Venezuela's Fresh Old Face

December 07, 1993

The good news is that Venezuela elected a president to keep its 35 years of democracy going, escaping the rumored threat of a military coup.

The bad news is that the winner, Rafael Caldera, will be 78 at the start of his five-year term next year, that his mandate is only 28.5 percent of the vote, and that he ran as a maverick backed by 17 parties ranging from crypto-Fascist to Communist that can agree on nothing else.

The problem for the disgusted Venezuelan electorate was to reject the corruption of the deposed President Carlos Andres Perez, reject the Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-Dee of the two-party politics that succeeded military dictatorship in 1958, and yet not succumb to the lure of military dictatorship again.

With timely warnings from President Clinton, the military decided that, despite two coup attempts in the past year, the times are not propitious for colonels to take charge. Mr. Caldera, who was president from 1969 to 1974, bolted the Copei or Social Christian party he had founded to run as an independent. What might have been seen as a wrecking effort turned into a winner.

Mr. Caldera, with strong populist instincts, was running not just against the corruption that brought the impeachment of Mr. Perez but against the needed economic reforms and austerities Mr. Perez had begun in 1988. Venezuelans have been getting poorer in purchasing power. The slipping world price of oil means less revenue for the world's third-largest exporter nation.

Mr. Caldera is pledged to soften, delay and smudge the economic reforms that ended many subsidies and provoked food riots and unemployment. This may bring him into conflict with the world lending community. To do that while retaining the good will of banks, international lending institutions and Washington would be the neatest trick of the year.

The victor greeted his victory with a plea to his opponents to help him solve Venezuela's problems. As a minority winner, that is his only hope. That, or a rise in world oil prices from greater solidarity of OPEC, which seems even less likely in the first year of his term.

Meanwhile, South America's longest-running democracy still lives.

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