There Once Was a Party: Acción Democrática

During its long and meandering history, AD helped create the Venezuelan democracy, contributed to its demise and now seeks survival at any cost. What’s left of the old white party?

When Ricardo Sucre and other members of Acción Democrática (AD) went to the National Constituent Assembly to present a set of proposals for the new Constitution in 1999, one of the constituyentes who met them, Eliézer Otaiza, said “we were going to execute all of them,” referring to the failed coup he took part in, under Hugo Chávez’s orders, seven years earlier.

“The political climate was totally against AD,” recalls the political scientist about that first year of Chávez’s presidency. Since then, the party has had to deal with all the ghosts of its past, some real, some imagined by others or created by the chavista propaganda. AD had to survive under crossed fire: the old party was blamed by chavismo for all deeds, past, present and future; while opposition parties born in the 21st century saw it as exactly the kind of politics they were supposed to replace.

“Acción Democrática was the scapegoat for a nation hungry for change,” says Sucre, who worked with the party as an independent.

Twenty-three years later, the context is clearly authoritarian, and AD is still here, thanks to its robust, loyal grassroots, active throughout the country and also to the ability to flex amid the ambiguities and incoherent decisions made by the party and by the whole opposition. Once a fundamental party of Venezuelan democracy, AD turned into a political chameleon able to adapt to any situation for the sake of survival. 

Choosing Orthodoxy

“Until 2001,” says Ricardo Sucre, “Acción Democrática remained a bit untouched by the general trends.” During those years, “el partido del pueblo”, as it likes to call itself, wasn’t gathering crowds but kept some of the credit won in 40 years of democracy. It focused, then, on getting its house in order. “In those days the grassroots held and sustained the party”.

Historian and former member of AD Pedro Benítez agrees with that vision. “Acción Democrática was truly a cultural phenomenon in Venezuela,” he says. Its social presence in every state created a political identity that is transmitted, in many cases, within the families, and had served to make the party endure pressures able to disintegrate any other political organization.

“AD was, first of all, the victim of its inner tensions,” Benítez points out. In fact, as it happens with many old parties, AD had lived through some fractures impossible to mend in its top ranks. In 1960, burned by the fulgurant triumph of the Cuban Revolution, a group of young members of AD who wanted President Rómulo Betancourt to align with Fidel Castro decided to create the pro-revolutionary Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR, who had among its members Jorge Antonio Rodríguez, Jorge and Delcy Rodríguez’s father, who are two of the most prominent faces in the Maduro regime. In 1968, the competition to control the party before the election that year (won by Copei and its candidate Rafael Caldera) opened another crevasse and some important leaders of the party, such as Luis Prieto Figueroa, broke ranks and created Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo, MEP.

In the ‘90s, after years of economic decline and the explosive revelations of Caracazo, the climate against AD described by Ricardo Sucre thickened when, in 1993, the party expelled President Carlos Andrés Pérez and supported his impeachment. “They never recovered from that,” says Benitez.

By 1998, then secretary-general Luis Alfaro Ucero centralized power within the party to the point of deciding to be the presidential candidate without any proper support, in a party where that wasn’t the custom (as it is in the deeply Chávez-centered MVR and PSUV). “Then began the hegemony of the secretary-general, which no one could contest without being expelled,” recalls Benítez. AD’s history shows how powerful the secretary-general is: neither Rómulo Betancourt nor Carlos Andrés Pérez—the two best-known political leaders of the 20th century, who came from AD—could ever control their own party. That behavior, right in the sunset of our democracy, “helps to understand what happened in 1998, because of the party’s inability to renew.”

Actually, all attempts to refresh the organization, before and after the political disaster of 1998 that left Hugo Chávez running almost alone to victory, have been implemented half-heartedly, or simply left to fail.

Sucre says that when AD faced the dilemma of renovation that demanded emerging leaders such as Antonio Ledezma, mayor of Caracas, or Manuel Rosales, mayor of Maracaibo, the party defended orthodoxy. The result: more leaders and militants left AD to join other parties. Ledezma took people loyal to him to create Alianza Bravo Pueblo in 2000, and Rosales founded Un Nuevo Tiempo, a sort of AD of Zulia that later evolved into a sort of AD 2.0 with a presidential candidacy in 2006.

The second factor mentioned by Benítez is the chavista narrative. “Chavismo  legitimized itself by demeaning the 40 years of democracy and in particular the legacy of AD.”

The Tightrope

In 2001, Sucre says, Acción Democrática woke from its lethargy to join the opposition in a strategy towards insurrection. Led by Henry Ramos Allup, the party found new challenges in dealing with its own elites, competing against new parties such as Primero Justicia and negotiating a coalition against chavismo.

In 2002, according to the version prefered by the party’s leadership, AD refused to support the coup attempt against Chávez on April 12th. Even Ramos Allup, as he said in the presence of Nicolás Maduro during the inauguration of the National Assembly in 2015, sent emissaries to Chávez weeks before the crisis to warn him some people were conspiring against his government.

Despite the differences, in July 2002, AD joined Coordinadora Democrática, the opposition platform of the time. Both Sucre and Benítez admit unity was a good strategy, but also that AD had to pay the price of not using its own vision for the country’s political moment. 

“That damaged AD. Not because it was sharing space with new parties, but because it was acting against its nature by ceding its autonomy,” Sucre says. “AD entered the coalition as a minority partner, given that it was still seen as the culprit of everything. The discourse against the Puntofijo Pact (which made AD share power with Copei for 40 years) was still in fashion.” 

One of the decisions AD had to support against its will, according to Sucre, was the opposition boycotting the parliamentary elections in 2005. Although Ramos Allup initially defended refraining from participating in those elections for lack of proper conditions, he admitted years later that it was a mistake, and that it made it easier for chavismo to implement many reforms from the National Assembly. The AD secretary general has said it was the media who pressured the opposition to not participate.

From then on, Sucre says, Acción Democrática accelerated its loss of influence. “The party has been walking on a tightrope, not knowing which end to go to.”

Adeco Realpolitik

Since 2007, the opposition has been led mostly by parties formed in that decade to replace the “old politics” represented by AD. While Primero Justicia (PJ) managed to get Henrique Capriles Radonski to win the primaries and become the presidential candidate in 2012 and 2013, Voluntad Popular (VP) led the protest wave of 2014 and has been the brains behind the caretaker government and Juan Guaidó since 2019. During that process, AD stood relegated as a middle point between the often unmatchable positions of PJ and VP.

“AD, as the rest of the parties, was relegated in that dynamic,” Benítez says. Yet the historian thinks that it was precisely that middle position that allowed the existence of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), once the Coordinadora Democrática was dissolved in 2004. The new opposition platform was possible, among other things, because of the “culture of agreements and pacts” and the “territorial implantation” that, contrary to other opposition parties, Acción Democrática could put on the table.

Creating MUD was a real achievement: the alliance defeated chavismo with ease in the parliamentary elections of 2015 and Ramos Allup, the secretary general of AD, was the Speaker of the National Assembly in 2016. After that, as happened with the entire Venezuelan opposition, AD entered another phase of political indecision where it got trapped in dilemmas such as whether to participate or not in the following elections, recognizing Maduro-appointed authorities and defining the combativeness of its stance in front of the government. Sometimes, Acción Democrática supported going both ways at these junctions, and sometimes it opted to remain silent. “It’s difficult to know what exactly is its strategy. In that sense it’s an opaque party,” admits Sucre. 

For example, in 2017, they decided to run in the regional elections, winning four governorships (Anzoátegui, Mérida, Nueva Esparta and Táchira). The four winners took their oath of office before the new National Constituent Assembly, which the party didn’t recognize as constitutional, so the party’s national directive suspended the four new governors.

When the election in Barinas had to be repeated in January 2022, AD’s Sergio Garrido won by a landslide, taking from chavismo an important stronghold, but when time came, Garrido went to see Maduro and said he was the acting president in Venezuela, some days after AD had voted to extend the mandate of Guaidó as caretaker president. It was a paradox, because some lawmakers who voted to keep calling Guaidó the caretaker president had ceased to consider themselves deputies when the term of the parliament they were elected to ended in 2020.

“This happened throughout the entire opposition,” Benítez says, “but has been particularly damaging for Acción Democrática because adecos have a strong culture of participating in elections.” The party was born of the need for the masses to access political rights.

That singwing positions respond to political calculations, don’t they? “Of course,” Sucre says. “It’s realpolitik in order to keep the party alive. The problem is the price the party has to pay for it. AD survives, but with no capacity to lead the opposition. It’s hoping that the Maduro government will fall and then the party will rise again around a candidate, and by doing so, it’s risking to repeat the experience of the adversaries of Juan Vicente Gómez: they were waiting for the dictator to die, and when that finally happened, new people and parties were better positioned to take his place.” 

In the current authoritarian context, this indecisive AD has avoided a good deal of the chavista regime violence. Maduro had focused on the party’s weakness and promoted divisions, using the Supreme Tribunal of Justice to void the directive led by Ramos Allup and appoint a new one chaired by Bernabé Gutiérrez, the organizational secretary. Under Guitiérrez, and expelled from the MUD, that “kidnapped” AD could still bask in the party’s glories of old, getting 346,328 votes and 22 mayorships in the November regional elections. 

How to Define AD

Given its history, and its reluctance to allow the winds of the future enter its palace, AD remains glued to the label of the “living fossil political party”. Even when in 2007, the student movement took youngsters to the party, the organization managed to resist their innovative energies and blocked their attempts to implement change, Benítez says. So many of them, like Juan Requesens, left.

Something similar happened with the ideological renovation. Benítez says that between 2008 and 2010 AD created a commission—where Benítez himself took part, along with leaders of the party like then-president Isabel Carmona—to discuss a new ideological training policy based on modern social-democratic ideas. It was approved by the executive committee, but it produced nothing. “It’s still a pending task,” Benítez says.

The fact that AD has had the same person, Henry Ramos Allup, as secretary general since 2000, isn’t unusual in our times. Benítez and Sucre don’t attribute it to old politics, but to the new one, meaning the model represented by Chávez. “With him, we went back to the cult of personality of the 19th century that we thought we had left behind. The Venezuelan opposition took that path as well, AD included, because it has given results in electoral terms.” 

In any case, Benítez and Sucre agree that renovating AD, which should be done gradually, won’t guarantee the party’s success. In the regional elections in November, old names were the ones providing the few non-chavista wins: Rosales in Zulia, Morel Rodríguez in Nueva Esparta, and Jose Alberto Galíndez in Cojedes. All of them were members of AD. In Táchira and Apure, if the opposition would have run in unity, former adecos Laidy Gómez and Luis Lippa would have also won.

The true force of AD is still there, spread all over Venezuela, even if it’s not visible from Caracas: good, old, faithful adecos.