Rafael Antonio Caldera dies at 93; former president of Venezuela

Rafael Antonio Caldera dies at 93; former president of Venezuela
Rafael Antonio Caldera, a two-term president of Venezuela, issued the pardon that allowed Hugo Chavez to rise to power in 1998. (Garcia Campos / European Pressphoto Agency)
Rafael Antonio Caldera, who helped establish democracy in Venezuela, went on to serve two terms as president and issued the pardon that allowed Hugo Chavez to rise to power, has died. He was 93.

Caldera died Thursday in the capital of Caracas, his son Andres Caldera told Globovision news channel. He did not give a cause of death, but the former president had suffered from Parkinson's disease for several years.

Born in 1916 in the northwestern state of Yaracuy, Caldera earned a political science degree at the Central University of Venezuela, entered politics in the 1930s and founded the Social-Christian COPEI party in 1946.

He was one of the three signers of the Punto Fijo pact, which organized democratic elections after the fall of dictator Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. Under the pact, COPEI and Romulo Betancourt's Democratic Action party shared power for nearly 40 years.

As president from 1969 to 1974, Caldera eliminated the remnants of leftist guerrilla movements by granting them a general amnesty. The period also was marked by lavish government spending of oil revenues on public works and a growing bureaucracy.

Two decades later, with Venezuela in turmoil after two failed military coup attempts in 1992 and the impeachment of President Carlos Andres Perez on corruption charges, Caldera won a new term in 1993 without the backing of COPEI, breaking the Punto Fijo power-sharing pact he had helped craft.

In office, Caldera soon confronted the nation's worst banking crisis, in which half of Venezuela's banks failed. He decreed price and currency exchange controls to surmount the crisis and focused on development in interior Venezuela.

Caldera led the country through relative stability, and also granted amnesty in 1994 to a young army paratroop commander behind one of the coup attempts: Hugo Chavez, who four years later would be elected to succeed Caldera.

Chavez and the author of his release from jail were later at odds, however.

In a 2003 newspaper interview, Caldera warned that violence could ensue if Chavez, using state resources, blocked efforts to hold a recall referendum on his leftist presidency. Caldera questioned the legitimacy of a new constitution under which Chavez has increased his power.

In reply, Chavez blamed Caldera and others for creating a corrupt system that left millions of Venezuelans to live in poverty.

Caldera is survived by his wife, Alicia Pietri; and six children.