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Venezuela's Ex-President Awaits Trial in Prison

EL Junquito has never had a live-in president.

But the Caracas minimum-security prison is now home to former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez.

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Not only is the incarceration of Mr. Perez unprecedented in Venezuela, it is virtually unheard of in Latin America for an ex-president to go to jail for alleged crimes committed while in office.

In Brazil, President Fernando Collor de Mello was forced out of office in 1992 amid public protests over allegations of a billion-dollar, influence-peddling scheme. But Mr. Collor, if found guilty, will only pay a small fine and not serve jail time, according to the Brazilian attorney general.

Last week, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ordered Perez imprisoned without bail while awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement and misuse of public funds. The Supreme Court justices did not explain why Perez was jailed instead of being placed under house arrest, the normal procedure. Perez denies the charges, claiming he is a victim of ``political revenge.''

Polls show Venezuelans are tired of corruption and see it as a major problem in their country. President Rafael Caldera Rodriguez, elected last December, was elected on an anticorruption platform.

``This is very healthy for democracy in Venezuela,'' says Gustavo Coronel, president of Pro-Quality of Life, a Caracas-based civic group. ``The fact that an ex-president can be put in jail like any other citizen is a step forward. In the past, there was a huge gap between the treatment of a citizen and that of a powerful politician. Of course, we must wait and see if he's found guilty or not.''

But Perez's political party did not wait for the verdict. The day after his arrest, the Democratic Action Party decided to ``exclude'' Perez from the party, an apparent precursor to a vote to permanently expel him, expected to be taken within the week.

Venezuelan political analyst Rita Funaro suspects political motives are behind the court's decision to jail and try Perez. The case against him is weak, she says.

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``You could probably find 101 things Carlos Andres Perez is guilty of, but this is probably not one of them,'' says Ms. Funaro, director of VenEconomia, a Caracas consulting firm. ``It's a little like the Al Capone syndrome: They can't get him for murder so they get him on tax fraud. But the strategy may backfire on his enemies. It may eventually be seen as a miscarriage of justice and make him into a martyr, when he isn't martyr material.''

Perez was impeached by the Venezuelan Congress in May 1993. The charges against the two-term president stem from allegations that he profited from the transfer of 250 million bolivars ($1.8 million) from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of the President in 1989. In the process, the funds were converted to dollars at a special exchange rate, which allegedly provided Perez with a personal gain of $10 million.

BY law, the Venezuelan president does not have to account for money spent on ``security and defense.'' And the principal charge against Perez is that he misused public funds by sending Venezuelan agents to act as bodyguards for Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Ms. Chamorro claims she does not know the source of the funds, but praises Perez for ``helping Nicaraguan democracy.''

``Supporting democracy in the region can be seen as a national security issue. That is a question of government policy. But it is not a legal question,'' Funaro says.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court voted 10-5 to try Perez. The dissenting judges questioned whether he could be charged with both malfeasance and embezzlement. ``He either misused the money or he embezzled it. Which is it? And can they prove it?'' Funaro wonders.

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