Perez in Control, but Under Fire

Venezuela's austerity program, corruption fuel public discontent

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.

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.

"We're seeing two or three kids buried a week in these neighborhoods," he says. "Medicine for a sick child can cost 2,000 or 3,000 bolivars [$33 to $50], and most families just don't have that kind of money."

In the Tacagua neighborhood on a Caracas hillside crisscrossed with red clay scars and open sewers, residents say they celebrated the attempted coup.

"It's a shame that they didn't kill Perez," says 22-year-old Javier, explaining that his work as a part-time word processor could not even cover the cost of food and transportation for his wife and child.

Many middle-class Venezuelans share the frustrations of the poor.

"It's not that people want a military government or want to see Perez dead," says a secretary. "They just don't want to see Perez at all."

Former President Rafael Caldera Rodriguez of the opposition Social Christian Party became the first politician to make the link between such feelings and the threat to Venezuelan democracy when he spoke to the National Congress last week.

Dr. Caldera, who served as president from 1969 to 1974, exhorted Perez to "urgently rectify" his economic program and clean up official corruption. Payoffs for state contracts, selling of state jobs, and influence-trafficking are just some of the problems mentioned by independent economists.

There are signs that the coup attempt has shaken Perez into a willingness to listen to economic complaints. In the days after the incident, the president began pressing the National Congress to approve a $750 million social spending program. The administration is also seeking to raise the monthly minimum wage from the equivalent in local currency of about $100 to about $150.

In a bow to the military, Perez is reportedly planning to ask the National Congress for millions of dollars more to increase salaries of mid-level officers. Last Tuesday's coup plotters came from the ranks of such officers, who have seen their standard of living fall with that of the rest of the population.

Despite such concessions, the common wisdom in diplomatic and business circles is that Perez is going to hold fast to his radical economic program for the remaining two years of his administration. New crackdown coming?

Some fear that the administration will increasingly turn to repression to silence the program's critics.

Perez gave indications that he was moving in that direction in recent days as his security forces raided and searched several major newspapers and arrested a retired Army officer who had signed a statement blaming bad government for the coup attempt.

But Perez, who served previously as president from 1974 to 1979, is also likely to draw on decades of political experience and overwhelming international support to try ensure the survival of his economic program and the country's democracy.

Perez is typical of Latin American leaders who are looking to each other for support as they deal with domestic problems," says Skol. "It's like a blood bank they can draw on."

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