County Republicans dub Venezuelan native as party’s new chairman

He’s seen the dangers of socialism firsthand; wants to warn his countrymen

It might not be a move that will silence the critics, but the local Republican Party’s choice for its new leader could very well have opponents as well as supporters brushing up on their Spanish.

It was nevertheless with a resounding chorus of “ayes” that the members of Alamance County’s GOP selected Omar Lugo to serve as their new chairman during the party’s annual convention, which took place on Thursday over the Zoom teleconferencing platform.

A 43-year-old naturalized immigrant from Venezuela, Lugo’s appointment may seem like a break with the past for the GOP’s local chapter. But the new chairman insists that it was his commitment to the party’s traditional principles that won over his fellow Republicans – along with his determination to present the GOP’s message to the broader community.

“I want to educate the people of every single action of the Republican Party,” he told The Alamance News in an interview earlier this week. “During Trump’s election [in 2016], I saw people of different cultures and ethnicities coming together to get the Republican Party back to its values…But as a Latino, I notice that the Republican Party has lost communication with some of the people in the community.”

Lugo insisted that the Republican Party is at a particular disadvantage with Spanish-language outlets, where it is consistently portrayed as racist and anti-immigrant. He added that, under his guidance, the local GOP will do a better job presenting its case to Spanish speakers, who he believes will be naturally drawn to the party’s conservative values.

Lugo’s own conservative ideals were pounded out in the crucible that may seem rather exotic to anyone nurtured in the political landscape of Alamance County.

Born and raised in Venezuela, Lugo grew up in a politically-attuned household, whose paterfamilias served as an official in the government of former president Carlos Andrés Pérez. A devotee of the free-market system, the elder Lugo even ran diplomatic missions to various socialist nations where he encouraged the defections of doctors, scientists, and other professionals.

The fortunes of Lugo’s family ultimately turned as Venezuela took on the trappings of socialism during the 15-year presidency of Hugo Chávez.

A former Army paratrooper who led an aborted putsch against Pérez in 1992, Chávez returned to the national stage in 1998 as a third-party presidential contender with a studied contempt for Venezuela’s two-party system and the free market policies it followed.

Promising to end economic inequality and political corruption, Chávez was catapulted into the nation’s top office, where he endeared himself to the poor by funneling the profits from the state-owned oil industry into social programs. He nevertheless alienated many middle-class voters with his populist rhetoric, his unwillingness to observe constitutional proprieties, and his appointment of military cronies and relatives to top government posts.

Lugo’s father, who left his government post in 1993, had reinvented himself as an advocate for public sector workers during the presidency of Chávez’s immediate predecessor. He ultimately found himself in the eye of the proverbial storm when Chávez came to power and initiated reforms that went over poorly with public employees.

Meanwhile, Lugo had an altogether different response to the sudden shift in Venezuela’s political climate.

“I became a political refugee, and I was granted asylum,” he recalled. “And before my dad died in 2003, our plan was to meet up in the United States.”

Lugo spent the first two decades of his self-imposed exile in Florida, where he later met and married another Venezuelan native named Ruth. The couple went on to start a family of their own, which has since grown to include two sons – 6-year-old son Omarcito and 3-year-old Alex – as well as his wife’s adult sister, who suffers from Down’s Syndrome.

The high cost of living in Florida eventually prompted the Lugos to seek out other horizons. A friend’s recommendation brought them to Alamance County, where Ruth felt an instant connection that compelled Lugo to uproot the family about three years ago. Lugo has since found a job as a detention officer at Alamance County’s jail, while his wife currently works as a pre-school teacher. The couple, who are both active members of Graham’s Trailhead Church, have also opened their home to other political refugees – particularly those from socialist states like their native Venezuela.

As they have settled into their new lives in America, Lugo and his wife continued to follow the political developments in their native Venezuela. They watched in horror as Chávez drew international condemnation for his heavy-handed treatment of critics, and they noticed how his autocratic tendencies intensified after a coup to unseat him fizzled in 2002. By the time he died of cancer in 2013, Chávez had turned Venezuela into a one-party state, which continues to be led, even today, by Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s hand-chosen successor.

Lugo’s own misgivings about Chávez were all but confirmed when he briefly returned to Venezuela in 2006. During his visit, the young expat got a chance to examine his father’s death certificate, which he noticed reported no cause of death in the indicated space. His suspicions were only heightened when he spoke to his father’s acquaintances who recalled that the elder Lugo had been the picture of health before his abrupt death following a big political speech.

Lugo admits that he was initially reluctant to become directly involved in the American political system. He nevertheless decided to set his reservations aside when he noticed inklings of the same trends that had swept Chávez to power in Venezuela.

“I wasn’t planning to get into politics; the life of a politician is tough,” he acknowledged. “But then I saw these sparks of socialism…I saw people protesting racism in a country where I have never felt like a victim of discrimination, and which is a land of opportunity for anybody who wants it.”

Lugo said that he is particularly uneasy about recent calls to regulate firearms, which he said remind him of gun-buyback programs in Venezuela that disarmed much of the citizenry while concentrating weapons in the hands of the ruling party’s supporters.

“My dad died fighting these kinds of issues,” he added. “I’ve seen all this before, and I felt the need to speak out.”

Lugo’s devotion to traditional Republican causes has also struck a chord with the GOP’s local leadership – as has the new chairman’s potential to reach the county’s Latino voters. Lugo’s rise to the party’s top job has even stoked the enthusiasm of Ben York, the previous chairman of Alamance County’s Republicans.

“He’s a great guy and he’ll do an outstanding job for the party,” York recalled in an interview Monday. “He’s the first Hispanic chairman for the party in Alamance County, so I think a lot of people are excited about [his selection].”

In addition to his new role as the chairman of Alamance County’s Republicans, Lugo has launched a nonprofit group called the Dream B Foundation, which strives to provide people with the rudiments of a financial education. In his spare time, Lugo enjoys reading books about leadership, although he insists that he won’t let himself get too puffed up by these empowering page turners – or by his new leadership role with the local Republican Party.

“I’m asking God everyday to keep me humble so that it doesn’t go to my head,” he said.
“I’m not getting paid to do this,” the chapter’s new chairman went on to assert. “My only reward is seeing the party come together and reach out to the community for the future of our children.”