Jaime Lusinchi, former Venezuelan president, dies at 89


In a 1987 photo, Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi, left, is greeted at the United Nations by Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. Mr. Lusinchi died May 21 in Caracas at age 89. (Mario Suriani/Associated Press)
May 22

Jaime Lusinchi, a former Venezuelan president who struggled to tame an economic crisis sparked by plunging oil prices in the late 1980s and saw his reputation tarnished by allegations of corruption after leaving office, died May 21 in Caracas. He was 89.

Members of his Democratic Action party confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.

Jaime Ramón Lusinchi was born May 27, 1924, in Clarines, Venezuela, and entered politics in the 1930s as an opponent to the political heir of military strongman Juan Vicente Gómez, who lorded over Venezuela from 1908 until his death in 1935.

After the 1948 overthrow of Rómulo Gallegos, the country’s first democratically elected leader, Dr. Lusinchi joined a political underground led by Democratic Action that organized marches, strikes and other actions against the 1950-1958 dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez.

In 1952, Dr. Lusinchi was thrown in jail, where he was beaten.

“I had stripes on my back like a tiger,” he once said. “I did not go swimming for many years because I didn’t want to have to explain what happened.”

He later went into exile in Argentina, Chile and eventually New York. While in the Chilean capital of Santiago, he became close to prominent local politicians, including Salvador Allende, a socialist who later governed his country from 1970 until his removal and death in a military coup three years later.

Dr. Lusinchi, a pediatrician by training, returned to Venezuela from New York, where he had worked at Lincoln Hospital and Bellevue Hospital Center, after democracy was restored in 1958.

Dr. Lusinchi served in the lower house of Congress and made an unsuccessful bid for his party’s presidential nomination in 1977. He then served in the Senate.

After being elected president in late 1983, Dr. Lusinchi struggled with an economic crisis marked by galloping inflation and a plunge in the currency that made it impossible for Venezuela to service a foreign debt that had risen sharply as a result of profligate spending during the 1970s oil boom.

Dr. Lusinchi tried to recover some of his popularity toward the end of his term by boosting salaries, imposing price caps on basic goods and expanding state subsidies. The populist measures exacerbated inflation, which soared to more than 80 percent, and drained the country’s foreign currency reserves to a historic low.

When his term ended in 1989, he did not seek reelection. In 1991, Venezuela’s Congress, although dominated by members of his party, voted to condemn Dr. Lusinchi after lawmakers discovered that he had used his position to dish out to associates dollars tightly guarded by the nation’s currency regulator.

He also was accused of stealing state funds from the National Horse Racing Institute to promote the candidacy of his party’s charismatic leader, Carlos Andrés Pérez, who succeeded Dr. Lusinchi as president.

Two years later, the Supreme Court stripped Dr. Lusinchi, then a senator for life, of his immunity from prosecution and opened a formal investigation.

Fearing arrest, he fled to Miami and then Costa Rica, where he took up residency with his former private secretary and longtime lover, Blanca Ibáñez. While president, he had a very public divorce from his wife of more than 40 years, Gladys Castillo de Lusinchi, and he later married Ibáñez.

Charges against Dr. Lusinchi were dropped after courts ruled that the statute of limitations had run out.

At the urging of then-President Hugo Chávez, the high court in 1999 revived the Lusinchi case and a separate investigation of Pérez. Dr. Lusinchi charged that the investigation was part of a politically motivated campaign by Chávez.

Dr. Lusinchi returned to Caracas in 2009 after suffering complications from a gastric ulcer that had forced him to undergo an emergency treatment in Miami. He refused almost all contact with the press for the last two decades of his life.

Dr. Lusinchi had five children with his first wife.

— From staff and wire reports

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