Diplomatic Pouch / March 9, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, invited his reporter friends gathered around the long formal table to enjoy a hearty "desayuno venezolano" of scrambled eggs, shredded beef, homemade arepas and hot steaming coffee. Then he immediately launched into a verbal attack against the Obama White House, the Organization of American States and anyone else seeking to malign his boss, President Hugo Chávez.
The Feb. 25 breakfast briefing at the ambassador's residence attracted around 20 Washington-based journalists. It was originally scheduled in response to a recent U.S. State Department report highly critical of Venezuela's efforts to control drug-smuggling.
But on Feb. 24, the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a scathing, 300-page attack on the Chávez government, accusing it of restricting free expression, clamping down on the rights of citizens to protest, and silencing politicians who dare to oppose the president.
"Apparently, there is an attempt in Washington to try to present Venezuela as a country about to collapse, and this is not true," said Alvarez, who was declared persona non grata by the Bush White House in 2008 but welcomed back to Washington last year by the incoming Obama administration.
"Since 2006, these intelligence reports have been mainly used as a way of attacking Venezuela for political reasons," he said. "For us, it's clear that this is part of the same disinformation campaign against Venezuela that's gone on for years and years."
Alvarez was responding, among other perceived provocations, to Feb. 2 testimony by Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, on the 2010 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
According to a Venezuelan Embassy press release handed out by an assistant as Alvarez spoke, "unlike the 2009 report, the 2010 Threat Assessment focuses more specifically and politically on Venezuela and less on broader, measurable threats. This increased emphasis on Venezuela in the 2010 report — in which it is singled out as a major regional threat to the United States — is a worrying step that seems to contradict pledges made by the Obama administration in 2009 to work more cooperatively with the region to impove relations and address mutual challenges."
Alvarez says he often gets the feeling there are two Barack Obamas — and that the president now sitting in the White House bears little resemblance to the president who shook hands with Chávez last April at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain.
"On one hand, they say they want to talk to governments that have a different system than their own. But at the same time, they identify the Venezuelan system as a threat to the national security of the United States. So it's a big contradiction to say you want dialogue with countries that think differently, but then you criminalize these countries," he said. "It means that if you challenge the way the U.S. sees the Western Hemisphere, it immediately makes you an enemy. We are extremely concerned about this."
Asked specifically to comment on the OAS report, Alvarez politely deflected questions to Roy Chaderton, Venezuela's ambassador to the 34-nation entity, who was not present. And when a Spanish-speaking TV reporter repeatedly grilled him on why the Chávez government wouldn't let members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — an independent body of the OAS — visit Venezuela, Alvarez got defensive.
"A lot of bad things are happening in many other Latin American countries. We wish that Venezuela were the worst case, because then everything would be OK," he said. "But the media here concentrates only on Venezuela."
One of his biggest beefs seems to be Washington's allegations that Chávez is doing nothing to fight the drug trade.
Yet last year, he said, Venezuelan authorities seized 60 tons of drugs, up from 54 tons in 2008. And in the two preceding years — following a decision by Caracas to stop working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — drug seizures jumped by 38 percent relative to the two years, 2002 to 2004, before cooperation between the DEA and Venezuela ended.
Last year, Venezuela also invested $260 million to buy and install 10 radars to track illegal drug flights, arrested close to 9,000 individuals for drug-related crimes, destroyed 26 clandestine laboratories, and "remained internationally engaged" through 50 anti-drug cooperation agreements with 38 countries.
"The State Department's annual accusation that Venezuela is not cooperating in the fight against drugs is purely political," Alvarez charged. "We may have political disagreements with the U.S., but a report on the fight against drugs should not be the means to air those. It is foolish to blame Venezuela for problems that reflect not the failure of one country's efforts, but rather the failure of the supply-side and military strategy against narcotics led in this hemisphere by the United States."
The ambassador also denied persistent allegations that Hezbollah cells operate on the offshore island of Isla Margarita, and defended the close personal ties Chávez has cultivated with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad.
"We have a large community of Syrians and Lebanese on Margarita, and those guys are very good merchants, but they don't support terrrorism. The Hezbollah charge is not true," he said, adding that "the State Department uses Iran, because it's a very good strategy to say that any country that's friends with Iran might be a threat to the United States. But Brazil has a great relationship with Iran too."
Alvarez also dismissed a reporter's question about rumors that Venezuela is helping Iran circumvent oil export sanctions — and he suggested that Venezuela's Orinoco oil belt contains petroleum reserves far greater than those of Saudi Arabia.
"Iran has been a partner of Venezuela for years. We are both founding members of OPEC, we both have a lot of oil, and we get a lot of our technology in agricultural equipment, mining and oil and gas from Iran. It's also a big player in that part of the world and has good relations with Pakistan, Qatar and all the former Soviet republics," he said.
"We have a good friendship with Ahmadenijad, as we did with Khatami. And we will be ready to work with any other Iranian president who follows."