Diplomatic Pouch / July 13, 2009
By Larry Luxner
On a bright Sunday morning last week, about 65 Venezuelan officials and their families gathered at the statue of national hero and liberator Simón Bolívar to mark the 198th anniversary of their country's independence.
But the focus of this uniquely Venezuelan event was in fact another country, Honduras. The Central American nation has been gripped by chaos ever since armed soldiers forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile, marking the region's first coup since the end of the Cold War.
The symbolism was not lost on the little crowd as Regzeida González, political counselor at the Venezuelan Embassy, read aloud the proclamation of independence ratified on July 5, 1811, by the seven provinces that would break away from Spain and eventually become the Republic of Venezuela.
Towering above the crowd was the statue of Bolívar on his stallion, flanked by two military men, wreaths of blue, yellow and red — the national colors — and the flags of the United States and Venezuela hinting at better bilateral relations finally taking root after the recent expulsions of ambassadors from each other's countries.
Bernardo Alvarez, who had been declared persona non grata by the Bush administration, is now back in Washington as ambassador, in what quite possibly marks the first time in U.S. history that such a designation has been lifted by a new president.
Speaking of the "urgency of the times," Alvarez said he's happy to be back in the nation's capital, basking in the relatively welcoming atmosphere of the Obama administration. He returned to Washington on June 29, calling the bilateral decision to restore top-level diplomatic envoys the "first step" in normalizing relations.
"I want to thank my friends at the embassy who kept this mission going with spirits intact. It wasn't easy," Alvarez told his colleagues in Spanish, singling out charge d'affaires Angelo Rivero Santos for special recognition.
The U.S. ambassador in Caracas, Patrick Duddy, had also been declared persona non grata by President Hugo Chávez and expelled on Sept. 11, 2008. But he, too, has his job back — largely because both Alvarez and Duddy are widely respected by their peers in the diplomatic service, and because reinstating both men was far easier than putting new candidates through the rigorous approval process that all ambassador-designates must endure.
"Looking at the statue of our liberator, Simón Bolívar, I can't help but think there are two kinds of countries in the world: countries which liberate, and countries whose tradition is to submit to the demands of others," said Alvarez. "Venezuela is putting all its resources into helping another country, Honduras, in its time of need — and I think this is the best way we can ensure that the tradition of Simón Bolívar will endure forever."
Standing next to Alvarez during most of the ceremony was the man who almost got his job. Roy Chaderton, Venezuela's ambassador to the Organization of American States, was widely anticipated to take over the post until it was abruptly announced that Alvarez would be coming back.
After the ceremony, Chaderton told the Diplomatic Pouch that what's happening in Honduras right now is a "photocopy" of the failed 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela, one that was initially supported by the Bush White House.
"They're just trying to get back their lost privileges, and preventing the majority of people from having decent lives," he said. "By abiding by the Inter-American Charter, Venezuela is being faithful to its past, along with Argentina and Ecuador. We are committing ourselves to the freedom and liberation of countries that have been oppressed by dictators. And that's precisely what's going on in Honduras today, when a gang of criminals overthrow a democratically elected president with the support of the privileged class."
Chaderton said the U.S. response was "appropriate" within the context of the OAS, which is currently debating whether to kick Honduras out unless Zelaya is restored to power.
"President Zelaya was simply convening a nonbinding poll, in order to get a feeling about constitutional change in Honduras," he said. "But instead of allowing this poll to go on, they were afraid of the outcome. See the difference in the U.S. reaction between 2002 (Venezuela) and 2009 (Honduras)? It's definitely a step forward."
Yet some commentators warn that Chávez is isolating himself with his confrontational approach to the Honduran situation.
"Mr. Obama's nonconfrontational diplomacy seems to have caught Mr. Chávez off balance," said Michael Shifter, vice-president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. Quoted recently by the New York Times, he said "Chávez is beginning to understand that he's dealing with someone with a very different approach than his predecessor."
Meanwhile, Chávez's high-pitched threats of military intervention in Central America have led one opposition group, Acción Democratica, to say that "Hugo Chávez has become the George Bush of Latin America."
Bush or no Bush, Chaderton assured Pouch that if the OAS does move to suspend Honduras, "it will be a very strong measure to those who are de facto in charge of ruling the country by force. Of course, there must also be a very strong response from within Honduras — people marching in the streets and students protesting, particularly the excluded ones. What this is all about is the end of privileges for the minority."
Ironically, it was only a month ago, on July 2, when OAS members meeting in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, unanimously agreed to restore Cuba's membership, provided it meets certain basic human rights standards.
"The United States took the right decision, which was to lift this sanction of the Cold War, this dinosaur, after 47 years. There is no contradiction here. The reason for Cuba's exclusion from the OAS was its Marxist-Leninist philosophy. What you see today is the United States enjoying good relations with both the Chinese and the Russians."
Not everybody in Washington supports the notion that Zelaya was actually overthrown in a coup. Jaime Daremblum is a former ambassador from Costa Rica, where Zelaya has taken temporary refuge.
"Recent events in Honduras have struck many Latin Americans as a return to the bad old days when power-hungry generals routinely dislodged elected officials and stomped on democracy. Yet upon closer examination, the removal of Zelaya bears very little resemblance to traditional Latin American military coups," Daremblum has written in a just-published blog article. "Indeed, it was not really a coup. Rather, it was a response to a leader who had trampled the law and attempted to hold an illegal referendum on constitutional reform. Zelaya's ouster was approved by Honduras's Congress, Supreme Court, Electoral Tribunal, attorney general, and national prosecutor."
Daremblum noted that Chávez himself served jail time in the early 1990s for leading an attempted coup in Venezuela.
"Today, his angry response and wild threats indicate just how much is at stake in Honduras," he said. "Zelaya was a close Venezuelan ally. His ouster represents a major defeat for the 'Bolivarian revolution' that Chávez has promoted in countries across the region. If Honduras's democratic institutions prevail in their efforts to block Zelaya's return, they will have scored a landmark victory over chavismo."
Meanwhile, former State Department official Otto Reich has launched a media blitz to defend himself against accusations by Venezuela's Chaderton that he was behind the ouster of the Honduran president.
"It is not often that an ambassador of a foreign country publicly accuses a private U.S. citizen of being the 'architect' of a coup d'état against a third country," Reich wrote in a Miami Herald column published July 9. "Yet that is what happened recently when Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, charged me with orchestrating the removal of President Zelaya."
Reich, a Cuban-born exile, is despised in both Havana and Caracas for his hardline opposition to the Castro and Chávez governments. Among other things, he accuses Zelaya, "with advice and support from Chávez, of trying but failing to subvert the electoral process so that he could remain in office indefinitely."
The former Bush administration official said Honduran officials have publicly threatened to sue him, but that no lawsuit has materialized.
"Had I really been the 'architect' of Zelaya's removal, I would had advised that he be charged with the almost 20 crimes with which the Honduran Judiciary has now charged him, and be arrested by civilian authorities," he said, adding that "the United States should not betray our values by joining the efforts of some of the most repressive and undemocratic leaders of this hemisphere to seek the reinstatement of lawbreaker Zelaya."