Álvarez Paz in Historical Context

Today we have a guest post from friend of the house Guillermo. Originally conceived as part of OAPWeek, the piece sets out to place Álvarez Paz’s political career in its historic context.


It’s always tempting to dismiss a politician’s career in a phrase or a gesture; after all, many a path to power has been paved – or derailed – by a momentary utterance. As it happens, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz statement, during his 1993 bid for the presidency, ‘Creo en Dios y en el Mercado’, has often been quoted by left-wing media as a portrait of an allegedly fallen man, a man whose dignity and reputation should be targeted by the authorities and who needs to be demonized lest the Judiciary fail to follow the script.

What’s funny is that, in quipping that he believed ‘in God and in the free market’, OAP actually portrayed himself as succinctly as is possible. A seven word profession of faith that captures the lifelong reflection of a man, made at the zenith of his influence. 

In his somewhat hokey 1993 campaign autobiopic, OAP recalls joining politics as a rebellion against an authoritarian government, impressed as he was by the speeches of Rafael Caldera during the 1950s military regime. As it turns out, he was also moved to action by the imprisonment of his uncle, Jose Angel Paz Galarraga, then a noted AD leader and ultimately one of the leaders of its main left-wing splinter, the MEP (where he would be joined by Oswaldo’s older brother, Fernando). OAP, who was, 14 years old at the time of the fall of Perez Jimenez, decided to join the ranks of Copei, the party that, for a person with his sensibilities, was a bulwark of anti-authoritarianism (whether that authoritarianism came in the guise of a populist party like AD, from the communists or from the military right). Alas, he was a rare fish in a green pond.

Christian Democracy – the ideology Copei officially adhered to as far back as 1948 – has a strong ambivalence towards the State and, even more so, to its intervention in economic matters. CD is at once anti-collectivist and anti-individualist: the sources of contemporary catholic social thought were contrary to totalitarian Marxism just as they were wary of capitalist excesses -“the established disorder”.

Copei strove to educate in Catholic doctrine its youth wing in an effort to set them apart from the temptation of Marxist radicalism and, at the same time, promoting a sense of identity and difference from the more moderate nationalist and democratic parties like AD and URD: as such, the reflections on economics that so preoccupied the other parties were deemed by the texts read by young copeyanos as a materialistic obsession, while any economic technique or mean –be it intervention or deregulation- would be accessory to the establishment of the true goals of rightful politics: the realization of common good.

Naturally, this created a theoretical vacuum for a party who was trying to rule in the second half of the XXth Century: political leadership meant that efficiency and economic outputs were to be of the utmost consideration, as modern man expected assistance and care from its government. As such, the notions of development and productivity, and the relationship between the State and the private economic actors came to the fore. National economic systems were compared on such matters; this was the real battlefield the Cold War was fought on. Since Christian Democrats made sure to leave themselves ample wiggle room on economic matters, the ideological struggle was particularly strong within its youth wing. Laissez-faire preferences were, from the outset, something of an ideological apostasy.

By the mid sixties, Copei already had three distinct generations battling it out from the inside: the generation of 1936 (which funded UNE, the embryo of the political activism of lay Catholics in Venezuela), led by Rafael Caldera and Lorenzo Fernández, the second generation of 1946, led by Luis Herrera Campins and Pedro Pablo Aguilar, and the third generation, that of 1958, whose members would rise to the top of the party by the late seventies: Eduardo Fernández, OAP, Abdón Vivas Terán, José Rodríguez Iturbe, Humberto Calderón Berti, among others. 

Caldera loomed enormously large over the different groups, often serving as a reference –positively or negatively- for the different factions. The 1958 generation which by 1960 had the reins of the Juventud Revolucionaria Copeyana (founded in 1946 by Herrera and usually very independent from the party leadership) was split, as of itself, in three groups: the “araguatos” (orthodox conservatives, who followed the leadership of Caldera), the “avanzados” (self-fashioned as progressives, who had certain affinity towards Herrera while recognizing the importance of the “fundamental leader”) and the “astronautas” (leftists): by the mid-sixties, through the JRC’s IV Convention, this split was not only apparent, but acrimonious.

The last two groups were more enthusiastically critical of capitalism, and while Copei had declared itself a center-left party by the end of the decade (and Caldera had a rather difficult relationship with the empresarios), they urged the party to foster a more revolutionary approach. Julio César Moreno, one of the leaders of the “Avanzados”, would still declare in 1970 that Copei, by promoting workers’ cogestion over factories, was in itself “a modernizing force”, aiming for a socio-economic system fundamentally different from what were derisively dubbed as “neoliberal bourgeois models”. Development could not only be fostered without, but even against capitalism.

It was in this context that OAP emerged as a leader of the youth orthodoxy (who, in fairness, could not be dubbed as truly economically liberal group): in 1964, after Eduardo Fernandez had left the secretariat of the JRC to pursue postgraduate education in Europe and the US, Abdon Vivas Teran of the “avanzados” won the position of secretary general, while the JRC board had an “araguato” majority.

As the vocal minority of “astronautas” expressed more and more differences with the ideological bent of the party, the frictions became unbearable and Vivas Teran could not count with moderation from the left-wing and loyalty from the orthodox. The Comite Nacional stepped in, asking the youth leadership to control its radicals –who could compromise the political advance of the party- and, after this failed, ultimately relieved Vivas Teran from his position. 

Caldera personally led the intervention and strongarmed the Comite Nacional for a decisive reprimand, bringing in OAP as a conservative replacement: the young zuliano had been Secretary of Information of the regional branch party and had come in second to Vivas Teran in the JRC elections.

From this moment on, OAP was to be perceived both as an anti-left and a pro-Caldera politician within the party, aiming towards a “communitarian” economic reform that would not seek to challenge the supremacy of private property, which needed to be fostered and expanded. It’s worth remembering that at that time, any pro-market ideas were at the margins of the Venezuelan political spectrum.

But not even the “araguatos” of the 1958 generation were a docile group. They were ambitious and, as active witnesses of the party’s spectacular growth during the 1960s, aimed high. As OAP said, quoting a work by Rodolfo Jose Cardenas, his generation would step up and eventually compete for the whole leadership of the party:

“In all parties the founding generation enjoys a rather long political life. It sets its characteristic tone and it cannot help but look on all of those who came after them as youngsters, despite the passage of time. The second generation … is locked between these claws [of the first and third generation]… It often happens that the third generation tries to displace the second and sometimes becomes the temporary ally of the first in doing so.”

To what OAP added, sure of his status as heirs to the founder, that:

“… there are those in the party who seem to feel locked between two great generations: the founding group, who begins to live its stellar moment, and this generation represented by us, which is making its way in a country that is fundamentally young, and were its immediate tasks are the job of the young.”

At first, the 1958ers set short the leadership of the 1946 group, as allies of the Calderista opposition to Luis Herrera during the latter’s government, led by Eduardo Fernandez (who toppled Pedro Pablo Aguilar as Secretario General of Copei in the late seventies) and supported by OAP. The dauphins took over the party.


The 1968 victory cooled the heads of the youth: after all, most “astronautas” split from the party, and the emergence of Copei as a national party gave opportunities to rest of the youth leaders and most wound down their rethoric. OAP was defeated in the Vth JRC convention, almost to be immediately elected to Congress alongside many of his generation as a Diputado (as he would for five consecutive elections).

By 1972, he became the National Coordinator of Lorenzo Fernandez presidential campaign. Fernandez had been the right hand man of Caldera, and his preferred choice for the green ticket (winning the nomination over Luis Herrera in a very controversial convention). Even though the party was defeated by a rekindled and reenergized AD in 1973, it saw its national presence and total votes rise by over half a million. Bipartidismo finally appeared, surprinsingly: OAP would become one of the youngest speakers in the history of the Camara de Diputados, and by the end of the decade, he would be party whip.

By the 1980s, however, this seemingly smooth path to prominence stalled: it was a dauphin crowd. The rise of Eduardo Fernandez and the decline of the herreristas and pedropablistas after the resounding defeats of 1983 and 1984 made him the presumptive nominee for 1988. As a Caldera supporter, OAP had lost some of his clout and became estranged from the party leadership. Even though the Congreso Ideologico of 1986 –launched as a party-political platform for Fernandez’s 1988 campaign program- took on the ideas of the reform of the State and the liberalization of the economy, OAP was frequently criticized as holding extreme views on the matter, which were deemed as running beyond the margins of Catholic Social teachings. 

Dubbed a “neoliberal” and “vendepatria”, he held in low regard those who aimed to build their political leadership against private industry and private initiative, preferring instead to build a platform on the “vindication of liberty”. In 1985, he declared – regarding the refusal by some political actors of a public guarantee for private external debt after the 1983 devaluation – that he was concerned by the anti-private industry rethoric:

“At a time when you have to generate trust and you want to jumpstart private investment, hoping for the return of capital stored in foreign banks, then some go ahead and portray the industrialists as gangsters, and its leaders as robbers who want to swindle the Nation…but this is not that time… 

I am personally convinced that the only chance of progress Venezuela has lies in providing its private sector with a full and total vote of confidence, letting them plan the direction of the country’s economy, while the political sector gives way… This could as well be the policy of Copei… but there is no unanimous position on these matters, though I must say that some of us are drafting some working papers for the Congreso Ideológico… in order to redefine the basic attitude of Copei… Our political regime is still relevant in its fundamentals, although it is lacking in efficiency…


As for the economic system, while its freedom is guaranteed in the 1961 Constitution, it has been basically suspended from the outset… The problem lies not in one or two articles about free commerce or freedom of industry in the Constitution, but rather in an all-encompassing conception of what the drafters of the Constitution thought for Venezuela. And we have to strive for that, minding all its implications, including the forfeiture of responsibilities, needed for the State to promote the economic development of the country”.

Ultimately, his ideological leanings and his political standing weakened his position within the organization. In 1989, as the first direct elections for mayors and governors approached, OAP won in a tight race his party’s nomination for the Governorship of Zulia, campaigning against the odds. Although Copei’s strength in Zulia was significant, not all the regional leaders warmed to OAP –to some more a national than a zuliano politician- and he was behind in the polls to the MAS candidate, the charismatic Luis Homez, followed closely behind by Omar Barboza – lately reincarnated as Secretary General of Un Nuevo Tiempo – who at the time had been the appointed governor for most of Lusinchi’s term, and was the unopposed boss of Zulia’s AD.

Fortune smiled once again: Homez health deteriorated (he died a few months after the election) and OAP was able of overcoming his main rival’s lackluster campaign. Henceforth, OAP had a victory and a soapbox of his own, giving him the chance to develop the executive experience Eduardo Fernandez lacked, and the chance to watch the tensions between Caldera and the Secretario General from a safe distance. 

In 1992, he was arrested by Francisco Arias Cardenas who commandeered the Governorship for a few hours during the February 4th coup attempt. While Arias expressed privately that the military leaders respected the Zulia governor (giving him a rub off the popularity of the coupsters), Fernández would squander his political capital lending Copei’s support to Carlos Andres Perez Government. OAP was reelected by an huge margin (getting 70% of the vote) and, even though the elections were considered a victory for Copei and Fernandez, OAP could claim his rightful spot on the short-list of presidential hopefuls for 1993 or, at the very least, as a re-emerging figure given  the resurgence of Rafael Caldera.

By early 1993, Copei had opened its primaries for the presidential ticket to all registered voters, in a move aimed to have Caldera compete within the party and stave off what already looked like an imminent split. OAP tried to convince the erstwhile leader to run in the primarias, while choosing to run himself against Humberto Calderon as well as Fernandez and the party machine. OAP got a resounding victory and, after Fernandez’ uneventful concession, seemed poised for victory in December. As Caldera had been the favorite in the polls until February, AD was left for dead and La Causa R was seen as a long-shot, the race seemed to be shaping up as a two-copeyano affair.

Álvarez Paz proposed a Constituent Assembly, devised under the illusion that this do-over would promote a throughout liberalization of the country’s economic and political system, while abandoning his stance in favor of reforms within the framework of the 1961 Constitution (which a Bicameral Commission led by Caldera had attempted the previous year, only to be thwarted by media criticism). He was not alone: by then the COPRE and noted public figures like Ramon Escovar Salom had made similar proposals.

At the end Caldera and Andrés Velásquez captured the anti-economic reform vote, while OAP and Claudio Fermin (who promoted an even more liberal program than that of the Copei candidate, which was in turn framed by the help of noted economists José Toro Hardy, Eloy Anzola, Maxim Ross and Agustin Berrios) were portrayed as heirs to the partidocracia and the ‘paquete’: their modernizing efforts, just as those of Perez and Fernandez in 1988, were ultimately rejected by the voters. Anti-liberalism got 55% of the vote, while liberal reformism only received a bit over 40%.

In a sense, 1993 marked the end of OAP’s political career. He flirted with a run for Governor in 1995, but never rose to contention, and eventually decided not to run (Copei was split between supporting Arias Cardenas o the young mayor of Maracaibo, Manuel Rosales). A member by right of Copei’s Comite Nacional, he lacked a political platform, at a time when the growing power of Luis Herrera, Donald Ramirez and Enrique Mendoza (who could use his governorship of Miranda as powerful leverage) over the party was putting an end the 1958ers and their liberalism.

After the meager Copei results in 1998, OAP chose to what, in effect, meant his defection from his former political home: in 1999 he supported Hugo Chavez push for a National Constituent Assembly as a follow-up from his stance in 1993 and 1998. He was appointed member of the Comision Presidencial Constituyente, quitting after a few weeks to run, unsuccessfully, as a candidate for the Constituent Assembly on a liberal and independent platform. His dissent against the government became increasingly vocal, and this led him to fully embrace his liberal inclinations, joining efforts to promote a Liberal Party in 2001 and, ultimately, founding Alianza Popular in 2005.

Portrayed for so long as a maverick, OAP expressed in his “Mensaje a los Zulianos” –his first public statement after his arrest a month ago- that he was surprised by the support and solidarity of former friends and adversaries in defending his constitutional right to free speech. Could this be reconstituting the sort of platform a reformer could use as the basis for another run? Is 2012 completely out of the question? Can a liberal agenda inspire a nation battle-scarred from over a decade of chavismo? 

Questions worth pondering, although perhaps we would be best advised to see his current predicament as merely the fate that awaits any Venezuelan these days who joins politics to fight authority, with an outsized faith in God and the market.