January 7, 2020 / 12:12 PM / 2 months ago

Little-known Venezuela legislator becomes Maduro's choice for opposition leader

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan lawmaker Luis Parra for years denounced abuses by the security forces of President Nicolas Maduro, berating police for forcing a family from its home for their political beliefs and accusing intelligence agents of raiding his own house.

FILE PHOTO: Lawmaker Luis Parra speaks during a swearing-in ceremony at Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

But Parra rose from obscurity on Sunday to claim the leadership of the national congress, with the backing of Maduro’s ruling Socialist Party. In dramatic scenes, Maduro’s security forces blocked opposition lawmakers - including their leader Juan Guaido - from entering the legislature, allowing Socialist lawmakers to swear in Parra as the new head.

Though Parra’s discourse still echoes that of the opposition - he described the Socialist government as a “regime” on Monday and decried the woeful state of the economy - he has said he wants to reduce conflict with Maduro and played down talk of pushing him from office.

“Just because we’re part of the opposition doesn’t mean we agree with confrontation,” Parra told a news conference on Monday in the legislature building. “We’re building a road to reduce the polarization in this country.”

That marks a sharp departure from the stance of Guaido, who won a groundswell of popular support last year by labeling Maduro as a usurper and calling on the military to help remove him from office to end Venezuela’s hyperinflationary collapse.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has created a broad sanctions program against Maduro, has already dismissed Parra’s election as a farce and reiterated support for Guaido.

Parra’s rise reflects Maduro’s frequent tactic of using state institutions to sideline adversaries and then designating politicians of ambiguous allegiance as true opposition leaders - a group Maduro’s critics describe as “pseudo-opposition.”

Many denounced the divide-and-conquer strategy in the 2018 presidential vote, when authorities blocked Venezuela’s main opposition leaders from running but allowed the candidacy of Henri Falcon, who described himself as a Maduro adversary despite breaking the opposition’s boycott of the vote.

Guaido’s election as head of Congress last year - after more senior opposition leaders had been detained or fled the country - presented Maduro with a hardline opponent who swiftly won international backing.

Government critics say Maduro’s persistent attempts to undermine the opposition often involve bribes and intimidation, both of which were widely denounced by opposition leaders in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary session.

Socialist Party officials respond that opposition leaders’ elitism and their refusal to listen to complaints within their own ranks are the true cause of defections.

Maduro was quick to celebrate Parra’s rise.

“We could tell a change was coming in the National Assembly, a rebellion within the opposition legislators,” Maduro said.

EMBROILED IN SCANDAL

Parra was elected to congress in 2015 to represent the northwestern state of Yaracuy, and in 2017 ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor of that state. Once in congress, he served on the natural resources subcommission.

He was a little-known figure until he became embroiled in a corruption scandal in December, along with eight other opposition lawmakers.

He and the others were kicked out of their parties after a local media report said they had used their positions in the legislature to burnish the reputation of a businessman linked to Maduro’s government. Guaido said he suspected they had been bribed to do so.

Parra and the others have denied the accusations.

Parra’s designation as congress chief followed a confused session, culminating in a state-television declaration that he had won the vote.

He initially said he had received 86 votes, but later cut this number down to 81. The legislature has 167 seats.

When asked by reporters for the full list of the legislators who voted for his leadership, Parra said the official tally - which is typically released the same day - was not available. He has declined to provide a time frame for when it will be released.

On Sunday evening, Guaido held a rival vote that was broadcast over the internet in which 100 legislators identified by name backed him for re-election.

Additional reporting by Luc Cohen and Mayela Armas; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien

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