US Ambassadors to Venezuela: A Chronology of Failure

During his 13-year-long presidency Hugo Chavez had to deal with five US ambassadors and numerous charge d'affaires. The history of relations between them and the Venezuelan leader shows how successfully one can oppose a policy of blackmail, conspiracy, overturns and 'orange revolutions'.


John Maisto and Donna Hrinak

The very first ambassador- John Maisto- arrived in Venezuela in 1997. His credentials were accepted by elderly Rafael Caldera, the last president of the corrupt Fourth Republic, which by that time had fully exhausted its potential. Venezuela was then preparing for presidential elections, and the U.S. propaganda was targeting Chavez’s candidacy.

Maisto’s career is worth paying attention to. He assisted the C.I.A in secret operations against Che Guevara in Bolivia. He worked in policy departments of the US embassies in Colombia, Costa Rica, and in the Philippines, which means that he was involved in intelligence operations. Maisto is believed to have stood behind the bloodless revolution that eventually overturned the Marcos government [of the Philippines 1965-1986]. Maisto led the policy department of the US embassy in Panama and took part in preparing the U.S. military intervention, which resulted in the arrest of President Manuel Noriega. Maisto also worked in Nicaragua, where he arrived in the early 1990s to help in ‘dismantling’ the leftist Sandinista regime following the victory of a pro-American candidate.

Maisto was repeatedly heard describing Chavez as insurgent leader who supported left-wing parties and sympathized with the Castro brothers. On his advice, in the beginning of 1998 the US Department of State denied Chavez a US visa. This was a clear signal that Washington would support Chavez`s rival Henrique Salas Römer, a politician loyal to the traditions of the Fourth Republic. However, Chavez won the elections with more than 56% of the vote, and Maisto had to urgently bridge the gap. Chavez was no longer denied entry to the US. Preparations started for his meeting with Bill Clinton. Although the US State Department insisted that Chavez should first visit Washington, the Venezuelan leader said that before going to the US he would meet Fidel first.

It is worth mentioning that Maisto had to interpret a new political situation in Venezuela as ‘not radically opposing the US interests”, saying that Chavez was ensuring stability in his country, including stable hydrocarbon supplies, without infringing upon the US property. Maisto added that although Chavez was not very cooperative towards the US, he still could quite be tolerated as Venezuelan leader. Agents of CIA, DIA and DEA were embedded in Chavez’s circles, not to mention fifth-column activists in the country`s ministries of defense and of foreign affairs. The ambassador predicted that Chavez wouldn’t stay in office longer than 1.5-2 years. Now we see that he was mistaken.

Maisto left Venezuela in August of 2000, and was replaced by diplomat Donna Hrinak. Before being appointed as ambassador to Caracas, Hrinak had served as a US ambassador to the Dominican Republic and Bolivia (prior to Evo Morales’s presidency), and was used to talking to Latin American presidents in a bossy tone. When Chavez condemned the US bombing of Afghanistan, which led to numerous civilian deaths, Hrinak asked him if she could meet him in person. She came to the meeting, bearing in mind instructions from the State Department, and demanded that Chavez not be as critical towards the US as he had been. Chavez interrupted her: “You are talking to the head of state. Regarding your position, you are not behaving in a proper fashion, please, leave the room now”. Some sources say that Chavez, however, let Hrinak read the message from Washington till the end. In January 2002 Hrinak left Venezuela and was sent to Brazil to prevent Luiz da Silva from establishing too close ties with Chavez. The Brazilian leader turned to be a tough nut to crack: he listened attentively to US instructions but did it his own way. 

Charles Shapiro and the April 2002 Coup 

Until March 2002, the US embassy in Caracas had been run by a charge d’ affaires. Meanwhile, the Bush administration sanctioned a coup d’état [carried out in April 2002], relying on three Venezuelan high-ranking army officials, who had been trained in the US. The conspiracy involved many counterintelligence agents (DIM, DISP, and others). Pro-US media launched a non-stop propaganda campaign against ‘Castro-Communist regime’ and its followers. Non-governmental organizations (NGO) that emerged under Maisto, brought many intellectuals, students and oil workers together. Middle-class women also took active part in protests against ‘cubanization’ of their country. Certainly, old bourgeois parties and the Catholic Church did not stay apart. 

A month before the coup a new US ambassador, Charles Shapiro, arrived in Venezuela. Known at home for his experience in dealing with coups, Shapiro was praised for his work as a military attaché in Chile while preparing the toppling of Salvador Allende [on September 11 1973]. Shapiro also stood out during a ‘dirty war’ with guerrilla units in Salvador and Nicaragua in 1980s. Washington relied on this highly experienced person in dealing with ‘the Chavez issue’. On April 11, 2002, indeed, Shapiro reported the toppling of Chavez. The ambassador’s moment of glory did not last long as Chavez returned to his presidential palace in the wake of pubic protests, supported by patriotic members of the military. A week later Shapiro asked for a meeting with Chavez. When the two met, Shapiro told the Venezuelan leader about a plot to assassinate him. Chavez asked: “What exactly do you know about the plot? Who stands behind it, tell me the names”. Shapiro shrugged his shoulders: “The instructions I received contain no information of this kind”.

A few years later Chavez told journalists about his talk with Shapiro, describing the latter a ‘real clown but not an ambassador’: “Given the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence services, they say they have no further information on the issue. Meanwhile, we know, and we are not alone in our knowledge, that there is a camp in Miami where Venezuelan terrorists are being trained. The US administration has not done anything to arrest them. Moreover, Washington assists them”. Chavez said that Shapiro’s visit was organized to shield US involvement to April protests, and distract attention from the US ambassador’s applause to Pedro Carmona, one of key plotters [a businessman temporarily sworn in as the country’s new president in the wake of the coup]. A really devastating failure for the CIA was that its Venezuelan agents did not have the nerve to get rid of the Bolivarian leader. After that Shapiro was no longer a person whom Chavez and his supporters could trust. 

The ambassador thus had to pretend that he was just a mediator between the government and the opposition. Behind-the-scenes, Shapiro supported financial assistance to the opposition via the CIA and NGOs. More and more Zionist supporters were engaged in anti-government activities. Shapiro used mass media to send threatening signals to Chavez, trying to persuade him that the situation in Venezuela would get even worse unless his (Shapiro’s) recommendations were not heeded. Chavez, for his part, more than once said that Shapiro could become persona non grata in Venezuela. In 2004 Shapiro’s term in office expired and he left the country. 

William Brownfield and Patrick Duddy 

Next US ambassador to Venezuela was William Brownfield. He began his diplomatic career in 1979 as a vice consul in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s oil capital. Traditionally, all posts in that consulate were occupied by CIA agents or intelligence officers. Brownfield participated in working out the so-called Plan Colombia, and also supervised the Cuba-related policies in the Department of State. Three months passed before Brownfield was approved as the new US ambassador in Venezuela: tensions between the Bolivarian government and the opposition remained, and Chavez decided to keep the new US diplomat away from Venezuela for a while. 

Brownfield’s credentials were accepted by Chavez at Miraflores Palace on October 15 2004. First, the ambassador tried to leave a good impression of himself and emphasized the need to improve the US-Venezuela relations at least on some levels and lay the basis for further cooperation. Very soon, however, Brownfield’s policy changed, and he spent much time talking to opposition members and NGO activists. He paid several visits to Venezuela’s Zulia state, openly demonstrating his solidarity with local pro-separatism politicians. He criticized practically everything Chavez did: the purchase of Russian arms, oil cooperation with Cuba, expanded partnership with Iran, contribution to Latin American integration and the creation of the mechanism of regional security without the US membership. 

In response, the officials in Caracas paid absolutely no attention to the new US envoy. Brownfield’s mission ended in the middle of 2007. This is how one of Venezuelan analysts commented on Brownfield’s work: “Defeated, he is leaving. He failed to implement Washington’s plans of making the opposition stronger and Chavez weaker. On the contrary, while Brownfield stayed in Venezuela, Chavez saw his approval rating going up to 73%… Brownfield simply turned into a vulgar immoral instigator. His only success was giving dollars to opposition ‘puppets’”. 

Brownfield wished his successor Patrick Duddy all the best at his post. Describing Duddy as a ”very smart, intellectual man, who knows Latin America very well’, Brownfield said: ”Probably, he will manage to achieve the goals I’ve failed to approach.” Duddy continued his predecessor’s course, though in a more careful way: his intelligence background helped him. There was not a single reason to reproach him for anything, although the Venezuelan counterintelligence received reports that the US embassy was preparing a ‘surprise’ for the 2008 elections [in 2008 state governor elections were held in Venezuela]. In August of 2008, in a gesture of solidarity with Bolivia, Chavez said that Duddy must leave Venezuela within 72 hours. The US ambassador to La Paz in Bolivia Philip Goldberg was a key figure in organizing opposition rallies and instigating separatism. He was implementing the US plans to overthrow Evo Morales.

Duddy returned to Caracas nine months later. His further stay in Venezuela was not in any way remarkable, except the WikiLeaks reports dealing with the embassy’s financial ties to pro-opposition mass media. Journalists addressed Duddy asking him for money allegedly to fight the Chavez regime. Duddy [who’s term of service in Venezuelan ended July 2010] was not happy with the situation because the results were very poor despite huge spending.

Larry Palmer was expected to become the next US ambassador to Venezuela. During discussions in Congress, Palmer spoke about ”low morale of the Venezuelan army” and ”links between the Chavez government and FARC rebels”. After Palmer’s statements were leaked to the media a new chill was brought to the relations between the two countries. Chavez did not accept Palmer as the new US envoy to Venezuela.

Currently, the US interests in Caracas are represented by charge d’affaires James Derham. He used to work in Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, in Kosovo – as part of The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and also in Cuba as part of the US Interests Section in Havana. By the way, Derham was already a retired diplomat, resting in his private house in Williamsburg, Virginia, not far from the CIA headquarters in Langley, when he was appointed to a new post. Perhaps in Washington they believe that pensioner Derham will be more successful than plotters shielded by the State Department.

Edited by Venezuelanalysis.com