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Perez in Control, but Under Fire

Venezuela's austerity program, corruption fuel public discontent

By Stan YarbroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1992



CARACAS, VENEZUELA

THOUGH President Carlos Andres Perez survived last week's attempted coup, many here worry about the future of Venezuelan democracy, beset by worsening economic conditions, endemic corruption, and the loss of public support for the president.

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Mr. Perez denies that such conditions, highlighted by several analysts, are an underlying reason for the coup attempt, blaming it instead on what he calls a small, isolated group of fascist officers from a paratrooper brigade.

All of the officers, including their leader, Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez Frias, are in jail awaiting trial.

"This was a military fascist movement that did not want the participation of civilians," Perez told reporters over the weekend. US envoy backs Perez

Michael Skol, the United States ambassador to Venezuela, agrees with the president's portrayal of the coup plotters as a small group of arrogant right-wing fanatics with opinions far removed from the mainstream.

"From what these officers are saying, they give me the impression that economic complaints weren't at the top of their list," Mr. Skol said in an interview. "Those economic reasons were tagged on by opposition politicians after the coup was over."

But many others here say the officers were emboldened to act by growing discontent among Venezuela's lower and middle classes, who have been hit hard by the president's economic austerity program.

"The [coup leaders] were trying to kill Perez, knowing full well that few people here would shed a tear for him," says Carlos Capriles, a Caracas book and newspaper publisher.

The president's austerity program, including privatization of state companies and fewer government subsidies, is given partial credit for helping the economy grow at 9.2 percent in 1991, the highest rate in Latin America.

But most economic analysts agree that the high price of oil in 1991 fueled Venezuela's growth more than Perez's austerity moves. Experts predict that this year's lower petroleum prices will significantly slow expansion of the economy.

Relief workers and economists say the new wealth has failed to trickle down to Venezuela's middle and lower classes, whose standard of living has fallen dramatically during the first three years of the Perez administration.

The Rev. Dennis Cleary, a Maryknoll Catholic priest who has worked in Venezuela's poorer neighborhoods for 16 years, accuses Venezuelan state television of pumping out false images of public celebration over the failed coup.

"The reality here in the poorer neighborhoods is much different," he says. "The people feel that a successful coup could not have made anything worse and may have even made things better. People simply cannot continue living as they are now."

And many of them, especially children, are not continuing to live, Fr. Cleary adds. He explains that infant deaths in the shantytowns known as ranchos have soared in the past two years as a result of worsening malnutrition and other health problems.