A SOMBER President Carlos Andres Perez, speaking before justices deciding whether to order him to stand trial on embezzlement charges, appealed to his countrymen yesterday to remain calm.
Mr. Perez faced the prospect of becoming the first Venezuelan leader to go on trial since the country became a democracy 35 years ago. He is accused of stealing $17.2 million in government funds.
Caracas residents, wary after two coup attempts last year, jammed stores and markets Wednesday night to stockpile food. Many took to the streets and their balconies to bang pots and pans, a traditional form of protest in many Latin American countries.
Perez, speaking on the radio yesterday morning, said: "Nothing will happen here, I have confidence in the people." He said the Supreme Court's decision means "more for democracy than it does for me," and that he would respect the ruling.
Fears of political upheaval and violence were widespread. On Wednesday, the president had said he would not resign and pledged to see the judicial process through if the court demands a trial.
Perez told foreign correspondents Wednesday he would stand firm against any attempts at a military coup, whether mounted by opponents or supporters.
"I would act the same way I acted Feb. 4 and Nov. 27, defending democracy," he said, referring to the two coup attempts in 1992.
Perez first held the presidency in 1974-79, a bonanza era in a country then the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
Memories of those lavish-spending years led Venezuelans to overwhelmingly re-elect Perez in late 1988, despite allegations of corruption that marred his first term.
But Perez's second term has been marked by political and social unrest in an oil-rich but corrupt country where a quarter of the population lives in abject poverty.