Rafael Caldera dies; president led Venezuela to democracy

In Caracas, a priest reads from a Bible next to where the former Venezuelan president lies in state.
In Caracas, a priest reads from a Bible next to where the former Venezuelan president lies in state. (Fernando Llano/associated Press)
Friday, December 25, 2009

Former Venezuelan president Rafael Antonio Caldera, 93, who helped found the country's democracy after years of dictatorship and issued a pardon that paved the way for Hugo Chavez to rise to power, died Dec. 24 in the capital city of Caracas. He had Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Caldera was born in 1916 in the northwestern state of Yaracuy. He received a political science degree from the Central University of Venezuela, entered politics in the 1930s and founded the Social-Christian COPEI party in 1946.

He was one of the three signers of the Punto Fijo pact, which organized democratic elections after the fall of dictator Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. Under the pact, COPEI and Romulo Betancourt's Democratic Action party shared power for nearly 40 years.

As president from 1969 to 1974, Mr. Caldera eliminated the remnants of leftist guerrilla movements by granting them a general amnesty. The period was also marked by lavish government spending of oil revenue on public works and a growing bureaucracy.

Two decades later, with Venezuela in turmoil after two failed military coup attempts and the impeachment of President Carlos Andres Perez on corruption charges, Mr. Caldera won a new term in 1993 without the backing of COPEI, breaking the Punto Fijo power-sharing pact he had helped craft.

In office, Mr. Caldera soon confronted the nation's worst banking crisis, in which half of Venezuelan banks failed. He decreed price and currency exchange controls to surmount the crisis and focused on development in interior Venezuela.

Mr. Caldera led the country through relative stability -- and also granted amnesty to a young army paratroop commander behind one of the 1992 coup attempts: Chavez, who four years later would be elected to succeed Mr. Caldera.

Chavez and the author of his release from jail were later at odds, however.

In a 2003 newspaper interview, Mr. Caldera warned that violence could ensue if Chavez, using state resources, blocked efforts to hold a recall referendum on his leftist presidency. Mr. Caldera questioned the legitimacy of a new constitution under which Chavez has increased his power.

Chavez shot back that the comments "reflect the depths of desperation" that opponents to his rule had reached. He blamed Mr. Caldera and others for creating a corrupt system that left millions of Venezuelans to live in poverty.

His son Andres Caldera said Thursday that the former president's relatives do not want the current government to play any role in commemorating him. "The family has already discussed the matter, and we decided we will not accept any homage from the government of Hugo Chavez," he said.

Although 20 years divided his terms, Mr. Caldera's manner of ruling was the same: reserved, tough with political adversaries and inclined toward populism. He was also known for living simply and eschewing luxuries and for being a clean public servant in a country where corruption is common.

-- Associated Press

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