Government scandal hits Venezuela

Venezuelans who watched the political fortunes of Richard Nixon ebb and wane during 1975 and 1976 now have their own Watergate: a government scandal involving former President Carlos Andres Perez.

Censured by the Venezuelan Congress May 8 in the probe of a government ship purchase during his presidency, Mr. Perez faces the possibility of legal action. The Venezuelan attorney general is looking into the situation and promises an early decision on whether to prosecute the former president.

Within the Venezuelan Senate, there is already a move to strip Mr. Perez of his immunity as a member of the Senate -- an office he holds because he is a former president.

And his own party, Accion Democratica, is sharply divided on how to deal with the incident.

The whole imbroglio centers on the Perez government's purchase of a Norwegian refrigerated freighter called the Sierra Nevada, in 1977. The price for the 10, 000-ton vessel was $11.9 million, but the Venezuelan government paid an intermediary concern $20 million. In its probe, a congressional committee reported that the $8.1 million overcharge was made with the full knowledge of the Perez administration and that the money went to a number of Venezuelans.

In his defense, the former president says the whole affair is an effort by "multinational interests" to discredit him and his administration. It was during his presidency, he notes, that Venezuela nationalized United States oil companies and iron-mining concerns worth billions of dollars.

Although the Sierra Nevada incident has received the most attention, there are numerous other charges of corruption, waste, and mismanagement against the Perez government, which held office from 1974 to 1979. During those five years, it spent $55 billion on industrial and agricultural projects, public works, and social programs.

Charges that some of the money was squandered cropped up during his presidency, but Mr. Perez repeatedly scoffed at them.

However, when his party lost the presidential election in late 1978 and he was succeeded by Luis Herrera Campins of the opposition COPEI-Social Christian Party, probes into the charges were begun.

Now, Romulo Betancourt, another former president and the Accion Democratica Party's grand old man, has broken with Mr. Perez. Mr. Betancourt, who prided himself on running an efficient and honest government, wants a thorough investigation of the charges against Mr. Perez, while the Perez faction in the party is trying to squelch the whole affair.

Meanwhile, many Venezuelans compare the issue with impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, a comparison that bothers Mr. Perez -- a frequent Nixon critic.

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