Rafael Caldera, Venezuelan President for two periods (69-73, 94-99) died on Christmas day. Anything you say about him can be controversial. He was a love him/hate him type of personality, because as is characteristic of so many Venezuelan political leaders, his ambition drove him and he put that above everything, as demonstrated that after being the leader of the so called “right” in Venezuela for over 40 years, he became the candidate of the “left” in 1994, when he was elected for his second term.
A lot has been said in the last few days and, I must say, I have disagreed with a lot of it, which is in part the reason for this post. But in any case, how can a blog about Venezuela not have at least some discussion of Caldera and his life?
Let me start by saying very clearly that I never liked the guy. He was simply too arrogant and his belief that he knew everything is what eventually led him to make many mistakes. In fact, I think that his second term arose from this arrogance. He thought he could be the savior, even worse, he thought he was the only possible savior. Thus his failure. But I am getting ahead of myself in describing my view of the man. So, I will mostly talk about what I disagree with in the evaluation of Caldera’s legacy.
Caldera ran for President six times. Everyone said he was a Democrat, but he never promoted internal democracy in his social-christian party, but this is a characteristic of Venezuela’s limited democracy, parties are formed to promote the messiah who founded it. In 1987, Caldera realized that he would lose to Eduardo Fernandez in the party’s convention, so he stepped aside. In 1994 he realized that he would lose again at the party’s convention, thus he left his party when he saw the possibility of becoming the candidate of a large fraction of the country’s left. As easy as that, a founder of our democracy, but not a full democrat at heart.
Caldera first term in office was not that bad. World conditions were tough, Congress was controlled by the opposition, but in general Caldera had a Cabinet of professionals which managed to execute well and impose a vision of development, which continued the work of Betancourt and Leoni on the infrastructure side, together with appeasement internally and integration of the country internationally by reapproachment to the radical countries that AD had broken relations with.
Had Caldera set aside his ambition to be reelected, history would have judged him well. But Caldera, a masterful speaker, could not stand aside, and as soon as the required two terms went by after his first Presidential term, he ran again. And he won the nomination pushing aside the younger generation of his party. But he lost. He lost, because he was the candidate for the party in office, his own party COPEI, after the disastrous Luis Herrera Presidency. But he was never that popular anyway (He won his first and second terms with only 30% of the vote) and lost.
And then…he tried to run again against his arch enemy Carlos Andres Perez, but Eduardo Fernandez had been grinding around the country supporting his party leaders and Caldera stepped aside. Fernandez lost badly agaisnt CAP, he was not as charismatic as Carlos Andres Perez and everyone wanted CAP’s first term to return.
And then comes Caldera’s most controversial moments. First, on the day of the 92 coup, he did not back it, but justified it. Curiously, Eduardo Fernandez went to join Carlos Andres Perez at the TV station where he had fled, in order to defend democracy. That was the end of Fernandez’ political career.
Even if Fernandez tried again to be candidate in the next election in 1994, he opened the party to too much democracy, allowing non-members to vote in a primary, except that surprisingly, people chose Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, the Governor of Zulia and not him. Caldera did not even try to participate, he was outside the country. He returned two months later and announced he would be the candidate of a coalition of left wing parties, including MAS (Socialists), PCV (Communists), MEP and URD, creating the Convergencia party. He won thanks to these parties, the people from COPEI who voted for him and those that thought Caldera represented their dissatisfaction with the way the country was going. And it was that speech in 1992 that gained him that reputation and was key in his win. In some sense he was the first beneficiary of the coup. Caldera really thought he could be the one to run the country peaceful for five years, even if he only got 30% of the vote.
I really don’t assign much importance to Caldera pardoning Chavez. It was the natural thing for him to do, the continuation of his “pacification” policies of his first term. They worked in the late 60’s, it is typical to think that the same trick will work twice. It back lashed, but I think every other candidate would have done the same and if Chavez had not been pardoned, another group of military leaders would have overthrown the Government and freed Chavez anyway. Chavez would have gotten to the top by elections or by force anyway.
Caldera’s second term reflected his arrogance. While there was going to be a financial crisis created in the years before him, the whole crisis unraveled when he decided to remove the President of the Central Bank. The whole crisis was mismanaged, taking the currency from around Bs. 50 per dollar to Bs. 120 in a couple of months, as people fled the currency and Caldera threatened to nationalize the banking system. He then established exchange controls, and monthly inflation reached an annualized 120% level in January 1995 which led him to overhaul his Cabinet and bring in Petkoff. Petkoff tried to reform things completing the privatization of CANTV, changing severance pay, opening the oil sector and reforming the local pension system, which was never implemented. It was a completely different second part to the Caldera Government. But then, oil prices collapsed and people felt it hard and the perception of the Government was that it was simply terrible. Chavez came and won.
The rest, as they say is history.
This is my very brief personal view of what Caldera meant to Venezuela, emphasizing the parts that I disagree with that I have read about the last few days. He did participate in establishing the country’s basic modern democracy, but he failed to see the need for opening the political process to younger generations. Perhaps if Caldera had been elected in 1989, the opposition would have swallowed better the same reforms that Carlos Andres Perez enacted but is not given recognition for. Governors were elected thanks to these and a new generation of young politicians was supposed to come from that. Caldera stopped their development, Chavez crushed it.
(OK, take it apart)