidate election.

President Carlos Andrés Pérez assumed office in 1974 in what seemed a fortuitous time for Venezuela. The nation was a leading producer of oil, and the price had increased from $2 a barrel in 1970 to $14 in 1974, in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the global energy shortage. Venezuela presumably would now have the income to diversify its economy, create a modern industrial state, and uplift the conditions of the poor. President Pérez immediately announced that Venezuela would use its new power to nationalize the oil industry. Venezuela paid the American and British-Dutch oil companies, which had operated in Venezuela since the 1920s, approximately $1 billion for their properties, and on January 1, 1976, took control of the industry.

Pérez also moved aggressively on other fronts. With overwhelming majorities in Congress, he ruled by decree and launched a series of ambitious industrial development plans. Major projects included a petrochemicals complex, an integrated steel industry, shipworks, and a subway system for Caracas. In addition, Pérez boldly pushed Venezuela into the forefront of international politics, as he lectured the industrial nations on their duty to aid the poor nations of the world.

Pérez probably pushed Venezuela too fast and too far. Oil revenues were not inexhaustible; Venezuela incurred massive international debts for financing development projects. The country was also short of managerial talent. Reports of gross administrative inefficiency, waste, and even corruption rocked the Pérez government. Moreover, these long-term development projects did not address the pressing concerns of Venezuela's poor. By the end of his term, Pérez was highly unpopular. Even his erstwhile ally, Rómulo Betancourt, denounced him. His party lost the presidency in the 1978 election. Yet his successor, the Christian Democrat Luis Herrera Campíns (1979-1984), proved even less successful at managing Venezuela's oil bonanza.

In 1988 Pérez again campaigned for presidential election and won by a wide margin against Eduardo Fernández. He began his second term in office on February 2, 1989 and celebrated with a lavish inaugural party. This term, however, proved to be more tumultuous than the previous one. In 1992 he managed to suppress two attempted military coups. The first uprising was by the army, occurring in February of that year; the second was by the Air Force in November. The brutal coup attempts stalled economic programs and rocked Venezuela's political structures. Then, in May 1993 Pérez was impeached for allegations of misuse of public funds and embezzlement. Pérez and two aides were accused of having diverted public funds to pay for his 1988 election campaign and the ensuing extravagant inaugural celebration. He was also accused of improperly spending 250 million bolivars (US $17 million) of national security money on a 1990 foreign policy initiative, by sending Venezuelan police to provide personal protection for Nicaraguan president, Violeta Chamorro. Pérez was subsequently expelled from Acción Democrática. In May 1994, too old to be imprisoned, he was placed under house arrest to await the outcome of his trial.

In May 1996 the Venezuelan Supreme Court found Pérez guilty of misusing public funds, but acquitted him of the more serious embezzlement charge. He was sentenced to two years and four months of house arrest. Taking into account the time served after his impeachment in 1993, Pérez was released on September 19, 1996. He was stripped of his title as honorary senator, a position given to all former presidents. Although the Venezuelan constitution prohibits those sentenced to less than three years from being barred from office, Pérez missed the cutoff by eight months. A newly freed man, and still supported by grassroots Acción Democrática members, Pérez proclaimed that he intended to run for Venezuela's senate in 1998 in his home state of Táchira and restore his reputation.

Further Reading on Carlos Andrés Pérez

There is no complete biography of Pérez in English. For background and information see David Eugene Blank, Venezuela: Politics in a Petroleum Republic (1984) and Judith Ewell, Venezuela: A Century of Change (1984). For Venezuela's relations with the foreign oil industry see Stephen G. Rabe, The Road to OPEC: United States Relations with Venezuela, 1919-1976 (1982).

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