Henry and The Aristóbulo Factor

One way to read MUD's U-Turn over the three Amazonas State diputados is that an embryonic modus vivendi is arising from negotiations with the new Vice-president.

In the fulness of time, we may come to appreciate that the biggest political story in Venezuela yesterday was not MUD’s decision to backpedal on the three deputies from Amazonas State. The biggest political story in Venezuela yesterday was Henry Ramos Allup’s revelation that he has opened a direct communication channel with the new vice-president, Aristóbulo Istúriz.

Ramos Allup didn’t explicitly link his decision to backtrack on the three Amazonas diputados to his talks with Aristóbulo, but a buen entendedor, pocas palabras. Post-Aristóbulo talks, Henry sketched a definition of the new National Assembly’s role that is notable for its circumspection: the new Assembly, he said, would “legislate, oversee and debate”.

That’s a far cry from than the comecandela rhetoric about regime-change-within-six-months that earned him Voluntad Popular’s support in his quest to become National Assembly president. You can’t help but wonder how the Henristóbulo bromance is playing in the López clan right now.

So which one is the real Henry, the antichavista firebrand of viral YouTube clips and VP hearts? Or the gladhandling pol who’ll cut a deal with Aristóbulo to safeguard his power?

Probably neither. Or both. Henry Ramos Allup is unencumbered by strong core beliefs that might get in the way of a quick tactical maneuver. That’s the whole reason he’s able to turn on a dime: he’s a tactical pol, the diametrical opposite of a conviction politician. This is a feature, not a bug. If you’re the kind of person whose stomach is turned by that kind of thing, you’re into antipolítica and you don’t know it.

But what about Aristóbulo? I actually know the guy personally – I used to pal around with him in the halcyon days of the mid-90s, when he was a pencil-thin, penniless former mayor of Caracas and Causa R organizer.

He was notable then largely for his brains. This isn’t something you can say about a lot of chavista regime higher-ups, but Istúriz is friggin’ smart. He gets macroeconomics, has a live interest in all things political. Exceptionally for a Venezuelan político, he’s relatively low ego, almost self-efacing at times, and happy to play second fiddle. And he’s famously funny, too.

Is he a bit of a far left loony on top of all that? You betcha. Still, he’s a chavista with a capacity to think outside the constricted shackles of SiBCI sloganeering, a guy with a tactical sense of his own and, in that sense, a rara avis in the upper echelons of chavismo. He was badly underutilized as Anzoátegui State governor, and bringing him into the vice-presidency strikes me as a rare, bold tactical move from Maduro – and an especially bold one if his marching orders are to liaise with the new AN majority.

Aristóbulo’s role is still to be fleshed out. Things change so quickly in Venezuela these days, it’s hard to stake out positions with any certainty. But already the difference between his approach and Diosdado’s seems wide enough to talk of a split.

While Diosdado and his loyalists at the Supreme Tribunal stake out maximalist terrain liable to back Maduro into an impossible corner, Aristóbulo seems busy working out an implicit modus vivendi with Ramos Allup’s National Assembly.

Diosdado’s maximalism threatened to put President Maduro in an impossible position: either turn up to give his State of the Union Speech in front of an Assembly his own Supreme Tribunal had basically just outlawed or facing the international isolation and domestic loss of legitimacy that would’ve come from simply ignoring the clear constitutional mandate to give his Memoria y Cuenta speech in the National Assembly no later than Friday. That was a lose-lose proposition for Maduro – finding some kind of arreglo that allowed him to avoid either of those positions was his best option.

Similarly, for Henry, the political costs of holding firm on the three Southern Deputies must have come to look exhorbitant. He looked likely to end up as the leader of a non-entitity locked in a constitutional war with the rest of the state, with no money, no real power and, potentially, no relevance either.

In short, just like Dorothy Kronick argued here just four days before the December 6th election, a la hora de las chiquiticas both chavismo and the opposition realized that a negotiated agreement – no matter how distasteful – served their interests better than all out confrontation.

Quico has written that, even if faced with an unambiguous choice between compromise and irrelevance, chavista politicians won’t negotiate—not in public, not in secret, not ever. They never have, and therefore they never will. But desperate times, desperate measures: mothers bench-press cars, climbers self-amputate with dull knives. An oppo supermajority would change PSUV incentives, and incentives, they tell me, shape behavior.

For much of the last five weeks, Dorothy’s prediction looked like a bit of a blunder and I got to gloat a little bit, having finally gotten a forecast right. One way of interpreting what happened yesterday is that Dorothy’s basic insight staged a dramatic, come-from-behind comeback to strip me of the one little shard of I-told-you-so I thought I’d managed to salvage from the smouldering wreckage of my 2015 forecasteering. 

How stable and lasting this Aristóbulo-Henry entente cordiale will be is anyone’s guess. I may very well be reading far too much between the lines of what happened yesterday. Both are tough, smart tactical pols who’ll discard any agreement they’ve come to the second they judge it’s outlived its usefulness.

But what yesterday’s drama seems to indicate clearly is that Diosdado’s power to dictate PSUV’s tactical response to the constitutional crisis is seriously in doubt now. His know-nothing maximalism appears to have a real competitor inside the chavista halls of power now.

If Henry is smart, he’ll find ways to exploit that split, deepening it and mining it as a source of political power. And if the way of doing that is solidifying a modus vivendi with Aristóbulo…well, then expect to see a whole lot more of that in the days to come.