After two coup attempts last year, it became slightly embarrassing to refer to a Venezuelan "miracle."
Yet some First World journalists were still invoking the term not long before May 20, when Venezuela's Supreme Court authorized an embezzlement trial against President Carlos Andres Perez. He stands accused of misappropriation of $17.2 million in public moneys. The Senate immediately ratified the court's decision, and CAP, as Perez is known, joined Brazil's Fernando Coilor de Mello as the second Latin American neoliberal president to be forced from office on charges of corruption. (Miami Herald reporter Andres Oppenheimer, who last year bullishly announced "Castro's Final Hour," once again demonstrated keen prognostic skills. On April 30, just three weeks before the court's decision, Oppenheimer wrote an article titled "Threats to Venezuela Presidency Fade," saying Perez was "widely expected to finish his term as scheduled.")
Perez's downfall brought a noisy celebration here. Thousands of demonstrators cheered and set off fireworks as CAP tearfully addressed the nation. "I don't know why they're doing what they're doing to me,," he said. But for the vast majority of Venezuelans any suggestion of conspiracy is risible, since CAP's administration has been rocked with dozens of other scandais, involving more than $1 billion.
On June 5 the Venezuelan Congress elected historian and former Cabinet minister Ram6n Jos6 Velasquez to serve out the rest of CAP's term as president (an election is scheduled for December).
Venezuela has been ruled by civilians since 1958, making it South America's longest continuous democracy. The key to its relative political stability is oil, which generates about 80 percent of the government's foreign exchange reserves and which helped push per capita G.N.P. up to $4,200 in 1980, the highest in the region.
Oil wealth made Caracas one of South America's most sophisticated and modern cities. Dozens of skyscrapers dot its skyline; theaters and cultural centers abound; and posh cafes serve cappuccino and pastry.
During the boom years the poor were placated via the timehonored routes of populism and clientelism. Food prices were heavily subsidized, making meat, cheese and milk somewhat accessible, and city slums were modernized. "The government didn't do much for the poor,"' Antonio Cova, a sociologist here, told me" "but if you previously had no electricity or running water, even small improvements were significant." The populist strategy was employed by all governments, with the Democratic Action and the Social Christian (COPEI) parties alternating in power since 1958 without any serious outside challengers.
This system came crashing down in the 1980s, partly as a result of the growing burden of foreign debt. Of more direct impact, though, was the sharp fall in the international price of oil. By 1989, when CAP took office for a second term (he had also served between 1974 and 1979), it was no longer possible to maintain what sociologist Artur Sosa calls a "populist system of conciliation."
Perez pledged that he would protect the poor, but his economic recipe was straight from the I.M.E cookbook. Government spending was slashed, import duties lowered and subsidies cut for food, electricity, water and transportation. That quickly provoked "27-F"--February 27, 1989, the first of four days of bloody riots in which security forces killed anywhere from 400 to several thousand people, almost all in the poor barrios.
A year of sharp recession was followed by steady G.D.P. growth during the past three years, including 10.4 percent in 1991--hence the "miracle." But the benefits of growth have been narrowly conferred. As in the United States, many have grown rich in the stock market and through shady financial transactions. The "miracle" is seen in the ten daily flights between Caracas and Miami, where the rich go to play and shop, in the chic boutiques stocked with imported clothing, and in the country's emergence as a boom market for cellular phones.
With telephone line included, cellular phones start at around 56,000 bollvats--S650, or about six months' pay for the average worker--and have become the symbolic toy of the wealthy, ringing constantly in bars, restaurants and theaters. One fine Caracas eatcry had to ban their use after customers insisted on calling one another at their tables.
At the Palio Caffe, uniformed valets park arriving BMWs and Mercedes, while inside Venezuelan yuppies feast on asparagus tips in bearnaise sauce, carpaccio, pasta with shrimp and squid, and other delicacies. On the way out, patrons can buy "smart" drinks and magazines such as Vanity Fair, Fitness and Conde Nast Traveler, or pick up Ivana Trump's autobiography.
Meanwhile, the statistics that Venezuela's boosters like to ignore present a parallel reality:
(section) The real minimum wage in 1991 was just 44 percent of its 1987 value, and the number of people living below the poverty line leapt from 15 percent at the end of 1988 to 41 percent in 1991.
(section) Although diversification was a stated aim of the austerity program, the economy is as dependent on oil money as ever. Most of the growth has been concentrated in the import-led commercial sector, which rose by almost 30 percent last year. Industry has been virtually stagnant during CAP's term.
(section) Inflation was at a record high of 81 percent in 1989--CAP broke a pledge to go into exile if it exceeded 80 percent--and it has not fallen below 30 percent ever since.
(section) Social spending, already badly cut, will fall by another 11.9 percent this year.
Even Democratic Action had repudiated Perez's policies and sought distance from the President. "We have failed in all lines," the party's congressional leader, Henry Ramos, admitted recently.
Among the poor and working class, CAP is reviled, his popularity rating in the single digits. In May alone, following a pattern that has been consistent throughout his term, public school teachers, Caracas city employees, bus drivers and civil court workers were all on strike. At major universities students protest every Thursday. Repression has been the standard response. During the four years ending in September 1992, security forces killed 427 people. Hundreds of others died during last year's coup attempts. Ovidio Perez Morales, Archbishop of Maracaibo, calls government forces agents of "terrorism, repression and assassination."
That death count excludes the 27-F riots, one of the worst bloodbaths in recent South American history and one whose memory remains very close to the surface. As people here recall it, the police responded with relative indulgence for the first twenty-four hours while protesters sacked supermarkets and stores. Father Matias Camunas calls it "the day the people bought without paying .... celebrated the fruits of their labor as they were able ... and had food in abundance." On the second day security forces began to slaughter demonstrators and sackers. Many were shot in their homes when they were found with looted goods. Others died when police fired into the shantytowns.
Hilda Paez's 12-year-old son, Richard, died in the riots, the victim of a stray bullet fired by security agents near her home in the slum of Petare. "Before February 27 I had an illusion of happiness," she says. "1 had a family, a house we built wall by wall and a son I loved. Now I've lost my illusions, and everything else." Paez calls Venezuela a "fake democracy." "They say dictatorships take away liberty, but in our democracy of more than thirty years we have no control over politics or the police."
There will never be a definitive answer to how many died. Some were buried in mass graves; others "disappeared." The government grudgingly accepts a figure of about 270. After going door to door in the barrios and visiting hospitals and morgues, the Committee for Families of the Victims (COFAVIC) compiled a list of 396 people who died by gunshot. The centrist newspaper Economia Hoy cited a military source in a report this year who remarked, "It would be difficult to say there were fewer than 2,500 victims." Father Camunas, a human rights activist, believes the true figure is closer to 4,000.
Not a single member of the security forces has served time in connection with the massacre. One police officer was acquitted, while two others pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received probation. Hundreds of cases are still stalled in military courts.
"27-F was CAP's government in a nutshell," said Laurence Quijada Bringtown, a lawyer who works with COFAVIC. "Social standards have fallen, health and education have declined. This has generated desperation, which is made concrete in protests, which are met with violence. 27-F was a great explosion but the same thing is happening in the barrios fiery day."
Partly out of despair but also because of anger over the events of 1989, last year's abortive coups were viewed either with indifference or, especially in the case of the first uprising, on February 4, enthusiasm. That rebellion made a hero out of Lieut. Col. Hugo Chavez Frias, one of its leaders.
For weeks after, slum residents rallied in support of the rebels, chanting "Viva Chavez! The people are with you!" Relatives of the rebel officers collected 20,000 signatures on a petition calling for amnesty, and the government had to transfer Chavez to a jail in the interior to prevent crowds from gathering in front of the barracks where he was being held in Caracas.
In recent months Chavez, who proposed a vaguely leftist, anticorruption platform, has lost much of his appeal with the middle class and opposition intellectuals. "There is far less support for a coup today because people recognize that a military government would not be able to resolve our problems and the cost, in terms of repression, could be staggering," said sociologist Cova.
However, Chavez appears to maintain a following among the poor. Iris Medina lives in the San Martin barrio, where she says Chavez is overwhelmingly popular. "A coup would have meant a dictatorship, but what can be worse than what we have now?" she asks. On March 2, 1989, Medina was looking out her bedroom window with her husband, who cradled the couple's infant daughter in his arms. A soldier posted on the street opened fire without provocation, killing her husband with a shot through the chest. Their daughter, Luzdenny Estefania, was unharmed.
Medina voted for CAP in 1988 but says that was the last ballot she'll ever cast. "I don't want to be betrayed again," she said, and pointing to her daughter, added, "Because of CAP, that girl doesn't have a father.",
December's election may shatter Venezuela's two-party system.. The strongest opposition candidates are populist Rafael Caldera, a COPEl dissident and neoliberal critic, and leftist Andr6s Velasquez of Causa Radical (his party scored a big upset by taking the mayor's race in Caracas last December, despite outrageous fraud by Democratic Action). But many voters are fed up with democracy and will join Medina in sitting out the balloting; pollsters are already predicting record abstentions. First World reporters mostly extolled CAP's alleged economic achievements in their distraught postmortems, but for the majority of Venezuelans his legacy consists of greater poverty and a profound cynicism about the country's democratic system.…