The Washington Diplomat / September 2006
By Larry Luxner
Bernardo Alvarez has been Venezuela's ambassador to the United States for nearly four years now — and every day, his job seems to get harder.
First, populist President Hugo Chávez was nearly overthrown in a 2002 coup that had the tacit backing of the Bush administration. Then the opposition crippled the Venezuelan economy by declaring a national strike and shutting down state oil giant PDVSA.
These days, the State Department is more alarmed than ever about Venezuela's growing ties with Iran, Cuba, North Korea and other enemies of the United States.
"The U.S. has practically put Venezuela on the list of terrorist states," complained Alvarez. "Secondly, they have criticized us because we are not doing enough to stop human trafficking. Third, they don't allow us to upgrade our military equipment — not only F-15s but also Hercules transport planes. And they've pressured all international banks to stop financing projects in Venezuela, except those projects that promote democracy."
The problem, of course, is the enduring popularity of Hugo Chávez — backed by record-high prices for Venezuela's chief export, oil, and admired throughout Latin America for standing up to Washington.
"Chávez is not an accident in a wonderful world. Chávez is a consequence of many problems," he told the Washington Diplomat during a lengthy interview at the Venezuelan Embassy last month.
"The Bush administration must give up all these crazy thoughts of regime change. These right-wingers must drop their Cold War mentality and understand that there is a political process in Venezuela," he said. "The United States is trying to go around Latin America, saying Venezuela is a bad influence. They've created this person who is apparently behind everything that happens in the hemisphere."
In mid-August, Chávez further distanced himself from the United States by announcing he would break diplomatic relations with Israel, following that country's border war with Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorists. This came only a few months after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whom Chávez has called a "true friend and brother" — publicly declared that Israel should be wiped off the map and that the Holocaust was mostly Zionist propaganda.
Alvarez accuses Washington of taking his president's comments completely out of context.
"We don't have any problems with Jews at all," he said. "We have a large Jewish community, and we have had relations with the State of Israel for a long time. But Venezuela’s position is that we should do something, because this massive bombardment and killing in Lebanon is morally unacceptable."
Ironically, Venezuela was the only country in the world to recall its ambassador to Israel in order to protest the fighting — not even Egypt or Jordan took that step.
"We thought we should tell the Israeli government that this is not the way to do things — no matter what happened — and that you cannot resort to such violence," said Alvarez, who not once during our hour-long interview criticized Hezbollah's continuing rocket and missile attacks on Israeli civilians or its kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah is supplied and financed by Iran, though Alvarez claims Venezuela's anti-Israel position "doesn't have anything to do" with Chávez’s recent trip to Tehran.
"We have a long relationship with Iran that goes back many years, and is based on many common interests, starting with oil," he said. "We have relationships with many countries around the world, and it doesn't mean we support all of them. Venezuela's position is very clear: we don't agree with that statement made by the president of Iran" calling for Israel's destruction.
He added that Venezuela has good relations with Libya, and now has observer status at the Arab League.
"This is part of our strategy of reaching out to the world," he said.
The strategy has infuriated the Bush administration, which has watched as Chávez travels the globe, embracing not only Ahmadinejad and Libya's Moammar Ghadafi, but also other dictators such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
Earlier this year, Chávez was accused of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism after a Christmas eve speech in which he referred to "minorities, descendants of those who crucified Christ" who today control the world’s economy. The government later claimed Chávez was not referring to Jews.
Through it all, the United States remains Venezuela's biggest customer, buying 60% of the country's total exports. The biggest component of the trade is oil; Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA oil monopoly ships 1.2 million barrels of crude a day to U.S. markets and also owns refineries in Louisiana, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In addition, it has 100% ownership of the Citgo gas-station chain.
Bilateral relations took a turn for the worse after Chávez — who had led failed coup attempts against the Venezuelan government in the early 1990s— was elected president in 1998.
Thanks partially to record-high oil prices that allow his government to spend lavishly on social programs, Chavez remains wildly popular. Yet least one Latin American expert cautions against overreacting to Chávez's incendiary comments.
"Remember that in dealing with Chávez, he's far more bark than bite," said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "He also has no self-censoring capacity. After he says something, his most seasoned diplomats rush in and engage in damage control."
Birns said he doubts Chávez will follow through on his threat to break diplomatic ties with Israel.
"Part of his statements on Israel have a lot to do with the fact that Venezuela is primarily an oil-based economy," Birns told the Diplomat. "He identifies with poor, downtrodden countries and looks at Israel as a Western state exploiting a poor Arab nation. But I doubt very much whether this situate will deteriorate any further. As soon as there is some sort of peace agreement with Lebanon, this whole issue will quiet down."
Alvarez, 48, is deputy dean of the Latin American diplomatic corps in Washington; only El Salvador's René León has been here longer.
The ambassador is originally from the city of Barquisimeto, located halfway between Caracas and Lake 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 his current post, Alvarez was Venezuela's vice minister for oil and gas— an important position in a country that derives 80% of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports.
As such, Alvarez claims that Venezuela is pumping more money than ever before into social programs — money that's now available thanks to record high oil prices of $73 a barrel.
"Our first and main interest is to reduce poverty and inequality. For the first time, we've directed a very significant percentage of that oil revenue into social programs, including a program to eradicate illiteracy and supply subsidized food to Venezuela's poor," he said.
"We've also had a program to enroll 300,000 Venezuelans to attend primary and high school. There's also a program, with Cuba's help, to provide basic health care and free medicine to at least 17 million Venezuelans."
Alvarez estimated that some 25,000 Cuban doctors are working in Cuba. He was also quick to mention all the infrastructure programs being pushed through with oil money, including a bridge over the Orinoco River to Brazil, and a rail system linking Caracas with Valencia.
"People don't realize that we've made some important changes in oil policy which allows us to collect more revenues. Before, we had a fiscal policy that was bringing a lot of money into PDVSA and less and less to the government. We had a very rich company in a very poor country."
The ambassador acknowledges that Venezuela's new hydrocarbons law has scared off a few foreign petroleum giants. "So what?" he said with a shrug. "One oil company pulls out, and another 15 come in."
Alvarez said he suspects one reason the Bush administration fears Chávez so much is that he represents a new way of looking at Latin America.
"All that rhetoric hides their real concern that Venezuela is implementing an alternative model for the hemisphere. The free-trade agreement basically means more poverty. Sometimes economies grow, but it doesn't reflect in the well-being of the people," he says. "They have this idea that only classical representative democracy without empowering people will bring about prosperity."
"The problem is, they lack a clear policy. They don't want to discuss the way they have of looking at the hemisphere. Unfortunately, this Cold War mentality has come back. In this mentality, you see enemies everywhere, and you identify a country like Venezuela as an enemy of the United States."
Despite the increasingly bad feelings between Washington and Caracas, Alvarez says he's still welcomed at all diplomatic functions.
"We have professional dealings. Of course, some people are willing to talk, but we keep our bilateral and diplomatic relations. I have some regular contacts with the the U.S. ambassador in Venezuela. Don't forget we have a very actuive bilateral relationship, we have trade, we have culture, we have baseball," he said. "We are now trying to finalize discussions over a new agreement regarding narcotrafficking. We hope we will find a way of doing that.
"I want to try to take advantage of common interests. But the way of managing our differences is not through regime change."
Presidential elections are scheduled for Dec. 3, though if the election were held today, pollsters say, Chávez would win 55-60% of the vote, thanks to his years of pumping oil revenues into new housing projects, community clinics and road construction.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's political opposition is fractured, with one presidential candidate — prominent economist Teodoro Petkoff — withdrawing his candidacy within the last month. That leaves only three or four candidates with any strength, though individually none have a prayer of defeating Chávez this December.
"Unfortunately, the only enemy the opposition has is themselves. More and more, people have realized that they tried to overthrow Chávez at any price. Now, fortunately, I think there are rational people among them who understand that they have to participate. They now realize that it was a grave mistake to withdraw from the parliamentary elections," said Alvarez.
The ambassador is bitter over what he calls the Bush administration's two-faced policy when it comes to the war on terrorism.
"This year will be the anniversary of two important events: in September, 30 years since the killing of [Chilean diplomat] Orlando Letelier in Washington, and in October, the 30th anniversary of the bombing of the Cubana aircraft by Cuban exiles," he said.
Both events were terrorist attacks, he said, the latter masterminded by Luís Posada Carriles, the subject of an extradition request by the Venezuelan government.
But the United States has refused to extradite Posada to Venezuela — leading Alvarez to question the Bush administration's true commitment to fighting acts of terrorism.
"Colombia's President Uribe, an ally of the United States, is talking to Fidel Castro to help him in the neogitations with the ELN guerrilla group. So according to this Cold War policy, if you talk to a terrorist, you're a terrorist. And Cuba historically is considered a state sponsor of terrorism. Yet Fidel Castro is helping his best ally in the fight against terrorism to solve a political problem in Colombia."
"For many people in this country, Latin America is OK and all they need is more trade," he said. "But if you see what's been going on over the last few years, it's amazing. You're hiding yourself from the reality.The [United States] must adjust their vision and stop looking at Latin America through the eyes of the Cold War. We are promoting a much stronger political unity in this hemisphere. We need balance, and for balance, you need to have other regional powers."
But neither should Venezuela blame the United States for all its problems.
"I think the first responsibility we have in Latin America is to ourselves," he said, "to go beyond the classical, to understand that we must have our own model of development."