Venezuelans in search of a hero 'Our Wonder Woman': Some think it's time Mayor Irene Saez, a former Miss Universe, be given a chance to lead the country out of its economic turmoil.

Sun Journal

January 12, 1996|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

CARACAS, Venezuela -- She is a former Miss Universe. She is smart and popular. She has had a toy named after her -- the Irene Doll -- a little blond coquette about the size of Barbie.

Irene Saez, three years after venturing into politics, is the savior Venezuelans say they have been seeking.

"The truth is, we could use a hero. And that's what Irene Saez is. She's our Wonder Woman," says Maklis Alcala, a 26-year-old street vendor. He sells sizzling beef-ham-avocado-and-potato burgers in Chacao, the Caracas district where Ms. Saez was recently re-elected mayor by a huge margin and sworn in last week.

All over Venezuela, not just in Caracas, people are looking for a rescuer, someone to pull the country out of economic turmoil. Despite Venezuela's having more oil and natural gas than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean, the economy was the region's second worst in 1994 (after Haiti), grew only modestly in 1995 and is expected to encounter rising inflation.

Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera has urged citizens to be patient and "offer their quota of sacrifice and hard work." He has also announced that he will introduce new, unspecified taxes, "preferably on those with the greatest ability to endure them."

Venezuela's continued economic troubles mark a shocking reversal of fortunes.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the country was one of Latin America's rising powers. Sitting atop a sea of oil, the largest proven reserves outside the Persian Gulf, Venezuela had a seemingly unending supply of money. But it all came crashing down in the early 1980s, when oil prices dropped. The government was forced to devalue the currency, the bolivar, on Feb. 18, 1983, a day known as Black Friday.

"We should be rich like Saudi Arabia. But look at us. A lot of our children are running around without shoes or good clothes. And people go hungry," says Felipe Palacios, 47, a ragged trash collector in Caracas.

At least 15 million of the country's 21 million people live in poverty, government statistics show. And it is the poor who bear the brunt of the economic crisis.

Vivina Alvarez, a housekeeper who lives in Naiguata, a seaside town about 30 miles from Caracas, says the $51 she earns every week barely covers her grocery bill.

"You can't save money any more," she says. "Everything I earn, I use to buy food."

Jose Luis Cabrera, 30, an unemployed construction worker, lives in a shantytown home made of mud, concrete, plywood and tin. The home's first room was built decades ago, and Mr. Cabrera's extended family and various tenants have gradually tacked on a jumble of additions. In all, 26 people live there, including Mr. Cabrera's wife and their six children.

"Guess how many doors this house has," Mr. Cabrera asks proudly. "Thirty-six."

On a recent Sunday, Mr. Cabrera used a sticky mixture of dirt, cement and water to repair a wall. Like many of Venezuela's poor, he's praying for prosperity this year while bracing for the worst.

"This crisis -- the devaluation -- it's bad. Real bad," he says. "I don't know when it's going to end."

Desperate times

Along the path near his home, police armed with automatic weapons were investigating a slaying that had occurred the night before. Desperate times have pushed up the crime rate; the lawlessness has added to the disillusionment. Many wonder how a country so rich in natural resources could be stuck in such a mess.

The 1983 devaluation was bad enough. In January 1994, the country's banking system -- loosely regulated and mired in corruption -- collapsed. The government ultimately took over dozens of banks as part of a bailout that authorities say has cost Venezuelans $11 billion.

After that, the value of the bolivar plummeted. The government froze the currency at 179 bolivars per dollar in mid-1994, but its value continued falling.

Eventually, the government could no longer afford to prop up the bolivar. And last month officials announced -- without ever using the word "devaluation" -- that they were setting the currency at 290 bolivars per dollar.

Foreign capital needed

What Venezuela needs is foreign capital, for it would be an expression of confidence in the country. In an effort to attract it, the government plans to encourage private investment in oil, aluminum, steel and iron. Officials say they're also selling off 49 percent of the national phone company; they are also seeking at least $6 billion in credits from the International Monetary Fund.

Among the many challenges that remain for the government is the necessity of weaning Venezuelans from price supports and subsidies. But raising prices can be a politically explosive proposition.

When authorities tried to raise the price of gasoline from 10 cents to 20 cents a gallon in September, violence broke out in three cities, and two people were killed. Government troops had to be called to restore order in Merida.

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