Court authorizes trial of Venezuelan president on embezzlement charges


CARACAS, Venezuela -- Clearing the way for an impeachment trial, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that grounds existed to prosecute President Carlos Andres Perez on charges of embezzling and misappropriating $17 million in government funds.

Today, Mr. Perez is expected to be stripped of his presidential powers by a Senate vote giving final authorization for Venezuela's first presidential impeachment trial.

AMr. Perez's fall would end the career of a grand old man of Latin American politics, a 70-year-old survivor of jailings, exile, Communist guerrillas and, last year, two military coup attempts.

But residents of this capital greeted the Supreme Court vote with whistles and firecrackers and the banging of pots.

With horns blowing, caravans of cars streamed through streets near the modern Supreme Court building, passing walls daubed with anti-Perez graffiti reading "CAP Thief" and "Jail for the Big Rat Perez."

"Honesty has triumphed," bellowed an opposition congressman, Orlando Fernandez, as joyous crowds waved flags and celebrated outside the whitewashed neo-classical Congress building. At nightfall, the police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of 1,000 people chanting anti-Perez slogans.

Nevertheless, some business people worried yesterday about the political stability of Venezuela, which has the hemisphere's largest oil reserves. The country's 35-year-old civilian democracy Latin America's oldest.

Venezuela is the second-largest source of U.S. oil imports, after Saudi Arabia, and per capita its 20 million inhabitants are Latin America's largest importers of American products.

Sometimes called "Miami with mountains," this highly Americanized capital is a mix of expressways, glass-sheathed high-rises and shantytowns, all cupped in a verdant bowl formed by the Andes.

"The oil will keep flowing, but our concern is over the economic reforms," a U.S. diplomat said, echoing uncertainty here that Venezuela's next president will continue Mr. Perez's 4-year-old campaign to dismantle state controls over the economy.

If the Senate, which is controlled by Mr. Perez's enemies, votes to authorize the impeachment trial, Octavio Lepage, the Senate's president, would temporarily assume presidential powers.

Within 30 days of the vote, Congress would elect an acting president to serve the remainder of Mr. Perez's five-year term, which expires next Feb. 2.

To smooth a seemingly inevitable transfer of power, all members of Perez's Cabinet submitted their resignations yesterday.

Irrespective of the impeachment drive, candidates are already campaigning for presidential elections, scheduled on Dec. 5.

In a separate campaign, Mr. Perez plans to travel around the nation, trying to clear his name "for history." Until a possible conviction, he will continue to enjoy the title of president and live in the official residence.

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