LIMA, Peru—The tragedy of Carlos Andres Perez, the epoch-making two-time president of Venezuela whose recent death in exile has reverberated politically across the Spanish-speaking world, is also his country’s tragedy—and that of the few Latin American nations in which republican institutions have been swept away by populist revolution.

His first government, in the 1970s, saw Perez emerge as a leader in the realm of Third World politics thanks to the oil shock that inundated Venezuela and other members of OPEC, the oil producing cartel, with petrodollars, plus his larger-than-life persona and his international leadership. The tragedy began when Perez, who had played an important role in the preservation of the rule of law from the challenge of Fidel Castro-inspired terrorist guerrillas in the 1960s, used his country’s wealth to concentrate colossal amounts of economic power in the state in the name of democratic socialism.

Perez could have done for Venezuela what only a few years later Spain’s socialist leader, Felipe Gonzalez, would do for his: overcome the ideological taboo according to which left-wing politicians could not abandon Keynesian fiscal policies, price controls and nationalizations. He could have been, for the 1970s, what Luis Inacio Lula da Silva was for Brazil this past decade, at least in terms of domestic politics. But he chose otherwise, and in so doing, this charismatic and influential leader helped delay the transformation of Latin America’s left.

As Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner reminds us in a recent article in The Miami Herald, Perez was one of a group of Latin American leftist leaders who believed in republican institutions as opposed to revolution and dictatorship. But the economic system that he and others put in place in Venezuela, a country that only a few decades earlier had been a capitalist powerhouse that attracted immigrants from many underdeveloped nations as well as some rich ones, squandered the hard-won prosperity. The socioeconomic deterioration brought about by statism weakened the country’s institutions.

By the time Perez was back in power, in 1989, Venezuela was not only economically backward but also institutionally frail. When he decided, in a fatal volte-face, to undo many of the features of economic nationalism and embrace the market, the rules of the political game in Venezuela were those of a moribund republic in which personal vendetta, verbal and physical violence, and mob rule were more powerful than the law. In 1992, Hugo Chavez, then an unknown lieutenant general, staged a coup against Perez. It failed, but it also signified the beginning of the end of the republic.

Moises Naim, the former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, has written in Venezuela’s El Nacional that despite Perez’s many flaws, he was a greater man than most of his enemies. This is unquestionably true. The pretext under which he was impeached in 1993 and thrown in jail for a while—that the discretionary fund allowed Venezuelan presidents had been partly used to protect Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro during the tempestuous days of her victory over Sandinista dictator Daniel Ortega—looks infinitely stupid from the perspective of today. The series of events unleashed by that political crisis eventually resulted, with Chavez’s rise to power, in what we see now: Venezuela in political and economic ruin—and gradually turning into the dictator’s fiefdom. Perez saw what was coming more clearly than most and never stopped denouncing it.

I had the chance to visit with him a couple of times in the early part of the past decade—both in the Dominican Republic, where he was spending some of his time in exile before Venezuela’s pressure on that country forced him to move permanently to the United States. The battle-hardened soldier had become sadly wise about his country’s fate and that of the few countries in which populist authoritarianism was still a dominant force. Invoking his long experience in combating dictatorships—his first exile had taken place as far back as the late 1940s—I asked him how long the Chavez regime would last.

“Precisely because I have known too many autocrats, I have learned not to predict anything.” Perez replied. “But the difference, this time, is that we are all guilty.” He meant that his countrymen and women had committed political suicide and would probably have to spend a very long time in purgatory. He was right, of course.