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Volume 55 / Social Sciences


RENE SALGADO, Consultant, Inter-American Development Bank

VENEZUELA'S POLITICAL developments have become more and more puzzling and unexpected since 1988 when Carlos A. Pérez won the presidential elections. Pérez became the first ex-President to be reelected after a mandatory two-term hiatus, despite his having been censured by his party's Ethical Commission and nearly condemned by Congress for malfeasance. Up to the 1988 elections however, his popular support remained high to the point that Venezuelans, nostalgic for the petro-bonanza Pérez presided over from 1974-79, failed for the first time in 20 years to vote out the party in power. Nonetheless, by the end of his turbulent term in office his prestige had sunk so low that he was even attacked for alleged immoral behavior.

Pérez's decline in popular support was to a large extent triggered by his introduction of neoliberal policies. Apparently many people felt betrayed by Pérez's failure to implement his populist campaign pledges. For instance, as soon as Pérez took office he cut State subsidies and initiated a privatization program that included the publicly-owned telephone company and airline, a course of action that negated in every sense the nationalization policies that had transformed him into a national hero back in the mid-1970s.

Since 1988, the decline in presidential popularity has continued unabated. Pérez's initial announcements resulted in price increases in public transportation which, in turn, ignited violent popular rioting in late Feb. 1989. Food-price liberalizations stirred protests from the middle classes who demonstrated by banging pots and pans in several cities on different occasions, especially during the early years of his presidency.

Pérez's neoliberal program deeply divided his own AD Party, and eventually fractured the well-established party system traditionally dominated by his party and the Christian Democratic COPEI. Austerity measures such as the elimination of price controls on basic products, a proposed sales tax, and mass layoffs in the public sector without programs to facilitate reemployment alienated Pérez from AD's labor sector and fueled disrupting opposition from COPEI. His popularity with AD labor leaders was never regained in spite of the fact that several times he resorted to the tactic of buying time by announcing temporary halts to his measures. On several other occasions he turned to blatant cooptation, designating party rivals to critical cabinet posts and even bringing in two cabinet ministers from COPEI.

None of these strategies, however, were enough to help him succeed, and three years after his inauguration it became increasingly clear that his reform package was in serious trouble with most of his reform ministers and associates forced to resign because of widespread opposition. Additional plans for balancing the budget, increasing privatization, lowering import tariffs, and introducing value-added tax never materialized.

Finally, the military relinquished its characteristic neutrality of the past three decades: Pérez was the victim of two unsuccessful military coup attempts by mid-ranking officers in Feb. and Nov. 1992. At one point an armored car bombardment of the front gate of Miraflores - the presidential office complex in the center of the city - forced the President to slip through a secret tunnel into the white, hilltop presidential palace.

Pérez survived both coup attempts, but by then the political class had become increasingly convinced that his stay in power would seriously harm democratic stability. After several months of demonstrations aimed at forcing him out of office, the Supreme Court decided in mid-1993 to indict Pérez on corruption charges, and next, in an unprecedented move, the Senate voted unanimously to suspend him from office - the first such suspension of an elected Venezuelan president. Congress then selected independent senator Ramón J. Velásquez as interim Head of State and Government to complete his term, to end in Dec. 1993.

Pérez was sent to jail. In the meantime cleavages within the center-right COPEI party led in mid-1993 to the virtual expulsion of elder statesman Rafael Caldera, along with a handful of other prominent national leaders. Several years before, Caldera, who had cast himself as a defender of the poor, had become the foremost critic of Pérez's economic package, clashing with the business sector over the 1991 Labor Law. Through an unusual political maneuver, Caldera became the 1993 presidential candidate representing the Movimiento al Socialismo and other leftist parties, winning the election on a strong anti-neoliberal platform. He reversed Pérez's trends immediately after taking office, imposing, among other measures, price and foreign-exchange controls.

Despite these dramatic political developments in Venezuela, there are no empirical academic works on these themes, probably because rigorous analysis takes time to prepare and publish. Nevertheless, the nation's contemporary political bibliography is, to an extent, still relevant and interesting. One of the outcomes of this political turmoil is the proliferation of relevant books and articles written by politicians, labor leaders and even military officers, all of which attest to the fact that three decades of uninterrupted democratic life have consolidated a national trend towards openness, one that may well be irreversible. Several other recent books and articles are historical or normative in nature, while a few, the minority, provide more elaborate systematic discussions of some contemporary political developments, notably local and gubernatorial elections, as well as electoral reform.

Among works devoted to past political leaders there is much to learn about ex-President Rómulo Betancourt's leadership role and political ideology in Antología política (item bi 94001020) and La segunda independencia de Venezuela: compilación de la columna "Economía y Finanzas" del diario "Ahora," 1937-1939 (item bi 94001026). Alberto Carnevali: pasión de libertad (item bi 94001041) is useful for a better understanding of Carnevali's political personality, while Jovito Villalba en la historia política de Venezuela (item bi 94001030) is a useful account of the evolution of Villalba's political ideas.

On formal aspects of the political system and its political implications, we should note Kornblith's cogent account of the two most recent Venezuelan constitutions (item bi 93006916) and Molina's examination of current electoral law which maintains a good balance between documentary and empirical analysis (item bi 94001042).

The outcomes of mayoral and gubernatorial elections are fresh topics receving rigorous treatment. Readers will learn much from Carrasquero and Welsch (item bi 92020103), Njaim (item bi 94003460), Molina (item bi 94006207), and Kornblith (item bi 94002588).

The regulatory capabilities of police institutions are the subject of Navarro and Pérez Perdomo (item bi 94001113), Muller Rojas (item bi 93006910), and Hernández (item bi 94002401), all of whom look into institutional and legal factors that affect the government's ability to handle effectively socially dysfunctional behavior.

Reflections on current political difficulties and future prospects of Venezuelan democracy may be found in Situación y perspectivas de la democracia venezolana (item bi 94001045), Tiempo de Páez, social democracia y régimen de coaliciones (item bi 94001054), Liderazgo e ideología (item bi 94001058), ¿Cuándo se jodió Venezuela? (item bi 94001052), and El reto ideológico de los partidos políticos venezolanos (item bi 92016433), all of which, with the exception of the last work, constitute collections of articles, some written by politicians and some by political and policy analysts.

Other topics addressed among works annotated below include civil-military relations and State reform, the latter a salient political issue during the 1980s. The first is the subject of Todos los golpes a la democracia venezolana (item bi 94001050) and Militares y democracia (bi 94001023), while the second is the focus of Antecendentes de la reforma del Estado (item bi 94001033) and Venezuela: centralización y descentralización del Estado (item bi 94001059).

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