US Secretary of State Reverses Brief Thaw in Relations with Venezuela

Shortly after a positive meeting between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and Venezuela's Ambassador to the U.S., Condoleezza Rice made strong statements against Venezuela that accused Chavez of influencing other countries away from democracy. The Bush government seeks to create "united front" against Chavez in response.

Caracas, Venezuela, February 17, 2006—Almost immediately after what appeared to be a thawing of relations between Venezuela and the United States, the relationship suffered a severe setback. Only a day after Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s Ambassador to the U.S., met with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, in which relations were said to take a new turn for the better, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration is working on creating a “united front” of countries against Venezuela.

Yesterday, Venezuela’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations, Pavel Rondon, said that a meeting between Ambassador Alvarez and Assistant Secretary Shannon was successful and could signify a shift in relations between the U.S. and Venezuela. “Venezuela values highly that after three years the State Department meets with our Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez,” said Rondon.

According to the Venezuelan embassy in the U.S., Venezuela had been requesting an official meeting with the State Department ever since November 2005. The Alvarez-Shannon meeting covered a wide variety of issues, such as energy, commerce, and the extradition of the Venezuelan-Cuban Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted for terrorism in Venezuela.

Rice Details Measures Against Venezuela

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at a U.S. Senate budget hearing yesterday, seemed to reverse the progress that was made a mere day earlier. Asked about U.S. policy towards Venezuela, Rice said, “I think it’s fair to say that one of the biggest problems that we face in that regard are the policies of Venezuela, which … are attempting to influence neighbors away from democratic processes.” Also, Venezuela’s relationship to Cuba, said Rice, “is a particular danger to the region.”

Explaining what the Bush administration was doing to counter this “problem,” Rice said, “we’re working with others to try and make certain that there is a kind of united front against some of the kinds of things that Venezuela gets involved in.” The State Department is, “working with responsible governments, even responsible governments of the left, like the Brazilian government or the Chilean government, to try and counter these [Venezuelan] influences.”

[According to AFP, a spokesperson for Brazil’s Foreign Ministry was asked today about Rice’s comments, and said, “Brazil had excellent relations with Venezuela in the past few years.” This relationship is exemplified by the frequent meetings between the two presidents and Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur, said the spokesperson.]

Rice detailed that the administration’s plan also involves “inoculating” problematic political figures with financial freezes or visa denials, as it has done in the case of Nicaragua.

Another element in the administration’s plans is to “have an alternative … for these places that are vulnerable to this kind of particular brand of Latin American populism that has taken democratic states down the drain before.” By an alternative, Rice referred to the promotion of free trade while also “caring about the poor.”

Rice highlighted two recent events in particular, saying that the Bush administration would have to “raise the profile” of what is happening, such as with the charges that have been brought against the U.S.-funded opposition NGO Sumate, which she described as a “kangaroo trial.”

Last week, a Venezuelan judge ordered that the on-going treason trial against Sumate leaders be nullified and the Attorney General said his office would re-initiate the case over again.

The second issue Rice raised was a truckers’ strike in Venezuela, “where, I think, international labor could play a role in exposing the pressures on free trade union movements … the way that international labor did with Solidarity in Poland.”

Venezuelan Officials Deny Existence of Transport Strike

Venezuela’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Relations with North America, Mary Pili Hernandez, responded to Rice’s comments today, denying that there currently is a truckers’ strike in Venezuela. According to Hernandez, Rice’s mentioning of such a strike is a cause of concern because it suggests that there might be a plan to initiate a transportation strike as part of a destabilization plan, where truckers would be used as “cannon fodder.” “We will ask for an explanation [from the State Department],” added Hernandez.

Similarly, National Assembly President Nicolas Maduro, who is a former metro worker union leader, said that the international community should indeed pay attention to what is happening in Venezuela, as Rice is either misinformed or intentionally misinforming what is happening in Venezuela. There is no transport workers’ strike in Venezuela said Maduro.

Maduro did say that there were suspicious activities on the part of some anti-government transportation unions, but that the government recently convoked a large meeting of transportation workers, where the National Assembly agreed to install a national transportation roundtable, “Where we will propose a package of reforms and laws that have to do with the strengthening and reorientation of the entire transportation system in the country.”

U.S. Government Is Sending Mixed Signals

Maduro added that the U.S. government is sending mixed signals to Venezuela. “On the one hand there are positive signs for wanting a dialogue, with which we agree because we want to overcome differences, but on the other hand there are signs that the government of the United States continues with a different line … to try with bribes and the investment of dollars to put itself into natural conflicts of Venezuelan society,” said Maduro.

Similarly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, last night, suggested that the Bush administration is contradicting itself. “Just as someone sends a signal of conciliation with Venezuela, the hawks let lose and enter and destroy whatever initiative of coming together. That isn’t a government, it’s craziness,” said Chavez.

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela entered a new phase of tensions two weeks ago when the Chavez government accused the naval attaché to the U.S. embassy in Venezuela of spying and summarily expelled him. The Bush administration responded by expelling the chief of staff of the Ambassador of Venezuela to the U.S.