CARACAS, VENEZUELA, MAY 21 -- The Venezuelan Senate voted unanimously today to suspend President Carlos Andres Perez from office and authorize the Supreme Court to prosecute him on charges that he misused government funds.
Senate President Octavio Lepage was sworn in as acting president while the embattled Perez vacated the Miraflores presidential palace, which was the focal point of two bloody military attempts to oust him in the last 15 months.
Perez's suspension marks the first time in 35 years of democratic rule here that a president has been impeached.
The Senate vote, following Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello's resignation last year when faced with corruption charges, marks a new stage in the development of "a stable and open democracy" in Latin America, said Luis Raul Matos, a legislator from the Movement to Socialism party.
Former presidents are facing trial in Costa Rica, Panama and Peru. A Bolivian ex-military ruler received a 30-year sentence in absentia last month for theft of state funds.
Legislators praised the impeachment process here as heralding a political awakening among Venezuelans and the start of a new era of accountability for elected officials.
Perez and two former ministers are to stand trial before the Supreme Court on charges of misappropriating and embezzling $17 million in government funds shortly after Perez took office in 1989. The money originally had been designated as a secret Interior Ministry discretionary fund and was to be doled out for national security activities. But according to court documents, the money was transferred -- in cash -- to an account directly under the president's control, after which it disappeared.
The Caracas stock exchange jumped 725 points today, bringing the total increase to more than 1,000 points, or nearly 5 percent, in the two days of Supreme Court and Senate deliberations over Perez's political fate.
While senators debated the constitutional details of the presidential transition, hundreds of angry demonstrators outside denounced the proceedings, arguing that corruption in government has not been halted just because Perez has stepped aside.
"Lepage is just another thief," shouted Rafael Hernan Rodriguez, an unemployed actor. "We need to make them all pay for what they have robbed from us," he said of the legislators.
Thousands of demonstrators, most chanting support for jailed army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a coup attempt against Perez in February 1992, held vigil outside the legislative chambers awaiting the vote on Perez's fate. They clashed briefly with riot police and national guardsmen Thursday night, but no violence was reported today.
A diplomat agreed with the demonstrators' assessment of corruption in government, saying that Perez's departure will not eliminate the problem. He noted that recent opinion polls show the legislature and judiciary as being even more unpopular than Perez.
Senate debate underscored the untested and unclear nature of Venezuela's constitutional process for impeaching a president. During nearly four hours of debate, the focal point was not the guilt or innocence of Perez but rather the terms and conditions of Lepage's ascension to the presidency.
Lepage and other members of Perez's Democratic Action party argued that the acting president is permitted by the constitution to remain in office 90 days, after which the legislature must elect a permanent replacement to fill out the remainder of Perez's five-year term, which ends in February. Opposition senators maintained that Lepage is limited by the constitution to only 30 days in office.
The Senate left the issue unresolved. Former president Rafael Caldera, a Christian Democrat who is a current presidential candidate, said this was "dangerous and worrying."
Diplomats and politicians warned that the specter of instability raised by the transition leaves an open door for the military to attempt another coup.
Lepage, in his first statement after assuming the presidency, pointedly praised the "professionalism" of the armed forces in maintaining public security during the constitutional crisis. He said the process witnessed today marked "a transcendental exercise in the perfection of democracy" aimed at restoring popular confidence in government.
In an address to the nation Thursday night, Perez said he would depart "neither beaten nor broken" and denied any wrongdoing. He has maintained that because the funds were contained in a classified discretionary account, his government is not legally obligated to account for them.
No date has been set for the start of Perez's Supreme Court trial. The diplomat predicted it would last several months, concluding after Perez's official term of office has expired.