Venezuelans Cleanse Government Grass-roots groups work to create a society where corruption is seen as the unacceptable enemy of democracy

TEACHING a class of 10-year-olds about the courage required to challenge apathy and dishonesty, Ivette Ramirez evokes a figure familiar to every Venezuelan school child.

``Coming from a wealthy Caracas family, Simon Bolivar [the father of South American independence] could have chosen to live a comfortable life,'' says the volunteer tutor. ``Instead, he became our country's greatest hero by choosing to sacrifice and fight for the liberty of his people.''

After decades of complacency, Venezuelans have made courageous choices in the last two years, shaking the political foundations of Latin America's oldest democracy in the process.

In one of the most striking examples of citizen revolt against corruption, Venezuelans impeached one president, indicted another, and pushed a handful of Supreme Court judges and top ministers to resign. Intolerance for graft climbs as living conditions decline. Low oil prices are a major economic handicap for this oil-producing nation. Political analysts here say many Venezuelans see crooked government officials as the chief cause of their economic woes.

A public fed up with corruption took to the streets in protest and cheered two military coup attempts to topple President Carlos Andres Perez. In May 1992, the Venezuelan congress impeached Mr. Perez for alleged misuse of public funds.

Today, a small group of Venezuelans is trying to seize public outrage over corruption and turn it into more than a political fad.

``The long-term goal is to create an anticorruption culture. We want citizens who see corruption as the real enemy of a democratic society,'' says Gustavo Coronel, president of Pro-Quality of Life, a Caracas-based civic group that is organizing the workshops in public schools. Pro-Quality of Life has about 50 volunteer ``tutors'' who have given good citizenship workshops to more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 16 in the past year.

Mr. Coronel, also volunteering, gives one-day anticorruption seminars to businessmen and government officials. The group has opened an office in Caracas to give advice on navigating bureaucracy without paying bribes.

Coronel is encouraged by last December's presidential elections, won by Rafael Caldera running as an ``anticorruption'' candidate. On March 2, President Caldera reiterated: ``The fight against corruption is the fundamental goal of this government.''

In February, he fired Venezuela's top banking regulator, Roger Urbina, after the financial collapse of Banco Latino, the nation's second largest private bank. On March 2, a federal judge charged Mr. Urbina with concealing the crimes of 82 Banco Latino officials, including some of the wealthiest in Venezuelan society.

Andres Velasquez of the labor party union-based Radical Cause is sure to add to the pressure. Mr. Velasquez, also running on an anticorruption ticket, came in fourth in the presidential poll; he was only 1.5 percent of the vote short of a second-place finish.

``Velasquez is a rising political star,'' says Jose Antonio Gil, president of VenConsultores, a polling firm. ``When he was elected governor of Bolivar, it was one of the most corrupt states in Venezuela. He cleaned up the old-boy network of government contracts. Now no single contractor gets more than 3 percent of total government purchases. People love him there.''

Latin American diplomats say Venezuela's democracy is fortified by the emergence of active opposition parties that keep the ruling party honest. Caldera's win with a coalition of small, left- and right-wing parties shows public discontent with Venezuela's traditional two ruling parties, Mr. Gil says. This election was the first time in 35 years of democracy that both were voted out of power.

Parallel to the anticorruption movement, Coronel notes, citizens are leading a drive to strengthen the democratic system. In December, for the first time voters chose individual representatives (instead of a party slate) for Congress. ``This makes politicians more accountable to the voters than to party chieftains,'' he says.

Another move afoot is to increase accountability for government spending. Five Venezuelan ministries have the constitutional right to spend money for ``defense and security'' with no audit or oversight of expenses.

Perez, impeached for allegedly profitting from an illegal transfer of 250 million bolivares ($2.2 million) from the Interior Ministry to the Secretariat of the Presidency, claims the transaction was done in the interest of national security and required no justification. In 1992, almost $400 million - 6.3 percent of the total Venezuelan budget (and nearly equal to the entire defense budget) - fell into the ``secret'' spending category.

``There should not be millions of bolivares in public money spent without any kind of oversight,'' says Celia Poleo de Ortega, director of the Venezuelan Controller General's office. ``These expenses don't have to be fully public, but at least the controller or the president of the congress should sign off on it.'' Caldera has pledged to reduce ``off the book'' expenditures.

Another concern voiced by Venezuelan officials is that the judicial system is the weakest link in the corruption battle. ``The judges and staff are paid poorly, everything is done manually, and the system is subject to political party influence,'' says Trino Marquez, head of the Presidential Commission for State Reform.

The cases of Perez and former president Jaime Lusinchi, under investigation by Venezuela's Supreme Court for allegedly misusing public funds, will be tests of the judiciary and the anticorruption movement. ``When people see officials steal and nothing happens, they think why can't we do it too?'' Dr. Poleo says.

* This is part two of a series. Part 1 appeared March 2; the next will appear March 16.

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