Ex-Venezuela President Lusinchi dies at 89

AP News
Posted: May 22, 2014 9:46 AM
Ex-Venezuela President Lusinchi dies at 89

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Former Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi, who struggled to tame an economic crisis sparked by plunging oil prices in the late 1980s and then saw his reputation tarnished by allegations of corruption after leaving office, has died at age 89.

His death in Caracas on Wednesday was confirmed by members of his Democractic Action party. He had been hospitalized for a long infection.

Lusinchi entered politics at a teenager in the 1930s as an opponent to the political heir of military strongman Juan Vicente Gomez, who lorded over Venezuela from 1908 until his death in 1935.

After the overthrow of the country's first democratically elected leader in 1948, he joined the political underground led by Democratic Action that organized marches, strikes and other actions against the 1950-1958 dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez.

For his activities he was jailed in 1952 and later went into exile in Argentina, Chile and eventually New York. While in the Chilean capital of Santiago, he became close with prominent local politicians, including democratic Socialist Salvador Allende, who later governed his country from 1970 until his removal in a military coup three years later.

A surgeon by training, Lusinchi as president struggled with an economic crisis marked by galloping inflation and a plunge in the currency that made it impossible for Venezuela to service a foreign debt that had rose sharply as a result of profligate spending during the 1970s oil boom.

Lusinchi tried to recover some of his popularity toward the end of his 1984-1989 rule by boosting salaries, imposing price caps on basic goods and expanding state subsidies. But the populist measures only exacerbated inflation, which soared to over 80 percent, and drained the country's foreign currency reserves to a historic low.

His reputation was tarnished after he left office by allegations of corruption. In 1991, Venezuela's Congress, dominated by members of his party, voted to condemn Lusinchi after lawmakers discovered he had used his position to dish out to associates dollars tightly guarded by the nation's currency regulator. He was also accused of stealing state funds from the National Horse Racing Institute to promote the candidacy of his party's charismatic leader, Carlos Andres Perez, who succeeded Lusinchi as president for the second time.

Two years later, the Supreme Court stripped the then senator for life of his immunity from prosecution and opened a formal probe. Before being arrested, he fled to Miami and then Costa Rica, where he took up residency with his former private secretary and longtime lover, Blanca Ibanez. The two were later married.

Charges were later dropped after courts ruled that the statute of limitations had run out.

But at the urging of then-President Hugo Chavez, the high court in 1999 revived the case against Lusinchi and a separate probe against Perez. Lusinchi charged that the investigation was part of a politically motivated campaign by Chavez to persecute his opponents.

Lusinchi returned to Caracas in 2009 from Miami after suffering complications from a gastric ulcer that had forced him to undergo an emergency treatment in the American city. A sign of how far in disrepute he had fallen after leaving office, he refused almost all contact with the press for the last two decades of his life.