Carlos Andrés Pérez

  • Before the recent rise of the Latin left, South American countries were led by men like Carlos Andrés Pérez, who equated good governance with the country's bottom line and international standing. By that metric, Pérez (or CAP, as he was known throughout his political life) was every bit a success during the first of his two tenures as President of Venezuela.

    Entering office in 1974 during the global oil crisis, Pérez, who died Dec. 25 at 88, displayed a pragmatic side in nationalizing the country's formidable petroleum sector to take full advantage of high prices. The era, which came to be known as Venezuela Saudita, enabled Pérez to demonstrate an independent streak on the global stage, as he pushed the U.S. to relinquish control of the Panama Canal and lobbied for an increased profile for OPEC.

    A lifelong democrat, Pérez had gone into exile as a 26-year-old over his opposition to a military dictatorship. And when term limits prevented him from running for office again in 1978, he waited a decade before returning to the presidency. Ruling this time without an unprecedented oil windfall, Pérez resorted to a neoliberal agenda of austerity. He also accepted loans from the International Monetary Fund in an about-face from his campaign, in which he called the IMF a "neutron bomb that killed people but left buildings standing."

    Anger over those measures wasn't helped by reports of his corruption, designer suits and inauguration, at which 650,000 hors d'oeuvres were served. Social inequality--slum dwellers often went without access to hospitals--led to street protests in February 1989. In response, Pérez ordered a crackdown, and hundreds were killed in the so-called Caracazo.

    These injustices roused an idealistic paratrooper into action; though Hugo Chávez failed to topple Pérez in a 1992 coup attempt, he was elected President in 1998.