I wrote this story for the Dallas Morning News. It was published on Feb. 1, 1996.
CARACAS, Venezuela – Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, under house arrest on corruption charges, knows about political controversy. And he has a few words of advice for his good friend Colombian President Ernesto Samper, caught in a drug-corruption scandal that threatens to topple him from power.
Let the authorities investigate. Forget the idea of a referendum to let Colombians decide whether Mr. Samper should resign. Don’t interfere with the country’s democratic institutions. And let the chips fall where they may. Mr. Samper is accused of accepting about $6 million in contributions from Colombian drug traffickers during his 1994 presidential campaign.
“A political candidate can’t accept money from drug traffickers,” said Mr. Perez. “Drug trafficking is the most horrendous crime there is. The truth or falsity of those charges must be determined.”
Mr. Samper vehemently denies that he knowingly took drug money and has called for a referendum to find out whether Colombians want him to quit. He also accuses his foes of dark political conspiracies and says someone – he doesn’t make it clear who – opposes his “aggressive” social and economic policies. He says that’s a big reason for his predicament.
Comparing himself to a landlord, Mr. Samper said he had expected as president to “manage a penthouse” but found “a basement full of bandits, guerrillas and people interested in undermining the legitimacy of the country.”
Political leaders who sense they’re headed for a fall often blame political rivals for their troubles, said David Jordan, an analyst of South American politics and former U.S. ambassador in Peru.
“They come up with the most appropriate smoke screen that they can, one that gives them as much of a popular following as possible,” he said. “Very rarely does the public official say, `Yeah, I’m guilty of this. You caught me.’ ”
Toughing it out and facing the charges head-on as Mr. Samper has done “is a reasonably good tactic,” Mr. Jordan said. “There are always some people who believe you.”
Mr. Samper said that if any drug money found its way into his presidential campaign, “it was behind my back.” The political opposition doesn’t believe that and has cut all ties with Mr. Samper. But organized labor and some high-level military leaders continue to support the president.
The scandal erupted last summer and intensified last week when Mr. Samper’s former campaign manager, Fernando Botero, told Colombian authorities that the Samper presidential campaign received about $6 million in contributions from drug traffickers.
Colombian lawmakers Tuesday began considering whether to reopen a congressional inquiry that could lead to the president’s impeachment. In addition, Mr. Samper may be charged in the case unless he’s able to strike a deal that would give him immunity, authorities said.
Mr. Samper is the third South American president in recent years to face the loss of his post over corruption charges.
For more than a year, Mr. Perez has been under house arrest in Caracas on charges of diverting $17 million in secret government funds. He was forced out of the presidency in May 1993, six months after former Brazilian President Fernando Collor was ousted for his alleged role in a corruption scandal.
Mr. Samper’s case stands out for two reasons: The charges against him are considered more serious by many law enforcement officials, and the role of the United States is much more central.
“The U.S. has exerted tremendous pressure on Colombia,” said Coletta Youngers, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group. “Colombia in many ways has become a test of the Clinton administration’s resolve that it is tough on drugs.”
Brazil’s Collor episode didn’t attract nearly the same attention from Washington as the Samper scandal. Mr. Collor was Brazil’s first freely elected president after 25 years of military dictatorship, and he rose to office with the promise, “Whoever steals goes to jail!”
In November 1992, he was charged with taking part in a scheme to extort millions of dollars in kickbacks from public-works contractors. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets, dancing, singing and demanding that he resign.
Mr. Collor called himself the victim of political elites who didn’t like his social programs. But the pressure to quit was unrelenting, and he stepped down. He was acquitted of corruption charges in December 1994.
Mr. Perez’s case is in limbo, although the Venezuelan Supreme Court is reported close to ruling on the charges against him.
While under house arrest at his luxurious hillside villa, Mr. Perez hammers away at the administration of President Rafael Caldera – by phone, fax, even electronic mail.
“I have cybernetics to escape,” he said in an interview. “I get a lot of messages from all over, from Texas, New York, Chicago, from across the United States.”
Like his besieged counterparts in Brazil and Colombia, Mr. Perez is not popular with his countrymen.
“Why is it that he’s living in a mansion, and we’ve barely got a roof over our head? He’s a monster,” said Rodolfo Tovar, 38, a Caracas vendor who sells arepas , or griddle cakes made from corn.
Other Venezuelans are more charitable.
“He was a good president. I wish he were back,” said Donefacio Sanchez, 54, a retired government worker in the coastal town of Naiguata. “This country’s in an economic crisis, and it’s bad, bad, bad.”
The Venezuelan economy, one of the most troubled in all of Latin America, has been suffering since the collapse of the banking system in January 1994. The latest blow came in December when the government devalued the currency, the bolivar , by 41 percent.
Mr. Perez, 73, said Venezuela wouldn’t be in such sad economic shape if he were still in power.
“We’ve got to return to the policies of my government,” he said.
That’s the case Mr. Perez continues to make from his gilded cage, receiving visitors and tapping away on his computer.
“For me, the days begin much like they used to. I get ready for work as if I were going out. The only thing is, I can’t leave. I’m a prisoner.”
Armed guards are posted at the entrance to his house, which overlooks a lush, green valley. But Mr. Perez said they really aren’t needed because he wouldn’t think of trying to leave. That, he said, would only help his enemies.
“The government would be happy to see me flee. Then I’d be a fugitive. They could say, `See, he’s the guilty one.’