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‘He Has Angel on One Shoulder, Devil on the Other’ : New Venezuela Leader Blends Brashness, Tact

Times Staff Writer

Carlos Andres Perez, Venezuela’s president-elect, can be a man of moderation and tact, or he can be a brash challenger of the status quo. He professes friendship with the United States, but he has boldly defied U.S. policies in the past.

As a former president experienced in international affairs, Perez makes no secret of his plans to seek a leadership role in Latin America. But what kind of influence he will have on the region is as unpredictable as the dual nature of his public persona, analysts say.

“He has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and they are both giving him advice, and I don’t know which one he is going to listen to,” fretted one conservative foreign diplomat in Caracas. “Is he going to be a force for democracy or buddies with Cuba and Nicaragua?”

Controversy, Orthodoxy

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Perez, 66, was elected Sunday to his second term as president by a wide margin. In his campaign, and at a news conference Monday, Perez switched between mellow orthodoxy and the kind of controversial ideas that gained him fame as an international gadfly during his first administration, from 1974 to 1979.

At the news conference, he emphasized that “only through concerted Latin American effort” can the region reach tolerable terms with its creditors. “I think the necessity is becoming increasingly ripe in our countries to reach agreement and invigorate our power of negotiation,” he said.

The possibility of a Latin American “cartel” taking a collectively defiant stance on more than $300 billion in foreign debts makes creditor countries shudder. But in a note of moderation, Perez said he wants to avoid confrontation with creditors.

He said Venezuela should normalize relations with the Communist government of Cuba, which has not had an ambassador here since 1980. But he also recalled that in the 1960s, Cuban President Fidel Castro openly supported an anti-government guerrilla movement in Venezuela.

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During his campaign, Perez called for a “new international economic order” to give developing countries better terms of trade and credit, and he advocated an international code of conduct to control multinational corporations. He called capitalism “savage"--but at the same time, he said Venezuela needs a strong private sector and foreign investment to develop economically.

Jailed Twice

Perez’s center-left party, Democratic Action, belongs to the Socialist International. As a young activist, Perez opposed the dictatorship of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez (1952-58) and was jailed twice, once for a year. He also spent time in exile.

After Perez Jimenez was overthrown in 1958, Democratic Action won elections and Perez worked under his mentor, President Romulo Betancourt, both in the government and as a congressman. Later, Perez was elected secretary general of the party and ran for president in 1973.

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A tireless campaigner and an engaging speaker, he emphasized his commitment to building a “grand Venezuela” with a strong and independent economy. He won the election.

Oil prices were rising then, multiplying Venezuela’s export income and financing an economic boom that bolstered Perez’s popularity. But after he left office in 1979, congressional hearings implicated the former president in a corruption scandal over the government’s 1977 purchase of a ship for millions of dollars more than it was worth. Perez was exonerated by a narrow vote.

Corruption Alleged

Simon Saez Merida, a Venezuelan university professor, said in a book on national politics that businessmen who contributed to Perez’s 1973 campaign “later in the government received payment in corruption, filling their pockets, for the millions they had given toward the elections.”

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Perez often has denied the old corruption charges, and they did not become an issue in this year’s campaign; nor did parts of his private life that might be fatal to the career of an American politician.

Although Perez and his wife, Blanca, live together, he sometimes is seen with his longtime mistress, Cecillia Mattos. Such domestic duality is not considered a handicap for leaders in Venezuelan society.

“I have been a big adversary of Carlos Andres Perez, but for me he is a man who has the qualities of a great political leader,” said Jose Vicente Rangel, a leftist politician and writer. “He is an intelligent man. He is not a cultivated man, but he is well-informed.”

But Rangel and other leftists still criticize Perez for his role, as interior minister in 1962 and 1963, in repression of guerrillas.

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“He was considered to be a police minister and very violent,” Rangel said in an interview. In congressional hearings on repression at the time, “there was proof of violation of human rights, torture and the death of prisoners,” he said.

In his news conference Monday, Perez said all allegations of abuses were investigated when he was interior minister “and when there was concrete responsibility, off to jail went the guilty ones.”

In 1978 and 1979, when Perez was president, he gave aid and diplomatic support to the Marxist-oriented Sandinista guerrillas who seized power in Nicaragua. After he left office in the early 1980s, he often chastised the Reagan Administration for supporting the anti-Sandinista Contras, but in recent years Perez’s relations with the Sandinistas apparently have cooled.

Perez said Monday that he is “a friend of political pluralism and ideological pluralism” but that he belongs to the West.

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“I favor and back the positions of democracy, and in that sense I do not hesitate to say that my side and my rampart is in the United States. But that in no way mortgages our independence nor our right to have our own policies,” he said.


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