Diplomatic Pouch / January 5, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Bernardo Alvarez Herrera has been kicked out of the United States — again.
Venezuela’s longtime ambassador in Washington was vacationing in Caracas when he learned that the State Department had revoked his U.S. visa. The Dec. 29 announcement came only 24 hours after President Hugo Chávez angrily rejected President Obama’s choice for U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Larry Palmer.
“If the government is going to expel our ambassador there, let them do it!” Chávez had dared Washington the day before. “If they’re going to cut diplomatic relations, let them do it!”
Washington took the strongman up on his dare. “We said there would be consequences when the Venezuelan government rescinded agreement regarding our nominee, Larry Palmer,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters by e-mail. “We have taken appropriate, proportional and reciprocal action.”
Chávez’s refusal to allow ambassador-designate Larry Palmer into the Bolivarian Republic came after the veteran U.S. diplomat’s comments during his Senate confirmation, when he said that the Venezuelan military suffered low morale and that members of the Chávez government had given refuge to leftist Colombian rebels in the jungle.
Calling it part of the Obama administration’s “policy of aggression,” Chávez countered that “anyone who comes here as an ambassador has to show respect. This is a country that must be respected.”
Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American lawyer and frequent defender of the Chávez government, said Washington’s revocation of Alvarez’s visa was “an act of vengeance, provoking a diplomatic rupture” — and that the White House had brought about the situation “through dirty maneuvering.”
But the State Department has shown more flexibility than maneuvering on the issue. Although for months it stood firmly behind its choice for ambassador, now that Palmer has formally been rejected, State Department officials have hinted that they are willing to propose another candidate to keep diplomatic relations going.
“We believe it’s in our national interest to have an ambassador in Caracas so that we can candidly express our views and engage with the government of Venezuela,” said spokesman Toner, defending Palmer. “There are tensions in the relationship, and it’s precisely because of that that we feel it’s important to have appropriate diplomatic relations.
” More recently, on Monday, spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters that Palmer’s nomination formally expired with the end of the last Congress, “so among the issues that we’ll be evaluating is what to do in light of that and the step that Venezuela unfortunately took,” he said, adding, “We will have to re-nominate an ambassador candidate.”
Meanwhile, the fate of Chávez’s ambassador remains unclear. The normally gregarious Alvarez — the only ambassador who’s ever appeared on the cover of The Washington Diplomat three times — couldn’t be reached by phone or e-mail. His press secretary was also not authorized to comment for this story.
This isn’t the first time Alvarez — who represented the Chávez government in Washington for more than seven years — has had problems with the State Department. In September 2008, the Bush administration declared him persona non grata after Chávez expelled Patrick Duddy, the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, on the grounds that Duddy was “meddling” in internal affairs. Alvarez was subsequently given 24 hours to pack his bags and leave the country.
At the time, the State Department also booted out Bolivia’s top diplomat here, announcing that “in response to the unwarranted action [of President Evo Morales, who had just expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg] and in accordance with the Vienna Convention, we have officially informed the government of Bolivia of our decision to declare Ambassador Gustavo Guzmán persona non grata.”
Yet six months after Barack Obama’s inauguration, Alvarez was quietly welcomed back to Washington in the hopes that bilateral relations would improve. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and now it looks as if Alvarez has been banished for a while to come, if not for good.
“I think this had been building up for awhile, and the administration felt it had to do something, especially after Chávez’s threats and bluster,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “Not something extreme — like breaking off diplomatic relations — but revoking his visa.”
Shifter said Alvarez couldn’t be declared persona non grata like the last time around because he wasn’t physically in the country when the State Department made its decision. So it simply banned the ambassador from returning — which amounts to the same thing.
“The practical effect is that he can’t come back into the country. By any measure, this is a very serious step,” Shifter told the Diplomatic Pouch, adding that “the administration couldn’t back down on the Palmer appointment because it needed to save face and would be seen as weak if it had done that.
” Shifter also said the White House should have seen this diplomatic debacle coming. “This whole thing was not as carefully managed as it should have been. My view is that the administration wants to have an ambassador in Venezuela, and that they want that ambassador to be effective. But it’s completely predictable that if somebody says morale is low in the armed forces, it’s going to push buttons in Venezuela. He [Palmer] could have framed his comments in much more diplomatic language.”
Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica’s former ambassador in Washington and an outspoken critic of Venezuela’s populist president, couldn’t disagree more. “
Chávez was giving himself the authority to keep an ambassador in Washington while not accepting the U.S. ambassador-designate in Caracas, for no other reason except that Mr. Palmer’s testimony in the Senate offended Chávez,” Daremblum told the Pouch.
“Palmer is an veteran ambassador who’s been approved by the Senate, and he’s highly respected. The United States doesn’t have to submit individuals who are to the liking of the [host] country. There are certain rules in this process,” he said. “I think the U.S. took the position it should have taken from the very beginning, [which was] to cancel the visa of Ambassador Alvarez.”
Daremblum also contends that Alvarez bears at least some responsibility for his current unwelcome status in Washington.
“I know Bernardo well and have worked with him, and he’s been a very able mouthpiece for Chávez. The problem is that he alleged all sorts of conspiracies and became so strident in his defense of Chávez that nobody believed him anymore. I think he lost his effectiveness as an ambassador.”
Not so, counters Shifter.
“I thought he was pretty effective. Alvarez has performed well for his government,” he said. “He’s the dean of all Latin American ambassadors, and Chávez wouldn’t have had him here this long if he wasn’t doing his job.”
Indeed, Alvarez regularly penned articles for publications such as Foreign Policy, denouncing for example what he described as Cold War antagonism toward Latin America, and he issued a regular barrage of press releases countering criticism of Chávez in the U.S. media. (Also see “Envoy: Venezuela Just Can’t Get Any Respect” in the March 9, 2010, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch.)
Still, the PR effort was an uphill battle when it came to defending Chávez, who’s widely been accused of perpetually stifling democracy in Venezuela over the last 12 years of his presidency, most recently by granting himself decree powers for the next 18 months that allow him to circumvent a new opposition-filled National Assembly.
The diplomatic spat may have extinguished any hopes for a rapprochement in relations, but trade ties will probably remain unaffected. Venezuela remains the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, while Venezuela’s economy — though diversifying — is still mired in a recession and relies on oil exports to the United States as well as on American imports of consumer goods.
In fact, over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bumped into Chávez at the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, with both exchanging pleasantries despite the diplomatic tit-for-tat.