Combative Venezuela opposition leader will head congress

AP News
Posted: Jan 03, 2016 7:51 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — An outspoken opposition leader known for embracing confrontation was selected Sunday to head the new congress that will open in two days as a counterweight to Venezuela's socialist administration.

The body's newly elected opposition majority voted to make Henry Ramos Allup the president of the National Assembly when it is seated Tuesday, the first time foes of the administration have had control of any government institution in more than a decade.

Although he hasn't joined in street protests against the government, Ramos won the leadership vote with the help of opposition hard-liners who favor demonstrations and other direct confrontation with President Nicolas Maduro's administration. Ramos beat more moderate lawmaker Julio Borges, whose Justice First party advocates negotiation with Maduro and a focus on the ballot box.

Ramos said the new National Assembly will show Venezuelans a better, more democratic way forward, and called Borges an essential part of building that new path.

"We ask the people to watch us, to demand more of us, and keep an eye on what we do to make sure that we honor our commitment," he said.

The leadership vote underlined a perennial split within the opposition that has seen moderates and hard-liners exchange barbs since their coalition's landslide victory over the socialists in Dec. 6 legislative elections.

Justice First leader Henrique Capriles, a governor who narrowly lost to Maduro in the last presidential election in 2013, says the opposition's legislative victory was a vindication of his party's focus on building electoral support district by district. In recent weeks, he has lambasted opposition leaders who have advocated street activism, particularly a wave of protests that shut down parts of Venezuela in 2014 and resulted in dozens of deaths.

Carpriles said that if the opposition had continued to pursue open confrontation in the streets, the coalition would never have won congress. Confrontation "must be named among our greatest national failures," he told the Venezuelan weekly Tal Cual.

Supporters of Capriles' chief rival, the imprisoned hardline opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, angrily rejected that criticism. Lopez's father, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, tweeted that he was glad Capriles is a governor and doesn't have a seat in the "new, brave congress." He also backed Ramos' leadership bid.

Lopez has been sentenced to more than a decade in prison in connection with his leadership of the 2014 protests, and he consistently polls as one of the nation's most popular leaders along with Capriles.