Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Henry Ramos Allup is set to become the next president of Venezuela’s National Assembly today.

Without a doubt, the victory of the anti-chavista opposition in the December 6 elections was one of the most improbable and most impressive wins in world politics in 2015.Venezuela Flag Icon

With a two-thirds majority that the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is still trying to defend from attacks from the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the opposition today took control of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), the legislative branch of Venezuela’s government. That will continue to be true, no matter if the PSUV tries to invalidate a handful of MUD deputies or if president Nicolas Maduro tries to create an alternative chavista-dominated popular assembly.

For the first time since 1999, the chavistas haven’t controlled the National Assembly. Naturally, it was a momentous occasion. For now, the Venezuelan people seem firmly behind the opposition, in the hopes that they can push Maduro toward reforms to provide economic relief after years of socialist policies and, perhaps more damningly, widespread corruption, handouts to socialist allies like Cuba and Nicaragua and mismanagement of PdVSA, the state petroleum company, which has only accelerated losses stemming from the global decline in oil prices.

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But that’s also why it’s so disappointing that the MUD coalition chose as the president of the National Assembly the 72-year-old Henry Ramos Allup, a longtime fixture on the Venezuelan opposition and a throwback to the ancien régime that proved so corrupt and incapable that it opened the path to Hugo Chávez’s perfectly democratic election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998.

Let’s start with the good news. Ramos Allup, it’s true, was chosen through a democratic process, an internal vote among the 112 MUD deputies. He easily defeated Julio Borges, another opposition figure close to former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, by a vote of 63 to 49 over the weekend. He’s one of the few figures within the opposition to have some experience of Venezuelan governance before chavismo and, truth be told, he’s a tough and wily character who will not easily be rolled. (Though, almost immediately after the new majority took power in the National Assembly, the chavista deputies, including the former Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, promptly walked out).

Then again, for an opposition that hopes to present itself as a fresh movement of good government and reform capable to bringing change to Venezuela, it’s a curious choice.

Ramos Allup is the leader of Acción Democrática (AD, Democratic Action), the second-largest party in the MUD coalition and perhaps the most important of the two parties that controlled Venezuela during the ‘fourth republic’ era from 1958 to 1999. Formed in 1941 to advance the cause of a democratic Venezuela, it was a vehicle for Rómulo Betancourt, a center-left president who tried to enact land reform while befriending the United States and alienating Castro’s Cuba. In later years, the AD’s Carlos Andrés Pérez delivered a corruption-filled government during the 1970s oil boom years and difficult economic reforms that led to the Caracazo riots in 1989.

Chavista capo Diosdado Cabello, the outgoing National Assembly president, shook hands briefly with his successor, Henry Ramos Allup, before the chavista benches walked out of the legislature.
Chavista capo Diosdado Cabello (left), the outgoing National Assembly president, shook hands briefly with his successor, Henry Ramos Allup (right), before the chavista benches walked out of the legislature.

Here’s what a US Department of State cable had to say about Ramos Allup in April 2006:

…Ramos Allup, is unimaginative, overconfident, and even repellent. Rather than seeking unity among the opposition, Ramos Allup insults other party officials. Rather than formulate a platform, AD officials plead for help from the international community, whose representatives Ramos Allup also disrespects. Because AD is an extremely centralized party even by Venezuelan standards, officials with alternate views rarely have a voice. Challengers to Ramos Allup wind up marginalized.

The cable also notes that Ramos Allup is ‘crude, abrasive, arrogant, and thin-skinned,’ argues that his ‘grandstanding’ style isn’t remarkably different than Chávez’s himself and predicted that he is as ‘overconfident as he is unimaginative.’

This, then, is the new leader of Venezuela’s legislative branch in 2016.

Though elected as one of the handful of opposition deputies in the 2000 legislative elections, Ramos Allup masterminded the opposition’s plot to recall Chávez in 2004 and boycott the 2005 elections. Both strategies, however, ultimately backfired (Chávez won the recall referendum with 59% of the vote) and led to a new generation of opposition leaders during the Chávez era and, ultimately, the MUD’s creation in time for the 2012 presidential election.

Ramos Allup has also been the subject of corruption and nepotism allegations, he has made homophobic remarks and he has attacked the press and the blogosphere, often in the petty and demeaning tones you typically hear from the chavistas. It’s not an overstatement to argue that he is essentially the opposition’s analog to Diosdado Cabello, one of the generals of chavismo and, until today, the president of the National Assembly.

Given the internal politics of the MUD, it’s not hard to understand how Ramos Allup outpaced Borges. Democratic Action controls 25 of the MUD’s 112 seats in the National Assembly. The more cautious center-right party of Capriles and Borges, Primero Justicia (PJ, Justice First), formed in 2000, controls 33 seats.

An additional 19 seats are held by Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT, A New Era), a regional party formed in Zulia state that’s close to AD and to Ramos Allup. An additional 15 seats are held by Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), a party founded in 2009 by Leopoldo López, who was imprisoned in 2014 on charges widely believed to be politically motivated after leading anti-Maduro protests (though that may change now that his allies control the National Assembly). A further 20 deputies from other backgrounds are also part of the MUD coalition.

All of the MUD’s parties are more or less in agreement that Venezuela’s economic policy needs to take a turn toward liberal orthodoxy, though the details are more complicated. The MUD is actually far more split over the strategic issue over how to deal with Maduro and the chavistas. López founded his Popular Will precisely to advance a more aggressive, even impatient tone with chavismo, and that was clear enough during the 2014 protests. Capriles, Borges and the PJ leadership have always been far more hesitant and gradual in their outlook. After December’s elections, Ramos Allup quickly took up the mantle of change (including a push to recall Maduro from the presidency), bringing the Popular Will partisans to his side. Sure enough, Ramos Allup basically said in his first speech to the National Assembly on Tuesday that he would set a recall process in motion within six months.

But if a presidential recall happens in 2016, Capriles seems far likeliest to emerge as the leading candidate, despite López’s popularity. If that happens and Capriles wins the presidency, it means that both the executive and legislative branches of government will be in the hands of just one party within the MUD. So it makes sense that the smaller parties would join forces with the AD to keep the National Assembly presidency out of Borges’s hands (who, in any event, will serve as Ramos Allup’s whip).

The good-faith opposition in Venezuela has waited a long time for today. But Ramos Allup’s elevation to such a powerful role could force voters to have second thoughts about the nature of the new majority that they just empowered.

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