The incoming president of Venezuela’s congress came out swinging Monday, saying President Nicolás Maduro should consider stepping down and that the new opposition-led National Assembly will take the administration to task over security, the economy and healthcare.
In an interview with Globovisión, Henry Ramos Allup said congress, which will be sworn in Tuesday, hopes to work with the socialist administration, but that it also has the constitutional right to oust Maduro before the next election in 2019.
Ramos said the legislature might consider a national referendum or overhauling the constitution as ways of shortening the president’s tenure. Asked if that might be considered a “legislative coup” he said the mechanisms were sanctioned within the constitution.
“If the president wants to resign, that’s [also] a mechanism. It’s the government’s decision,” he said. “And I think President Maduro should be thinking of that possibility…If it’s an avenue that helps solve the political crisis, why discard it?”
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When the National Assembly goes into session, it will mark the first time in more than 15 years that the opposition has controlled the body. On Sunday night, Ramos, a tough-talking 72-year-old, was elected by his colleagues to become the president once congress is sworn in.
Ramos’ ascendency resonates in deeply polarized Venezuela. A lawyer who first entered national politics in 1994, Ramos is the head of the Acción Democrática party and has been a vociferous, and often colorful, critic of the socialist administration.
But he’s also been on the receiving end of attacks from a government that has painted him as the symbol of everything wrong with the “Fourth Republic” — a time before Hugo Chávez won office, embraced “21st Century Socialism” and rewrote the constitution in 1999.
Héctor Rodríguez, an incoming deputy for the ruling party, called Ramos a throwback to the country’s neo-liberal economic past, where public services were privatized and big capital held sway.
The opposition “said they represented change but they have given us more of the same,” Rodríguez said. “We’re the new generation, which was born in the times of Chávez.”
While Ramos doesn’t shy from fights, he’s also a pragmatist.
In 2014, after nationwide protests, Maduro called for dialogue with the opposition. While many critics refused to participate in what they considered a charade, Ramos insisted that the televised encounters would be, at the very least, a way for the opposition to raise its voice.
On Monday, Ramos seemed to reassure the administration, saying the new congress isn’t interested in “witch hunts” or outright confrontation but does want to begin to legislate and be a check on power.
He blasted the current rubber-stamp congress, controlled by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), for only meeting once a week and giving the president broad decree powers last year.
They never debated, they never legislated and they never regulated anything.
Henry Ramos, the new National Assembly President, on the current congress
“I understand perfectly why they only met once a week and I would understand if they never met,” he said. “They never debated, they never legislated and they never regulated anything.”
In particular, Ramos said congress would resume its duty of holding hearings and prying information out of cabinet members. The Central Bank, for example, hasn’t released inflation data (thought to be among the world’s highest) since 2014.
“Many ministers and public officials will be questioned,” he said. “But people should know that questioning isn’t tantamount to a firing squad, it’s a normal parliamentary mechanism to retrieve information so that the legislature can form opinions…and make the decisions that need to be made.”
Just how deep the political battle might run could become clear Tuesday.
Last month, a Supreme Court — freshly packed with pro-administration supporters — suspended three opposition deputies from Amazon State, putting the opposition’s super-majority at risk. Even so, the MUD opposition coalition is holding a rally Tuesday to escort all 112 of its representative to the congressional palace for swearing-in.
Nearby, the PSUV will be holding its own demonstration, and there are fears that pro-government groups known as collectivos might provoke street clashes.
‘The armed forces role in securing the National Assembly surroundings will serve as a key indicator’ of the country’s future.
Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior political analyst, IHS Country Risk
“The armed forces role in securing the National Assembly surroundings will serve as a key indicator” of the country’s future, Diego Moya-Ocampos, a senior political analyst with IHS Country Risk said Monday.
The dueling rallies, and concerns about the swearing-in, underline “the climate of political confrontation and government instability …where the armed forces will play a key role behind the scenes,” he added.
Both Ramos and the PSUV’s Rodríguez on Monday called on their followers to remain peaceful.
The new legislature has a tough road ahead. The nation is reeling from a recession, shortages and soaring violence and inflation. It was those problems — as much as anything else — that gave the opposition a landslide victory in the Dec. 6 race, and the population will be demanding quick answers.
Ramos acknowledged the challenges, saying congress would have to push a raft of measures simultaneously. But he said crime is the “first of all the nation’s problems.”
According to United Nations figures, Venezuela has the highest murder rate in the world after Honduras. The government quit releasing comprehensive homicide statistics in 2003, but the Observatory of Venezuelan Violence (OVV), a civil-society group, reported a record 27,875 violent deaths in 2015.
“This is a problem that the government needs to confront but isn’t confronting,” Ramos said. “Venezuela’s lack of prestige begins with insecurity. Everywhere in the world we’re considered a dangerous, high-risk country.”
Another opposition priority is an “amnesty law” that would allow for the release of dozens of political prisoners and allow others to return from exile.
Maduro has said he would “reject” any attempts to pardon people like politician Leopoldo Lopez and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, which the administration blames for protests in 2014 that left more than 40 dead on both sides of the political divide.
Asked why the law was so important, considering it only benefits a relative few, Ramos said it was an “emblematic” measure.
“It’s an issue,” he said, “of reestablishing justice.”