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Nostalgia May Sway Venezuela Race : Leader From Oil-Boom Years Favored in Presidential Vote

Times Staff Writer

Venezuelans cannot bring back the oil-rich years of the 1970s when Carlos Andres Perez was president, but their nostalgia for past prosperity may help bring back Perez.

Only an unexpected upset in elections Sunday could keep Perez, 66, from becoming the first Venezuelan in three decades of democracy to win a second presidential term. Numerous opinion polls have shown him leading Eduardo Fernandez, his closest rival, by 14 to 22 percentage points.

More than half of this oil-exporting country’s 18 million people are expected to vote. Analysts agree that the campaign has been strongly colored by fond memories of the Perez years, 1974 to 1979, when world oil prices were soaring.

“The vision of Perez was the vision of a mythical Venezuela--Saudi Venezuela,” said Jose Rodriguez, a leader in Fernandez’s party. Rodriguez said Fernandez’s position in the campaign was “very difficult, because you can’t fight a myth.”

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To make matters worse for Fernandez, 48, his own party was in power during the early 1980s, when world oil prices collapsed and Venezuela fell into an economic slump that has not ended.

Both candidates have promised Venezuelans relief from the rising cost of living and growing poverty. Clemente Cohen, an adviser to Perez’s campaign, said the ailing economy is the most crucial issue in the contest.

“The real reason Carlos Andres Perez is way ahead is that, generally speaking, Venezuelans have accepted that experience counts when the chips are down--and the chips are down,” Cohen said.

Perez has insisted that Venezuela must sharply reduce payments on its $30-billion foreign debt. He has stressed a need for unity among Latin American countries in seeking debt relief, but he has stopped short of proposing that all payments be stopped.

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“To withdraw from the international financial system is an incalculable error, and it would not lead to any kind of a solution,” he told a Venezuelan newspaper last weekend.

Frontier Controversy

The most heated issues in the campaign’s final weeks were a longstanding border dispute with Colombia and the slaying by security forces of 14 fishermen near the western town of El Amparo.

Fernandez accused Perez of having signed a secret understanding while he was president that recognized Colombian rights to offshore territory held by Venezuela in the Gulf of Venezuela. Perez countercharged that Fernandez’s party, not his, was soft on Colombian territorial claims.

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The issue raised strong nationalistic feelings among Venezuelans who believe that their country was coerced into ceding large pieces of territory to Colombia in the 19th Century.

After the slayings at El Amparo on Oct. 29, some authorities said the 14 dead men were guerrillas who had operated along the border with Venezuela and died in a clash with security forces. But Fernandez has contended that those slain were civilians killed for unknown reasons by members of Disip, Venezuela’s intelligence service.

Fernandez has accused President Jaime Lusinchi, who belongs to Perez’s party, of lying to cover up the alleged massacre.

“There was no armed confrontation, but rather they were murdered, and one of them, on his knees, died begging for his life,” Fernandez said at a rally this week.

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Fernandez’s party, universally known by its Spanish acronym COPEI, has won two elections since 1959, while Perez’s Democratic Action has won four. Presidents are barred from immediate reelection.

Fernandez, an economist and lawyer, has served as his centrist party’s secretary-general. He conducted an energetic campaign, using “The Tiger” as a nickname. But as a foreign diplomat said, “He doesn’t have the razzmatazz that Carlos Andres has.”

Perez, who captures crowds with his bold style and populist rhetoric, first gained public prominence as a Cabinet minister who directed a successful campaign against an outbreak of Cuban-inspired guerrilla warfare here in the 1960s. As president in the 1970s, he nationalized foreign-owned petroleum companies, befriended Nicaragua’s Sandinista guerrillas and often berated Washington for its policies in Latin America.

Some analysts say that Perez has shown signs of moderating his policies and becoming more friendly toward the United States, Venezuela’s main trading partner.

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U.S. Ambassador Otto J. Reich said in an interview that regardless of who wins Sunday, the United States expects “that we will continue to have the excellent relations that we have with Venezuela.”


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