Rafael Caldera passes away, leaving a mixed legacy

December 28, 2009

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)

29 Responses to “Rafael Caldera passes away, leaving a mixed legacy”

  1. captainccs Says:

    Caldera was a demagogue. The party’s name says it all:

    Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente, COPEI

    COPEI was hastily organized in 1946 to get Caldera elected. It was just, as the name says, a tool to get organized for the elections. It was only two years later, in 1948, that the party acquired an ideology. Since “Social Democrat” was already taken by AD, they opted for “Social Christian.”

    From the COPEI’s own website:

    ” COPEI nace como un partido ideológico y se proclama como tal, desde su misma fundación el 13 de enero de 1946. Nació para brindar a los venezolanos una plataforma política para las elecciones de la Asamblea Constituyente del 27 de octubre de 1946. De allí se deriva su nombre fundacional “Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente” cuyas siglas es COPEI.

    No obstante, su consolidación definitiva como partido político surge propiamente en su III Convención Nacional en marzo de 1948, en la cual, se definió el partido como Social Cristiano, conservando sus siglas COPEI. COPEI apareció para que las elecciones prometidas al pueblo por la Revolución de Octubre de 1.945 no constituyeran una farsa más sino que se cumplieran por la participación libre y ordenada de los ciudadanos.”

    http://www.partidocopei.org.ve/web/pages.php?pageid=2

    There were very few comments about Caldera’s demise on Twitter. The one that stood out for me said: “How curious that no one has said they liked Caldera.”

    His biggest sin was to let Chavez out of jail.

  2. deananash Says:

    Miguel, to me the most interesting part of this post is where you state “Chavez would have gotten to the top by elections or by force anyway.”

    Are you saying that Chavez was inevitable? That is such an interesting concept that I’ve never heard expressed before. Certainly from my short 3 years there (’89-’92, including Chavez’s golpe) I could sense that the country was headed toward hell, but the optimist in me always held out hope that the people would wake up.

    Of course, I now realize that the problem wasn’t their sleeping, but rather, their lack of education.

    Still, I’m not convinced that Chavez was inevitable. Perhaps a dictator was inevitable, but not necessarily him. Is that what you meant?

  3. jiec Says:

    I subscribe to the notion that Chavez was a consequence of the circumstances, and not someone who defined his destiny. Chavez was first elected because he spoke the truth. Mind you, his solutions to the truths of which he spoke were, to put it mildly, less than adequate; but anybody with some charisma who would have recognized the need for acknowledgement of 80% of the Venezuelan population, would have gotten elected.

  4. amieres Says:

    Miguel
    This is a very good summary of Caldera and I agree almost a 100%.

  5. Kepler Says:

    Good sumary, Miguel.

    Now, you say Hugo was innevitable. I agree. The question is why. When we understand why something like him was bound to happen we come to realize that the worst is not him. One of my mantras apart from education: Hugo is the lethal TB, but Venezuela has socio-cultural and socio-economic AIDS.
    It needs a full treatment.
    Hugo is very bad, the worst we have had, but he is just one gollem produced by Venezuelans raping their own country and thinking about themselves and not the community (Venezuelans can be very generous with the people they see, not with the abstract community they live in, with what is beyond their eyes). He is the mean Venezuelan, if not the average.
    Venezuelans do crave to hear the truth, but only to some extent. Most are not aware that Venezuela cannot be prosperous through oil anymore, that it will take big sacrifices from a lot of Venezuelans and an increase in general productivity.
    I think it will take a very smart group of Venezuelans (oh, the pox with “a” leader) to tell the whole truth and at the same time not scare the people away.

  6. Robert Says:

    I can’t get over the fact that a military coup “leader” was let off the hook so easily. It just feels too much like a lack of respect of the legal system (sound familiar?). If there were serious legal/prison consequences to being a golpista, maybe the trend in LA to release coupsters would not be so prevalent and coups would not have been so prevalent. Or maybe I am naive. Still, the rule of law should stand and not be so readily waived, for whatever reason. I think Venezuela has had trouble with this concept.

  7. bruni Says:

    Miguel, I also prepared a post about Caldera..amazing how we judge him pretty much the same way. I also embedded the 1992 speech.

    http://cuentosintrascendentes.blogspot.com/2009/12/la-muerte-de-rafael-caldera.html

  8. firepigette Says:

    Excellent post Miguel and well organized.

    I agree with much of what you say but disagree with your idea that Chavez was inevitable.

    Nothing is inevitable.All the steps that lead to an end are a part of the results.The more external power someone has, the larger the step.

    What is true is that the general conditions in Venezuela were ripe for a dictator.These conditions are many.

    Education( not in the sense of finishing high school but rather in the sense of independent thinking AND feeling) is the main cause of adherence to a powerful personality or leader.

    The longer Venezuelans are manipulated from the truth, the harder it will be to get them out of the dependent quagmire.It will be scary and it will hurt.

    The group think of ordinary Venezuelan politics is not capable of helping the population by the very nature of its beast.

    Most likely it will require dedication from each and every person who recognizes what the problem is and does his or her part instead of waiting for consensus.This movement of individuals will eventually behave as a consensus.This can happen in an atmosphere of non judging better than in an atmosphere where society is too judgmental.

    New solutions require new ways of perceiving reality.

    The time is ripe for single individuals to stand up and make a difference and stop waiting to see what everyone else does.It is time for folks to put aside fear of isolation and or anonymity.

    Unity is not a solution of weak individuals into one “individual”, it is about distinct individuals who cooperate with each other to foster a common goal.The difference is like night and day.In one you have the subordination to group think and the other you have all different opinions cooperating when necessary.

  9. Douglas Says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your post Miguel. Caldera was always blinded by his ambitions. His disrespect for the bright young COPEI political generation is legendary. I don’t agree about the inevitability of Chavez’s pardon or electability. I would have kept him in jail, (I cannot fathom how he did not get to pay for his responsibility in the killing of hundreds of innocents), purged the armed forces of the extremist elements, (everybody knew who they were), and accelerated the political reform that was already taking form, (initiated by CAP we have to say). I lived in Zulia at the time and witnessed the difference when governors and city mayors began to be popularly elected officials, (the difference in the quality of government was astounding and immediate). I know the quality was not even around the country but in Zulia it made a difference that I think is partially reflected in the lack of enthusiasm for Chavismo, (even though Arias Cárdenas was elected and served 2 terms as a decent governor before Chavez’s arrival). The key to all this is which would have been the political personality that could do all this and avoid what happened. I agree that Caldera precipitated things with his terrible second term.

  10. Kepler Says:

    Geha, great link.
    Things are so rotten…any chances Venezuela will become cleaner any time during our lifetime?

  11. JuanCristobal Says:

    Sorry Miguel, but we’ll have to disagree. By equating all of Caldera’s events, you are not providing an analysis, it’s more like a summary. Clearly, pardoning Chavez was much more significant and controversial move than, say, investing in infrastructure in his first term. The consequences of that act are still being felt.

    Unlike you, I do not think that somebody would have overthrown Caldera had Chavez not been pardoned. Venezuela has had three coup attempts in the last 17 years, and none of them have worked. Caldera would have finished his term anyway. Pardoning Chavez was a bone-headed decision.

  12. firepigette Says:

    Whether or not the next in line would have pardoned Chavez might be probable but certainly not provable and it still does not alter the fact that Caldera pardoned the unpardonable, therefore doing grave damage.

  13. firepigette Says:

    Miguel,

    There may have been a middle path of reducing or commuting Chavez’s sentence without giving him the total pardon which implied justifying and accepting his rebellion as proper.By withholding total pardon Chavez would not have had the right to participate as a democratic candidate in the system he tried to destroy.

  14. Zumbao Says:

    What I remember of Caldera’s first term is how repressive it was against young people. There were a series of “operaciones” with constant harassment by the police, check points and raids all the time.
    I also remember the poster of some blond German chick that Copei recycled from the German Christian Democrats.
    And how about the faces that Alicia Pietri made whenever she had to stand next to and (god forbid) touch some poor person.

  15. Kepler Says:

    Zumbao, never heard of that about Pietri, but looking at her pictures, she seems like the kind of person.

  16. bruni Says:

    Miguel, I just left a note about that pardon on CC. It is true that other candidates would have pardoned Chavez but why pardon him before being sentenced instead of after.

    The fact that Chávez never got a firm sentence is what allowed him to run for President. If Caldera had pardoned him AFTER, it would have required a major
    Constitutional amedment BEFORE Chavez could have run.

    So the conclusion may be that the guy DID want Chavez as a president after him…

  17. Roger Says:

    My opinion of him at the time was that he was under the influence of those around him. Much like Paez in his last term listening to Rojas. What got me most was that he seemed to start or end or sometimes both almost every sentence with ” La Democracia” much like Chavez does with ” la revolution” and such. If Chavez is a reincarnation of anyone it would have to be General Falcon who deposed Paez and what little democracy Venezuela had at the time. Both Caldera and Paez lamented they actions in latter years and so did and will Venezuelans who placed their trust in these men.

  18. moses Says:

    Miguel:

    Dont downplay the infraestructure that was uilt in the 1970´s. For example in Caracas:

    – Most of Av. Boyaca (Also known as Cota Mil)
    – Second Floor of Prados del Este Highway, including La Trinidad Tunnel
    – First Station of Subway System (Agua Salud)
    – El Ciempies Distributor
    – Connection of Autopista del Este Highway to Av. Boyaca
    – Caricuao housing development and highway that conencted it

    In fact after these highways were built, not much has been done in Caracas since 1974…. and oil was $ 3,50 a barrel ….

  19. moctavio Says:

    Bruni: Please understand something, Caldera was part of the “Notables” that could care less that CAP was elected, they wanted CAP out, period, and Chavez did it for them, they thought the coup was justified and had Chavez to thank for it. On top of that Caldera was the left’s candidate, he had NO reason to block Chavez’ political path, the same way he did not block the people he pardoned in the late 60’s from participating in political life, despite the fact that many of them, including Petkoff, were terrorists and murderers, why should (in their minds) Chavez be different?

    Moses: I am writing about Caldera, what happened in the 70’s is irrelevant o this post, when CAP dies, I will say the same.

  20. GWEH Says:

    removing CAP2 from office (which Caldera oversaw) was the biggest mistake of all followed by Chavez pardon. Caldera is at the top of my list of people responsible for today.

  21. GWEH Says:

    Alsom, Caldera and son were key behind-the-scenes players during Carmonazo. What a bunch of idiots.

  22. deananash Says:

    GWEH, with all due respect, I think that the blame for today falls on the heads of the Venezuelan people at large. And the Devil’s Excrement only made things worse.

    To paraphrase a quote I love “wealth doesn’t change people, it only unmasks them”. You can substitute “power” or “misfortune” for “love”.

  23. Kepler Says:

    Gweh, I assume your people were one way or the other very close to cap.
    The guy was indeed at the head of a government that got people shot indiscriminately. He also was very much involved in corruption and in lavish spending.
    Don’t you remember the villa built with luxurious marble for cap’s mistress in one of Venezuela’s islands?
    For less than that prime ministers and presidents have to leave office in democratic countries.

  24. GWEH Says:

    it was under Caldera that the FAN (DGIM) quit vetting officers and soldiers for leftist-subversive tendencies under the pacifism policies mentioned earlier thus allowing the cancer to grow and groups like MBR-200 to eventually develop. In the old days, DGIM was tasked with identifying these bad apples and removing them from the military.

    Kepler, removing CAP was the beggining of the end of institutionality in Venezuela. Today, most if not all of the key players involved in CAPs ouster regret that move. Lets not get sidetracked with details about mistresses and whatnot… I am not defending that and you of all people should know that’s the way it was, it is and always will be. Don’t for one second think I am defending CAPs behaviour. However, CAP was a DEMOCRAT and stepped down when he could have easily taken the country over forcefully… yes he had the power to do so.

  25. Robert Says:

    Are some of the “Caldera not so bad” proponents here implying that if an assa**in came to Venezuela and assa**inated someone which turned out for the greater good, this assa**in would be out of jail in a couple years?

  26. Kepler Says:

    Gweh,

    The mistress was for me only relevant in as much as she was the recepient of state money. It could have been his son or his mother: he very openly spent millions that were not his on a luxury at the very moment a spoiled country was asked to do some sacrifices (which were necessary but badly communicated, but that is another issue).

    As for that is the way it will always be: I reject that. If we think that is the nature of things, we can forget about Venezuela, it will be less and less tenable with less and less petrodollars per person.

  27. bruni Says:

    OK Miguel, I totally agree with your comment on Caldera being part of the Notables that directly or indirectly overthrow CAP…but then your argument that anybody would have pardoned Chávez to pacify the country is watered down.

    I never liked the Notables, a group that calls itself “Notable” is already suspicious for me (BTW do you have the list?).

    Caldera had a second motive, and that it is why he pardons him before Chávez was sentenced, not after.

  28. moses Says:

    Miuel:

    On my 29-Dec comment I meant that all these infraestructure was built in the first Caldera Government 68-73, and I had forgotten Parque Central, including Caracas (and Venezuelas) tallest buildings, aprox. 55 floors.

    Many peple living in Caraacs drive everyday to their works and do not realize that they are sing these highways

    You ave also to mention the 100,000 houses / apartments per yaer which was achieved in his last year (1973)

    Regards,


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