Lusinchi defeats 11 opponents, but can he beat Venezuela's debt?

When he takes office early next year, Venezuelan President-elect Jaime Lusinchi's biggest challenge will be pulling his nation out of a deep economic slump.

But his economic training is limited. A Columbia University-trained pediatrician, he has been a reliable, but not spectacular figure in the Accion Democrtica (AD) party for three decades.

A political protege of former President Carlos Andres Perez, Mr. Lusinchi had sought the AD candidacy in 1978, but lost out in a bitter intraparty battle between Mr. Perez and the late President Romulo Betancourt, a founder of the party.

This time, he won the nomination and the presidency in a campaign that produced a lot of oratory and heat, but little in the way of ideas. For his part , Mr. Lusinchi waged a lackluster campaign. In the final days on the hustings, however, his candidacy appeared to catch on.

With undisguised emotional appeals to the economically hard-pressed Venezuelan electorate, he used slogans like ''No one can take this any longer'' and ''Luckily they (the government of incumbent President Luis Herrera Campins of the Christian Social Party-COPEI) are already leaving.''

Now, the economic problems are in Lusinchi's lap. The incoming President must move quickly to restore both domestic and foreign confidence in the oil-rich nation.

Lusinchi says he has ''plenty of solutions'' to the problem. But so far he has not tipped his hand on what they are. In the campaign - which ended in his winning almost 60 percent of the vote Sunday in a field 12 candidates - Lisinchi talked vaguely of a ''social pact'' among government, business, and labor to stabilize employment and encourage foreign investment.

But local businessmen are skittish about such a pact and foreign businessmen are turned off by three successive moratoriums on debt repayments imposed by the outgoing government.

Venezuela owes $34 billion - a sum often overlooked in the concern about Brazil's $90 billion debt and Mexico's $85 billion debt. But Venezuela's debt seems to defy repayment because of the country's substantially lowered oil revenues.

A recent increase in oil prices and the apparent improvement in the world economic picture should help Venezuela over the long haul. But the nation needs to sink lots of money into a petroleum industry modernization program.

Unemployment is at 17 percent and rising. Business bankruptcies are up in number and size in the past three years as the economy registered either zero or negative growth.

Despite this bleak picture, the President-elect exudes confidence in the future.

''Obviously, we have serious problems on the economic front,'' he said in one of his final campaign speeches. ''Obviously, we have to find solutions. And we will!''

As AD supporters savors their victory with Lusinchi, however, they know that Herrera Campins won the presidency five years ago largely because an AD government was similarly discredited for failing to resolve a worsening economic situation. COPEI will be watching Lusinchi closely.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.