Chávez’s Man in Washington: He’s Back for Round Two

Last September, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera made headlines - but not the way he would have liked. Venezuela's feisty ambassador here became an unexpected casualty in the escalating war of words between the Bush administration and one of its fiercest enemies, President Hugo Chávez.

Last September,
Bernardo Alvarez Herrera made headlines – but not the way he would have liked. Venezuela's
feisty ambassador here became an unexpected casualty in the escalating war of
words between the Bush administration and one of its fiercest enemies,
President Hugo Chávez.

On Sept. 11, Chávez – acting in solidarity with his socialist buddy in Bolivia,
President Evo Morales – expelled Patrick Duddy, the U.S. ambassador in Caracas,
only a day after Morales accused the U.S. envoy in La Paz, Philip Goldberg, of
stoking anti-government violence there and kicked him out.

In revenge, the State Department gave Alvarez 24 hours to pack his bags and
leave the country (his family was given 72 hours). It also booted Bolivia's top
diplomat here, announcing that "in response to the unwarranted action and in
accordance with the Vienna Convention, we have officially informed the
government of Bolivia of our decision to declare Ambassador Gustavo Guzmán persona
non grata

But then a funny thing happened. Barack Obama became president, and within six
months, the United States welcomed Alvarez back – thereby earning him a
footnote in American history as the first foreign ambassador ever to be
declared persona non grata by one U.S. administration, then have that unhappy
status lifted by another one.

On the other hand, Bolivia's Guzmán won't be following Alvarez back to
Washington anytime soon, if ever, as relations between Obama and Morales remain
sour. Alvarez is also making history on a different, perhaps less dramatic
level: With this issue, he becomes the first ambassador to appear three times
on the cover of The Washington Diplomat (he's also graced our May 2003 and
September 2006 covers).

"We are living in new times," Alvarez told us. "We value the decision that
allowed Ambassador Duddy to go back to Caracas, and me to return here. This
tells you that when there's political will to move on, everything is possible."

Duddy expressed similar sentiments during a July 4 speech in Caracas. "Our two
national agendas share aspects such as energy, democracy, the rule of law,
public health, environmental protection and the fight against international
crime," he told local reporters. "Venezuela and the U.S. have a lot of things
to discuss. Hopefully, the reinstatement of ambassadors will facilitate this

Alvarez talked to The Diplomat last month over a hearty traditional Venezuelan
breakfast at his official residence – in a wide-ranging, lively interview that
touched on everything from the latest political crisis in Honduras to his own
recent loneliness.

"This house seems so big without my family. I feel like a bachelor here," joked
the 52-year-old ambassador, whose wife and three children are still in Caracas,
unsure whether to stay there or return to Washington for the moment.

During his forced exile in Venezuela, Alvarez didn't exactly sit around doing
nothing. Less than a week after his expulsion from the United States, Chávez
asked Alvarez to head the Unasur mission to Bolivia – a regional effort by
South American countries to resolve a bitter standoff between forces loyal to
Morales and violent opposition groups.

"I spent almost a month and a half in Bolivia. Then I came back to Venezuela,
and the ALBA countries decided to establish a bank," said Alvarez, using the
Spanish acronym for the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, a
leftist regional bloc created by Chávez as a counterweight to U.S. efforts to
form a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

"Who could have imagined that this idea of Cuba and Venezuela, back in 2005
when they decided to create ALBA, would today include nine countries," said
Alvarez, proudly rattling off ALBA's current membership list: Antigua and
Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, St. Vincent and
the Grenadines, and of course Venezuela.

Alvarez served for seven months as president of Banco del ALBA before
unexpectedly getting his Washington ambassadorship back – a job almost
everybody assumed would go to Roy Chaderton, Venezuela's current envoy to the
Organization of American States.

"Both countries wanted to speed up the process," Alvarez explained. "And to do
that, the easy way out was to just reinstate both ambassadors, without going
through the process of hearings in Washington and Caracas. We just
re-established full relations."

Yet there's clearly more to the story.

"Bernardo Alvarez comes from a very wealthy and traditional family, and he's
always been on the left. He's a former congressman and petroleum vice minister,
while Roy Chaderton is a career diplomat," said a Venezuelan source who knows
both men but asked not to be named. "In Venezuela, there's far more respect for
Alvarez than for Chaderton."

The source added: "Neither one is in the Chávez inner circle. This was
basically diplomatic protocol, where they revert to the original status quo and
later make changes. I think Alvarez deep down knows a lot of the stuff they are
doing is wrong, but he doesn't break ranks. I wouldn't be surprised if he is
changed later."

Alvarez, touting his own impeccable leftist credentials, told The Diplomat that
he has absolutely nothing in common with members of Venezuela's rich elite, who
up until very recently controlled most of the resources in this oil-rich nation
of 27 million.

"I might look like one of them, but I'm not," he assured us. "I come from a
very traditional but politically conservative family in Lara state, with a
sense of social responsibility. My father is a doctor, and he's dedicated his
whole life to children and public health. My mother was the daughter of a
newspaper editor, and a leftist. And my real political life started in leftist

The ambassador grew up in the city of Barquisimeto, located halfway between
Caracas and Maracaibo, center of the country's oil industry. He holds a degree
in political science from the Universidad Central de Venezuela and a master's
degree in development studies from the University of Sussex in England.

Before coming to Washington in 2003, Alvarez was Venezuela's vice minister for
oil and gas – an important position in a country that derives 80 percent of its
foreign exchange from petroleum exports. He arrived here only a year after
plotters attempted but failed to overthrow Chávez, with tacit approval from
then President George W. Bush.

"We had to face a really hostile administration, with all sorts of sanctions
and campaigns against us. There were so many stressful moments," he recalled. "During
the Bush administration, it was impossible to do anything with them. Now there
is a chance to rebuild, so the job is much more demanding."

Alvarez says that this time around, he's been received "very well" by the State
Department, with which he's had frequent consultations. Despite his expulsion,
he's even retained his seniority, becoming dean of Washington's Latin American
diplomatic corps with the recent departure of El Salvador's Rene León, who was
here for more than 10 years.

"We recognize the decision made jointly by Chávez and the Obama administration
to move ahead," Alvarez told us. "Venezuela's influence in the hemisphere is
growing, but we've been watching the administration closely. Although we're
basically hopeful, we are a bit concerned by the recent remarks made by
[Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton."

A bit concerned may be a bit of an understatement. In early July, Clinton met
with two prominent anti-Chávez personalities: Alberto Ravell, owner of the
rabidly oppositionist TV station Globovision, and Leopoldo Castillo, the host
of a Globovision talk show and former Venezuelan ambassador to El Salvador.

In an interview later broadcast on that station, the secretary of state
criticized the Chávez government's recent crackdown on opposition media,
telling her interviewer that "part of what we hope to see over the next months
in Venezuela is a recognition that you can be a very strong leader and have
very strong opinions without trying to take on too much power and trying to silence
all your critics."

Reaction from Caracas was swift and sharp. "In a moment in which efforts are
being made to improve the relationship with the U.S. government, the secretary
of state repeats the old practice of giving recipes and issuing evaluations of
Venezuelan democracy," the Ministry of Foreign Relations complained in an
official statement. "Her insinuations reflect a profound lack of knowledge of
our reality. It is difficult to believe in the sincerity of Washington's
intention to restore bilateral relations."

Part of the problem is that, despite Obama's efforts to reach out to Chávez,
there's still a great deal of distrust between the two countries. The
Venezuelan leader's frequent tirades against American imperialism, his
name-calling and his sometimes childish antics (for example, his denunciation
of President Bush as the devil at a speech before the U.N. General Assembly)
have angered many political leaders throughout the region, not only in the
United States.
In one memorable incident, King Juan Carlos of Spain
told Chávez to "shut up" after he repeatedly insulted the country's former
prime minister, José María Aznar, during the 2007 Ibero-American Summit in

Chávez also trashed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as "a liar and a cynic"
during a particularly tense period in relations that led to a temporary freeze
in diplomatic ties – tensions that have resurfaced again with a plan to
increase the U.S. military presence in Colombia. Speaking on state television
recently, Chávez said he is even placing Venezuela's diplomatic ties with
Colombia under review, calling the military proposal a "new aggression against

So far, both Colombia and the U.S. seem to be ignoring Chávez's bellicose
rhetoric. Disdain of Chávez in fact runs deep throughout the United States. His
reputation in Washington – and especially among many members of Congress –
isn't helped by his government's official hostility toward Israel and a recent
spate of anti-Semitic attacks in Caracas that has left Venezuela's dwindling
Jewish community afraid for their lives.

Likewise, Chávez's warm friendship with Fidel Castro over the years has earned
him the wrath of thousands of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles in Miami. Yet Alvarez
– who first visited the island in 1978 as part of a youth delegation and has
been back to Cuba dozens of times since then – says that the bilateral
friendship is here to stay, whether the United States likes it or not.

In recent years, Alvarez noted, annual trade between Venezuela and Cuba has
jumped from $350 million to $7 billion, and Venezuela provides the communist
island with 98,000 barrels of oil a day at subsidized prices. In addition,
thousands of Venezuelan physicians got their medical training in Cuba, and more
than 20,000 Cuban doctors are currently working throughout Venezuela.

"Cuba, as you know, is more of a domestic than an international issue for the
United States," the ambassador said. "Anytime something happens, powerful
interests here align to stop any improvement. Cuba is not a military threat to
the United States or its national interests."

Alvarez said he hopes U.S. policy toward Cuba changes, but without
preconditions, such as those that were imposed when the Organization of
American States voted to rescind Cuba's suspension – though only if it met
standards on democracy and human rights. "Cuba is not asking to get back into
the OAS, but it could participate in the Summit of the Americas," Alvarez said.
"Here we had a meeting in Trinidad, and the whole meeting was talking about a country
that wasn't invited."

But Latin America's flashpoint right now isn't Cuba. It's Honduras, where
deposed President Manuel Zelaya is fighting to return home after he was
forcibly removed in a June 28 military coup (see related story on
the Organization of American States

Venezuela has emerged as Zelaya's leading protector, and many in the Chávez
government have blatantly accused the United States and even Israel of
orchestrating the coup to protect powerful business interests in Honduras from
the leftist president.

"They will have to get to the bottom of how much of a hand the CIA and other
imperial bodies had in this," Chávez said the day after Zelaya's overthrow,
suggesting that his government would respond with military force if his envoy
to Honduras was kidnapped or killed.

But Obama generally won praise for his initial condemnation of the coup,
robbing Chávez of the name-calling opportunities he enjoyed with Bush. "Instead
of engaging in tit-for-tat accusations, Mr. Obama calmly described the coup as
‘illegal' and called for Mr. Zelaya's return to office," the New York Times
wrote on July 1. "While Mr. Chávez continued to portray Washington as the
coup's possible orchestrator, others in Latin America failed to see it that

But Alvarez told us that he thinks Washington should have condemned the coup in
Honduras much more forcefully (the mediation has since been outsourced to Costa
Rican President Oscar Arias). "This is a big prueba de fuego [trial by fire]
for the Obama administration," he said. "According to the standards of some
people, it doesn't matter too much whether you have been elected or not. Apparently,
if you work for and comply with the rules and interests of the elite – and you
allow the media to impose their agenda – you are a good democracy. But if you
work for the excluded and the minorities, then you are seen as a bad

The ambassador warned: "If we don't re-establish Zelaya in government for the
time he has left to serve, there will be devastating consequences. Anybody
could then go and say what they want – for whatever reasons – even if the
international community condemns it."

Meanwhile, Alvarez is pouring all his efforts into improving U.S.-Venezuelan
relations, particularly in the energy sector. Despite the bad blood between
Washington and Caracas, Venezuela has remained one of this country's top
sources of foreign oil.

"We must re-establish our relationship in energy and get it back to where it
was – a constructive dialogue between two very important countries. There
cannot really be any comprehensive energy policy in the hemisphere without the
United States and without Venezuela," Alvarez said. "It's not only the oil we
provide the U.S., but also what we get from the United States."

More than 55 percent of U.S. exports to Venezuela are in the automotive,
communications and basic organic chemical sectors, while 95 percent of
Venezuelan exports to the United States are in the oil, gas and petroleum
refining sectors.

In 2008, according to embassy statistics, Venezuelan trade with the United
States stood at $64 billion, up from $50 billion in 2007 and just $24 billion
in 2000. Three states alone – Texas, Louisiana and Florida – represent 67
percent of that commerce, though bilateral trade plummeted by 39 percent during
the first quarter of 2009 because of the worldwide recession. Petróleos de
Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil monopoly, reported global operational revenues
of $126.4 billion, and PDVSA's contribution to the Venezuelan budget came to a
whopping $53 billion in 2008 – up $9 billion from 2007 figures.

At present, Venezuela is the third-largest oil exporter to the United States,
trailing Canada and Mexico, and a U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA owns 100 percent of
Citgo, one of the nation's largest gasoline refiners and retailers. But
Venezuelan oil shipments to U.S. ports fell to 891,000 barrels a day this past
April, their lowest level in 18 years. And sharply lower oil prices on the
world market have forced Chávez to slash the 2009 national budget from $77.9
billion to $72.7 billion.

"The spending cuts will be achieved, in part, through the elimination of
government spending considered to be superfluous, such as executive vehicles,
government building acquisitions and renovations, and bonuses for high-level
officials," says an official embassy handout, insisting that "there will be no
cuts in social spending or programs."

According to Alvarez, that budget is now based on an oil price of $40 per
barrel, not $60 as originally projected. "From the very beginning, we knew that
prices of over $100 a barrel were not going to stay there. We also knew that
prices were having a bad effect, creating a surplus of money in Venezuela," he
explained. "Fortunately, we have been saving money over the past few years, and
we now have a fund with $40 billion to keep investing in strategic
infrastructure. We have had to make adjustments, but we are getting out of this
crisis without suffering like countries that are more vulnerable."

In the meantime, Alvarez's more immediate focus will be mending the still
wobbly U.S.-Venezuelan relationship. The envoy says he's not bitter about
having been kicked out of the United States, but hopes it doesn't happen again.

"Over the years, I've been blessed with the opportunity of seeing America. I
have traveled all around and have many friends and acquaintances here. I have
seen the beauty, the poverty, the stressful America of people in need, and the
big companies and technology. That tells you about the complexity of this

Asked if Obama and Chávez might sit down and talk anytime soon, Alvarez said
there's no reason for them not to. "Why not?" he said. "Everybody was
skeptical. Some people thought it would take months of lobbying, but look what
they did. They met in a summit and solved would could have cost us months or

But Alvarez suggested it will take a lot more than photo ops or presidential
handshakes to overcome years of mutual distrust. A hint of what that entails
can be found in the book Chávez gave Obama last April in Port of Spain: a
Spanish-language edition of "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the
Pillage of a Continent," by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano.

"Obama is one thing, but you must dismantle your Cold War mentality and this
whole imperialist way of looking at the world," Alvarez said. "Then the United
States will have much more influence, because then it will be based on moral
principles and cooperation."

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.