Funeral of Chávez foe recalls former Venezuelan leader's clouded legacy

| Oct. 6, 2011 |

Published by Christian Science Monitor

CARACAS, VENEZUELA—The funeral in Caracas today of former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez – nine months after his death – ends a bitter family dispute over where his burial should take place: the US, where he sought refuge from the presidency of Hugo Chávez, or his homeland.

But it does not resolve his clouded legacy, after having survived two coup attempts, one led by President Chávez himself.

Thousands of people gathered inside and outside Caracas’s Chiquinquirá church this morning, watching on an erected video screen, where Pérez is being remembered ahead of a motorcade to the cemetery where he will finally be laid to rest alongside other former presidents of this country.

During his first term between 1974 and 1979, Pérez, known as CAP, presided over a Venezuela then known as Venezuela Saudita (Saudi Venezuela) for its oil wealth. Venezuela experienced an economic boom as oil prices shot up from $2 a barrel to $35 a barrel, and Pérez won favor by nationalizing the industry and using windfall profits to build new infrastructure and fund social programs (not unlike what his nemesis, Chávez, is doing today with prices well above $100 a barrel).

He was elected again in 1988, as Venezuelans held out hope that another reign would mean another run of good times, after a decade of austerity. But his second term, which ended in 1993, is remembered with regret by many Venezuelans. Pérez had won the second term on an anti-neoliberal platform, famously describing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a “neutron bomb” that “killed people but left buildings standing.”

Months later, Pérez attempted to push through IMF proposals that would, among other things, push up fuel prices in a country used to paying next to nothing for them (see World’s cheapest fuel prices). This launched huge riots known as the Caracazo in 1989, during which hundreds died.

Bitter enemies
The funeral today is a big deal, but it is not a state affair. In fact, Pérez and Chavez are bitter enemies. "One must regret the death of a human being who has died, and so much time passes before a burial," Chavez said on state television, though he criticized the former leader's economic policies.

Ironically, if it weren't for Pérez, Chávez may not have come into Venezuela’s national consciousness. He led a failed coup against Pérez in 1992. The then-president famously allowed Chávez to speak on state television when it became clear his attempt at overthrowing the government was failing. Pérez insisted that Chávez command his rebels to stand down.

It was then that Chávez uttered his now famous “por ahora” (for now) speech, saying that he had only failed “for now.” That implied to an unhappy population that he would be back. Indeed, Chávez did return to take power by legitimate means seven years later. Pérez for his part left Venezuela in 2000, to avoid arrest after he was accused of corruption.

Ending the family dispute
Pérez remained in Miami for the rest of his life, and the dispute over where he should be entombed flared after his mistress Cecilia Matos insisted that Pérez had vowed never to return to Venezuela while his nemesis remained in power. Pérez’s estranged wife Bianca Rodriguez de Pérez, however, battled for her former husband’s remains to be flown out of Florida and back to Venezuela. A secret agreement was finally reached in August.

Pérez’s body flew into Caracas’ main international airport on Tuesday evening, where it was immediately driven to the headquarters of his former Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) party in El Paraíso, a suburb of the country’s capital.

Thousands of supporters crowded into a small auditorium on Wednesday to see his coffin draped in Venezuela’s national flag. Manuel García Barreto was a state governor during Pérez’s first presidency. The 73-year-old jostled for position in the sweltering crowd and described Pérez as the man that “guided Venezuela to liberty, democracy and progress.”