The New York Times
November 13, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 11 — Luis Herrera Campíns, a former president whose years in office were marked by bountiful oil riches and a painful economic bust when oil prices plunged in the early 1980s, died here on Friday. He was 82.
Mr. Herrera Campíns had multiple health problems, including a kidney infection and Alzheimer’s disease, the Caracas daily newspaper El Universal said.
When his term began in 1979, he inherited a country with South America’s highest per capita income and a decades-old democracy in a region of military dictatorships. But a spending spree by his predecessor, Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had nationalized the oil industry, left ballooning foreign debt.
A founder of the moderately conservative Copei party, Mr. Herrera Campíns pledged to control extravagant expenditures. However, a surge in oil prices soon allowed him to finance ambitious projects, like Caracas’s Metro and the opulent Teresa Carreño Theater, which in addition to staging musical and theatrical performances is now used by President Hugo Chávez for fiery policy speeches.
Moved in part by territorial claims, Mr. Herrera Campíns developed a muscular foreign policy. He signed an agreement with Mexico in 1980 to jointly provide Central American and Caribbean countries with a steady flow of oil, a precursor of Mr. Chávez’s wide-reaching oil diplomacy in the developing world.
And in 1982 he sided with Argentina in its war with Britain over the Falklands, adroitly exploiting anti-British and anti-American sentiment to boost his flagging popularity. His support for Argentina came while he was asserting Venezuela’s longstanding claim to more than half of neighboring Guyana, a former British colony.
Mr. Herrera Campíns took to politics as a law student in the 1950s, organizing a strike against the dictatorship of Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez. He became a provincial lawyer and journalist. Imprisoned for several months, he went into exile in Spain and Germany, where he wrote influential essays and columns for Venezuelan newspapers and magazines.
He returned to Venezuela after General Pérez Jiménez’s fall in 1958 and was elected to congress.
Born to a family of modest means in the interior plains, he was rarely seen in public without a dark suit and a black tie, cutting a drab figure in a country known for its flash in the booming 1970s, when it was dubbed “Saudi Venezuela.”
That boom came to a definitive end in 1983, when low oil prices forced Mr. Herrera Campíns to sharply devalue the currency, the bolívar. It was the start of a long economic slide that has been halted only in recent years by record oil revenues. After his term ended in 1984, he drifted somewhat into obscurity.
Retiring to his modest house here, he made headlines when gunmen stole his car in 2001. Afterward, he could be seen on foot wearing old clothes and carrying his own groceries. Information on Mr. Herrera Campíns’s survivors was not available.
He was considered an exception in Venezuela’s recent political history: a leader who clearly had not allowed himself or his family to grow rich while in office.
“In an era of opulence and revolutionary hypocrisy, Luis Herrera Campíns died in austerity,” Simón Alberto Consalvi, a columnist, wrote in the Caracas newspaper El Nacional. He said that penury, in a nation again going through an oil boom with corruption and conspicuous consumption, was “the best recognition one can make of a president.”