December 24, 2009 / 7:41 PM / 9 years ago

Two-time Venezuelan president Caldera dies at 93

CARACAS (Reuters) - Rafael Caldera, who served twice as Venezuela’s president and released current leader Hugo Chavez from jail after his failed coup attempt in the 1990s, died at age 93 on Thursday, his family said.

Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera addresses the nation in a speech televised from the Miraflores Palace in this December 7, 1998 file photo. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

Caldera, a lawyer and veteran politician who ruled South America’s top oil exporter between 1969-1974 and 1994-1999, suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He died in Caracas.

Long viewed as the most principled and legally minded of Venezuela’s presidents, Caldera was widely referred to, even by his opponents, as “the doctor,” for his judicial expertise.

In 1994, he pardoned Chavez for his abortive 1992 coup. Caldera handed over the presidency to Chavez in early 1999.

Months later, however, he voiced opposition to Chavez’s successful bid to enact a socialist-minded 1999 constitution.

Many Chavez opponents who once revered Caldera now regard him in a lesser light because of the Chavez pardon.

The Caldera family said Saturday it did not want the Chavez government to offer a state funeral with military honors.

Caldera was born January 24, 1916 in San Felipe, capital of the northwestern state of Yaracuy. An orphan adopted by a wealthy family, he earned a doctorate in law from the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

At 29, he sprang to national prominence becoming attorney general during Venezuela’s brief 1940s flirtation with democracy after four decades of iron rule by dictators.

Under the 1948-1958 military dictatorship Caldera was sent into exile after being jailed for four months.

After Venezuela’s return to democracy, he won election in 1968 as leader of the Christian Democratic COPEI party.

His controversial 1960s pacification policy granted amnesty to Cuban-backed leftist rebels. Guerrillas of that era included Ali Rodriguez, now oil minister, and Teodoro Petkoff, later a prominent socialist politician.

“He (Caldera) was a politician in the most noble sense of the word,” said Petkoff after offering his condolences at Caldera’s home. “He was a statesman,” Petkoff said, adding that the former president helped solidify the country’s democracy.

Caldera won re-election in 1993 with the support of a broad coalition, including Petkoff’s Movement Toward Socialism party and the Communist party, which he legalized in his first term.

But his second term was marked by a traumatic financial crisis that sunk half of Venezuela’s banks and cost the state some $11 billion.

Caldera’s son, Andres Caldera, said his father would be buried on Saturday.

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