U.S. officials once had dim view of Venezuela’s opposition leader

Venezuela's incoming parliamentary President Henry Ramos Allup after a news conference Jan. 8 at the National Assembly building in Caracas.
Venezuela's incoming parliamentary President Henry Ramos Allup after a news conference Jan. 8 at the National Assembly building in Caracas. AP

It’s probably safe to say that if Henry Ramos Allup had been picked to lead the Venezuelan National Assembly 10 years ago, the United States would have been concerned.

An American diplomat in Caracas in 2006 called Ramos Allup “unimaginative, overconfident, and even repellent,” according to a State Department cable that is among the tens of thousands published by the WikiLeaks website.

In other cables among the WikiLeaks trove, U.S. officials criticized the opposition’s lack of political acumen. They blamed leaders for failing to offer a credible alternative to the socialist leadership of then President Hugo Chávez and of stifling new voices among Chávez opponents. They excoriated Ramos Allup for what they thought was an ill-advised decision to boycott elections. They showered praise on young opposition figures, such as Leopoldo López, who was described as “telegenic and articulate” and who they hoped would rise to the fore.

A decade later, however, López, a popular former Caracas mayor, is in jail, and it is Ramos Allup, 72, who has been picked to lead the first National Assembly in 16 years to be dominated by the opposition. Ramos Allup received 62 votes, beating out his closest opposition rival, Julio Borges.

It will fall to Ramos to hold the opposition coalition together as it seeks to find ways to reverse many of Chávez’s policies even as Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, vows not to give in.

Does the U.S. government still feel that Ramos is a poor pick to run Venezuela’s opposition?

Former U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy, who served in Caracas from 2007 to 2010, after the Ramos Allup cable was written, would not address the classified messages. But he said a lot has changed since that period when opposition groups were better known for their differences and the unidentified diplomat offered his scathing assessment.

“Reflect on what they’ve just been through and yet they did hold together,” Duddy, who is a visiting senior lecturer at Duke University, said of the Venezuelan opposition. While he acknowledged that Ramos was “a polemical figure” because of his role as leader of Democratic Action, a political party whose corrupt and incompetent leadership is often blamed for giving Chávez the opening to take power, he also said his election as president of the National Assembly had gone “very well.”

“Obviously, for some people, the new president is a polemical figure in large measure because of his association with (Democratic Action) and the traditional parties,” Duddy said. “But the vote was orderly and the results were celebrated by all elements of the opposition.”

Ramos Allup quickly stoked divisions with the government and angered loyalists by having pictures of Chávez removed from the assembly building. A video emerged showing Ramos Allup instructing workers to remove the larger-than-life portraits. “This place is not a cemetery,” he said.

Previously, Ramos Allup’s claim to political fame had been leading an opposition boycott of the 2005 congressional elections. As a result, Chávez’s supporters ended up taking all 167 seats of the National Assembly.

Whether Ramos Allup can continue to keep the 112 opposition deputies united remains the major question. During a recent trip to Washington, former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana said that was the concern of many Latin American leaders.

“Outside of Venezuela, people think the opposition is not united,” Pastrana said.

U.S. State Department officials wouldn’t address the leaked cables specifically. Spokesman Joseph Crook said communications between the field and Washington ensure that policymakers in Washington have a full understanding of all the factors at play when they make decisions and don’t necessarily reflect official policy.

“Field reporting is often candid and often out of context,” Crook said. “Analysis expressed in cables may also be out of context, or may be the opinion of the reporting officer – and those opinions may not be shared by policymakers.”

In the decade-old cables, U.S. diplomats criticized Ramos Allup and other opposition leaders for failing to court Venezuelan voters and for focusing instead on seeking help from the international community, including repeatedly asking for money and favors from the U.S. Embassy.

“Allup is as overconfident as he is unimaginative,” a U.S diplomat wrote in an April 17, 2006, cable, which was classified by then-acting political counselor Mark Wells, who is now the head of the State Department’s Cuba desk. “He tends to rest on his increasingly obsolete laurels as the head of the largest opposition party, a title he claimed repeatedly.”

In another cable, diplomats said it was time for the grass roots to retain its voice and allow new leaders to emerge over “the opposition’s leadership dinosaurs.” Meanwhile, they noted how Leopoldo López, then 35, had distinguished himself as a mayor, his enduring popularity and charisma, and his skills leading three successful rallies in Caracas.

“He is now even more widely regarded as one of the best hopes for the future,” a diplomat wrote in another 2006 cable.

The fact that the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD by its Spanish initials, was able to stick together and win a supermajority of assembly seats is significant considering the group’s long history of internal strife and lack of cohesion. Nearly a dozen parties make up the coalition, and they have never agreed on a long-term political strategy beyond their opposition to Chavismo.

The United States should want the opposition to do well, but Duddy said U.S. leaders must be careful to “not only nurture, but also insist on democratic governance.”

“When the U.S. operates unilaterally, it can galvanize the opposition against us,” Duddy said.

Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College, said the opposition’s ability to stay united could depend on what issues it chooses to pursue. The country’s economic circumstances are extremely dire, and divisions are likely to emerge if the opposition confronts sensitive economic policy.

Opposition leaders already have voiced differing opinions on whether the assembly should pursue pushing Maduro from office. But Corrales said Maduro could be a potent force that will help the opposition stay united.

“The more Maduro veers to the left, and the more Maduro treats the opposition in a horrible manner, the higher the chances of them staying together,” he said.