Pugnacious septuagenarian is new face of buoyant Venezuela opposition

by Reuters
Wednesday, 6 January 2016 20:22 GMT

By Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS, Jan 6 (Reuters) - A U.S. ambassador described him as abrasive and arrogant. President Nicolas Maduro called him a fascist dinosaur. And a blogger likened him to Machiavellian anti-hero Frank Underwood in TV series House of Cards.

Yet Henry Ramos, the rambunctious 72-year-old leader of Venezuela's oldest active political party, has turned the tables on his many detractors to take leadership of the OPEC nation's new opposition-led legislature.

A lawyer and career politician who has long led the Democratic Action party, Ramos represents the more strident wing of the opposition coalition and has quickly set the National Assembly on a collision course with Maduro.

"We offered within six months ... to propose a method, a system to change government by constitutional means," he said at the legislature's inaugural session on Tuesday shortly after being sworn in as president.

"We will do exactly that!"

The opposition trounced the ruling Socialists in legislative elections last month, taking control of the National Assembly for the first time since Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, and winning a potentially game-changing two-thirds majority.

Though Democratic Action, founded in 1941, won only the second-highest number of seats among the parties who make up the opposition coalition, the wily Ramos outmaneuvered rivals to be voted in as speaker by the opposition legislative bloc.

That was a blow to opposition moderates and a propaganda gift to Socialist Party hardliners who characterize Ramos and his party as a throwback to corrupt and elitist rule in the decades preceding Chavez's presidency.

"The generation of 40 years ago is returning," said Hector Perez, 52, a photographer who marched to the National Assembly on Tuesday alongside hundreds of other government supporters.

Opposition hardliners are delighted to have someone with Ramos' antagonistic approach, sharp tongue and long experience at the helm to combat "Chavismo", the political movement named after the former leader who died of cancer in 2013.

They want Ramos to lead a drive towards a recall referendum later this year, to remove Maduro and force a new presidential election. The constitution allows for such a vote half-way through a president's term, which comes up this year for Maduro, if the opposition garners the nearly 4 million signatures needed to trigger it.


Followers of moderate opposition leaders like two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and Julio Borges who heads the coalition's largest party in parliament First Justice, fear Ramos' protagonism will worsen political polarization and distract from more pressing economic issues.

"It's a gift to the government ... He's too symbolic of the past and too capricious," said one opposition aide, who asked not to be named for fear of stoking rifts within the fragile opposition.

Venezuelans, including disaffected "Chavistas" who voted for the opposition last month, are sick of political bickering and want action to fix a crumbling economy with triple digit inflation and widespread shortages.

"This National Assembly is not about revenge ... it's not the Assembly of the opposition but the Assembly for solutions," Capriles urged this week.

While supporters in the opposition view Ramos as a veteran warrior for their cause, some younger activists see him as the face of past opposition failures such as a 2005 boycott of legislative elections and fraud claims after a 2004 referendum.

His cantankerous style has also raised eyebrows.

A 2006 memo signed by then U.S. ambassador William Brownfield said Ramos was the root of his party's problems and during one meeting with U.S. officials had pounded the table and insulted rival politicians.

"Ramos is crude, abrasive, arrogant and thin-skinned," said the cable published by Wikileaks. "His style is not unlike that of President Hugo Chavez." (https://goo.gl/uhNKds)

Soon after the government's loss in December, Ramos made a throat-slitting gesture that upset many people.

He also caused a stir at the weekend when he called Tareck El Aissami, a prominent socialist governor who like Ramos is of Lebanese origin, the "sultan" and "caliph" of Aragua state.

Then on Wednesday, a video circulating on social media showed him in the National Assembly's garden waving goodbye to decorations featuring the faces of Chavez and Maduro.

"This isn't a cemetery," he gruffly told workmen. "I don't want to see Chavez nor Maduro. Take all that garbage to Miraflores (the presidential palace)." (Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, Corina Pons, Brian Ellsworth and Liamar Ramos.; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray)

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Pugnacious septuagenarian is new face of buoyant Venezuela opposition

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