Why Chávez Happened: Carlos Andrés Pérez's Legacy

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Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez celebrates his release from house arrest in November 1998

It's fitting that Venezuela's disgraced former President Carlos Andrés Pérez died on Dec. 25. Like Marley's ghost in the Dickens Christmas classic, Pérez — or CAP, as he was known, who was 88 and will be buried, according to his family, in Venezuela — was a cautionary specter. His own ponderous chain should haunt Latin America's elite, which has never understood that its kleptocratic abuses, embodied by leaders like Pérez, almost always give rise, via ballots or bullets, to radical populists like Venezuela's current President, Hugo Chávez (who tried bullets first, then ballots). But given the events of this December, the Ghost of CAP should be spooking Chávez.

The last time I interviewed Pérez was in 1993, just days before he was impeached and later convicted on embezzlement charges. Chávez, then an army paratrooper officer, was sitting in prison for having led a bloody coup attempt against Pérez the year before — a retro-rebellion that was nonetheless greeted with loud cheers by most Venezuelans, who were fed up with watching venal cogollos (chieftains) like CAP plunder the fruits of the western hemisphere's largest oil reserves, leaving the country with an inexcusable poverty rate of more than 50%. One of the best-selling books in Caracas at the time was the three-volume Dictionary of Corruption in Venezuela, and the joke on the streets was that Chávez deserved 30 years behind bars: one for attempting the coup and 29 for failing.

Pérez could be a remarkable statesman. In his first presidency (1974-79), he did help make Venezuela an international player, as a founder of OPEC and a diplomatic broker in the Americas. "I effected transformations of this country that only my leadership could have achieved," he insisted during that last interview. But by then, CAP — whose second, extravagant inauguration in 1989 would have put a Hapsburg coronation to shame and whose security forces that same year killed hundreds of people rioting against his austerity measures — was also a poster boy for the epic gap between rich and poor in Latin America, the worst such gap of any region in the world. And even after Venezuela's elite tried to mollify the seething masses by ousting Pérez in 1993 and freeing Chávez in 1994, those oligarchs salsaed on as if they'd learned nothing. They sacked the nation's banking system to the point of collapse in 1995 — then looked shocked when Chávez was elected President in 1998.

Even today, when you talk to the well-heeled in Caracas or in Miami — where Pérez had been living in exile, and where the Doral district has absorbed so many affluent Venezuelans fleeing lefty Hugo that it's been dubbed Doralzuela — you realize that too many of them still don't get it. Which is why it's a toss-up as to whether Chávez's opposition can come up with a platform — and more important, a unifying candidate, who so far is nowhere to be seen — to keep El Comandante from winning a third six-year term in 2012.

Maybe the Ghost of CAP will set them straight. But don't count on it. And for that matter, don't count on it setting Chávez straight either. "May [Pérez] rest in peace," Chávez said this week, "but may the form of politics that he personified rest in peace with him." Yet if Chávez were really serious about renouncing CAP's politics, he wouldn't be pulling the kind of quasi-authoritarian stunts we've seen this month.

Chávez may not be as crooked as Pérez was, though petrocorruption has been leaching into his socialist revolution for years now, and he's done more to enfranchise Venezuela's poor. But he has more in common with CAP than he'd like to admit. Like Pérez, Chávez claims to be a passionate democrat, but also like Pérez, he can be a closet caudillo. The cogollos often threw critics into the pokey for "defaming" them; Chávez lately has been ratcheting up the use of his own defamation laws. Venezuelans couldn't directly elect their state governors until 1989; Chávez holds democratic elections but has a habit of nullifying their more inconvenient results — like eliminating the Caracas mayor's office last year after an opposition candidate won it, replacing it with a federal overseer.

Then, two weeks ago, Chávez's rubber-stamp National Assembly gave him 18 months of special decree powers that could let him circumvent the new Assembly that convenes next month — one in which the opposition holds a slew of new seats, following September parliamentary elections that saw Chávez's party lose its supermajority. The opposition may actually have won a majority of the total vote, although Chávez's convoluted electoral formula still gave his party the most seats.

September's outcome — largely a result of the government's economic mismanagement and its failure to stem Venezuela's burgeoning violent crime — clearly annoyed Chávez. But the remarks of one of Chávez's top generals, who last month warned that the military might not accept an opposition presidential victory in 2012, haven't exactly enhanced the President's falling poll numbers. The Organization of American States called the general's comments "unacceptable," but Chávez plans to promote him. So at this point, it's hard to tell who needs that haunting, cautionary visit from the Ghost of CAP more — Chávez's elitist opposition, or Chávez himself.