Downfall in Venezuela

May 26, 1993

The indictment and suspension of President Carlos Andres Perez for corruption probably protects rather than endangers Venezuela's 35-year old democracy. But it imperils economic reform and growth in the second-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States. How much better if Mr. Perez had been able to serve out his term until the election in December, and complete his reforms.

President from 1974 to 1979, Mr. Perez is the grand old democratic politician of the Americas. He was the populist who nationalized Venezuela's oil and steel industries. But after ten years in the wilderness and election to a second term in 1989, he is also the neo-liberal reformer who invited foreign investment back into the oil fields, ended most price controls and slashed the deficit, bringing Venezuela economic growth when other American republics were in recession.

But the austerity lowered the living standards of many Venezuelans and, coupled with the 70-year-old president's arrogance, made him publicly despised. He survived two attempted military coups last year. When his indictment was announced, the streets of Caracas filled with celebrants.

Mr. Perez stands accused of using government funds in a currency speculation based on insider knowledge in 1989 to pay the debts of his presidential campaign to the tune of $17.2 million. This charge is not the complete institutionalization of corruption that brought the downfall last year of the reforming young president of Brazil, Fernando Collor de Mello. But the similarity is a rising intolerance of corruption, coinciding with popular commitment to democracy.

The provisional presidency of Octavio Lepage, the president of the congress, creates anxiety and insecurity in Venezuela's economy. Not least because of uncertainty whether his brief reign is for 30 or 90 days.

Mr. Perez must face justice for the crime of which he stands accused. But the born-again free marketeer's policies have been the right ones, and Venezuela under any government needs to pursue them with continuity and firmness.

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