The Washington Diplomat / July 2016
By Larry Luxner
Bernardo Álvarez Herrera, who twice served as Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States and was forced out both times under hostile circumstances, is back in Washington once again — this time as his country’s permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS).
But the 59-year-old diplomat seems no more welcome at the OAS than he was at the White House, as both institutions lose patience with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose country is rapidly sinking into economic and political chaos.
The statistics are well known by now. Despite its 300 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves — which should make it the most prosperous nation in Latin America — the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is by far the hemisphere’s shakiest. Basic goods ranging from aspirin to toilet paper are impossible to find, while the IMF predicts annual inflation will hit nearly 500 percent this year and a whopping 1,600 percent next year, with GDP shrinking 8 percent in 2016. External debt is estimated at $130 billion, or six years’ worth of oil exports. Roughly 76 percent of Venezuela’s 30 million people are now living in poverty, up from 66 percent only two years ago, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Yet the Maduro government doesn’t have enough money to print money — the usual way countries battle hyperinflation — so it’s flying in banknotes from abroad.
On the flourishing parallel market, $1 today fetches 1,200 bolívares Fuertes, even though the official exchange rate is 10 bolívares. In desperation, the government has shrunk the official state workweek from five days to two and moved clocks forward by 30 minutes to maximize daylight, thereby reducing the need for electricity.
As if that’s not enough, violent crime is surging. Last year, Caracas surpassed San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to claim the title of world’s most murderous city. Even more ominously, vigilante justice has become commonplace. In late May, an angry mob beat a 42-year-old laborer, dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire for stealing $5 — an accusation the man quietly denied before dying of his injuries two days later.
Not surprisingly, the populist regime Maduro inherited from his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, is widely disliked; according to a recent poll, nearly 70 percent of Venezuelans want the one-time bus driver removed from office.
Álvarez doesn’t deny that his country is in trouble, but he blames Venezuela’s problems entirely on the dramatic drop in world oil prices and an “interventionist” U.S. policy that encourages smuggling and discontent with the chavistas ruling from Caracas.
“We are not on the verge of collapse,” Álvarez insisted. “A country that has been able to pay $38 billion of external debt in the last 18 months doesn’t seem to be in a huge economic crisis. But we have to address the problems of oil dependency. In the last year and a half, we have lost 70 percent of our oil income. Yes, we are suffering a very difficult situation, but there are people interested in aggravating our problems.”
Those “people” include White House officials as well as powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill — both Democrats and Republicans.
“We have been accused of everything — accused of hosting Iran, helping the FARC, financing terrorism and killing people,” said Álvarez, complaining that last year, the Obama administration signed a nuclear deal with Iran and even restored diplomatic ties with Cuba after a 54-year hiatus — but that it never once mentioned Venezuela’s critical role in bringing the Colombian government to the negotiating table with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Those talks, now underway in Havana, could potentially end a civil war that has been raging for more than 60 years.
“In Washington, there is no political cost in attacking Venezuela,” said Álvarez. “The problem is that Venezuela, like Cuba in the past, has become almost a domestic issue. When the Obama administration said Venezuela is a threat to the U.S., nobody believed that. But are we really a threat to the greatest military power in the world?”
Álvarez told The Diplomat he does not expect U.S. policy toward Venezuela to change any time soon. In that regard, he said it doesn’t really matter much whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump ends up in the White House in January 2017.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on whoever is elected to not engage constructively with Venezuela,” he said, noting that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a former GOP presidential candidate, dropped his opposition to Roberta Jacobson’s recent Senate approval as U.S. ambassador to Mexico in exchange for a guaranteed extension of U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations.
Álvarez spoke to The Washington Diplomat in an exclusive interview at the Venezuelan Embassy in Georgetown. It is no accident that our meeting took place at his office on the second floor, rather than at a similar office on the third floor, which is reserved for the ambassador. Given strained bilateral relations, Caracas doesn’t have an envoy in Washington, making Álvarez — who is also Maduro’s vice minister of foreign affairs for North America — Venezuela’s top diplomat in the U.S.
“In a way, I run this building, but you will always see me sitting in the office of the ambassador of the OAS, which is on the second floor,” explained Álvarez, whose surroundings are decorated with portraits of Chávez and his idol, South American liberator Simón Bolívar. “I’m extremely respectful of the rules of diplomacy.”
At present, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Caracas is chargé d’affaires Lee McClenny. Until recently, McClenny’s counterpart in Washington was Maximilien Sánchez Arveláiz, but after the White House extended U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, Maduro recalled Sánchez in protest.
“We haven’t had an ambassador here since I left [in 2010]. My actions here are restricted to the OAS,” said Álvarez, meaning that he cannot meet U.S. officials as he would have in the past as ambassador, but that he can engage them as vice minister of foreign affairs for North America.
During his seven-year tenure here from 2003 to 2010, Álvarez — an affable man with many friends — became dean of the Latin American diplomatic corps.
“I’ve spent most of my professional life in the United States,” said Álvarez, who was born in the Venezuelan state of Lara and has degrees from both the Universidad Central de Venezuela and the University of Sussex in England. “I like this city. In a way, I feel at home in Washington. Two of my daughters are married here.”
Yet Álvarez’s career of late resembles a yo-yo, with the ambassador involuntarily bouncing between Washington and Caracas as the bilateral relationship worsened, improved slightly and then worsened once again. Now those ties seem to be bleaker than ever. Few could have ever foreseen a time when the United States would have a full-fledged ambassador in Havana and not one in Caracas.
In September 2008, the State Department expelled Álvarez in a tit-for-tat after Chávez accused the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, Patrick Duddy, of conspiring to overthrow his government and ordered him to leave Venezuela.
“I was in fact declared persona non grata and went back to my country. Duddy was also declared persona non grata and had to return,” Álvarez explained. “Then there were talks, and the idea was to re-establish ambassadors in both countries. Venezuela actually was thinking of different names, but it was difficult to get anybody past the Senate. So Roy Chaderton [then Venezuela’s envoy to the OAS] and Tom Shannon [then assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs] said, why not re-establish the ambassadors we had before?”
The result: Álvarez became the first foreign diplomat in U.S. history to be expelled and then welcomed back by the same administration.
The honeymoon didn’t last long. In December 2010 — while Álvarez was back home for Christmas — the State Department retaliated after Chávez personally refused to accept Larry Palmer, President Obama’s nominee as the new U.S. envoy to Venezuela. The reason: Palmer had privately expressed concern — in documents exposed by WikiLeaks — about Venezuela’s plans to acquire massive amounts of Russian shoulder-fired missiles, attack helicopters, Sukhoi fighter jets and Kalashnikov rifles, fearing such weapons would end up in the hands of FARC rebels in Colombia or even Mexican drug warlords.
“Instead of making me persona non grata, they revoked my visa. I knew when I went to Caracas that I was not coming back,” said Álvarez.
But come back he did — and this time around, the State Department can’t do anything about it.
“As ambassador to the OAS, even if I’m declared persona non grata, they had to grant me a visa because Washington is the headquarters of the OAS, and there is a special agreement between the U.S. government and the OAS,” said Álvarez, who took up his current position in November 2015.
“I’m not accredited here as a bilateral ambassador, but basically I’m the one who handles high-level dialogue with the United States,” said the diplomat. “We are facing a massive political and media campaign against Venezuela — I think because Venezuela has always represented a real challenge to the neoliberal model which they want to disappear. But we have always found ways of connecting and exchanging views. There are some officials in the administration who still want contact with Venezuela. Part of my job as vice minister is to make sure this dialogue remains open.”
It hasn’t been easy, however. Administration officials and U.S. lawmakers have railed against Maduro’s heavy-handed tactics. Meanwhile, bureaucrats in Caracas are struggling to balance their budgets, food lines stretch for blocks and supermarket shelves are bare. Electricity flickers on and off. (A severe drought has drained a major reservoir that fuels power throughout the country.)
The crisis has extended all the way to Venezuela’s elegant mission in Washington.
“They have cut our expenses almost to the minimum,” said Álvarez, whose bosses have slashed his embassy staff here from 35 to 13 while closing the Miami consulate due to a “very hostile” atmosphere there.
To be fair, Venezuela’s meltdown is not all because of economic mismanagement, though there’s certainly no shortage of that in Maduro’s government. The dramatic fall in oil prices, from $145 per barrel back in July 2008 to under $30 earlier this year, has pushed Venezuela to the breaking point. Even though prices have somewhat recovered to around $50 a barrel, revenue from petroleum exports accounts for half the country’s GDP and roughly 95 percent of total exports.
In that regard, Venezuela is no different from Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Russia, all of which are also highly dependent on oil revenues. But in Venezuela’s case, Chávez exacerbated the problem by doling out generous subsidies on food, medicine and other necessities; at one point, gasoline sold for the equivalent of six U.S. cents a gallon. That bought political support for the president’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution when times were good, while raising expectations for millions of slum dwellers desperate for a way out of their poverty.
“This last crisis — the one we’re living right now — has taught us that the oil-dependent mentality is over,” said Álvarez. “We have kept a policy that tries to correct all these imbalances in salary increases and salary decreases, and we’re trying to guarantee to as many people as possible access to basic goods.”
But Maduro has refused to curtail the Chávez-era welfare programs and social spending that won over legions of working-class voters. Instead, the president has blasted the country’s business elite — along with exiles in Miami and Spain — for purposely sabotaging the economy for their own political gain.
Likewise, Álvarez accepts no government responsibility whatsoever for the economic crisis befalling his country. He prefers to blame falling oil prices and price controls that encourage people to cheat the system — not to mention encouragement from Washington.
“When you face restrictions on oil income, you get bottlenecks in the production of basic goods like food and medicine. So we have concentrated our imports on those goods, and other sectors have been suffering,” he explained. “Our country was spending a stupid rate on imports. So the economy reacted and became an import economy.”
Another problem is capital flight, he said. “A lot of people took money out of Venezuela. Prices are 10, 20, even 30 times higher in Colombia than in Venezuela. We were subsidizing a lot of products for a lot of people.”
Removing price controls, he insists, “is like the chicken and the egg. Some people say we have to correct the monetary system, but the government is not going to take the classical decision, which is to forget about price controls. If we liberate everything, we would have an extremely difficult situation.”
That’s utter nonsense, says Victor Rodríguez Cedeño, Venezuela’s former ambassador to the United Nations.
Cedeño, who resigned in 2004 rather than defend the Chávez regime, spoke June 21 at the UN Human Rights Council, where he challenged Maduro on behalf of his people who are “suffering an unprecedented political, economic and social crisis.”
Noting a New York Times article headlined “Venezuelans ransacking stores as hunger grips the nation,” he said Venezuelans are suffering from a shortage of 85 percent of essential goods and 95 percent of medicines.
“The Venezuelan government, Mr. President, violates the right to food and the right to health,” said Cedeño, addressing the 32nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council. “There is no bread, milk or toilet paper. Malnutrition and chronic diseases such as cancer, HIV, diabetes or hypertension — and infectious diseases such as malaria and Zika — cannot be treated. Recent deaths of children due to lack of medicines or hospital supplies exposed a situation that must be addressed without further delay, to avoid new victims,” he urged. “Venezuelans are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, which in no way affects national sovereignty nor does it interfere in the internal affairs of a state, as claimed by Venezuelan government representatives, who must accept reality.”
As if all that’s not enough, the recent impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — an ally of Maduro — following accusations of corruption was another ominous sign for Venezuela.
“Dilma’s departure was bad because she’s a very honorable woman,” Álvarez lamented. “There were no reasons to justify putting a leader like her out of office. Not a single media outlet in Brazil tried to present a balanced view. We reject what happened there and we consider it a coup d’état.”
Could something similar happen in Venezuela?
“Under the constitution, the only way [Maduro] cannot finish his term is if there’s a recall referendum,” Álvarez responded. “There are two options. If you get a recall before the fourth year of 10 years and he loses, then he has to resign. If you do that after the fourth year, the vice president will take over and finish the mandate. The only possible coup would be a coup coming from abroad.”
Yet turmoil continues to roil the country from within. Late last year, the opposition won control of the National Assembly, handing the chavistas their first legislative defeat since Chávez himself came to power in 1998. But the president’s allies still control the Supreme Court, where they can blunt the opposition’s legislative agenda. Meanwhile, violent protests have stalled a massive referendum campaign to recall Maduro, who has refused to consider the petition drive this year and instead instituted emergency measures to quell the uprising and foil what he says are foreign plots to subvert him.
Álvarez says he cannot understand the unabashed calls for Maduro’s ouster — or why people seem to hold Venezuela to a higher standard.
“So many other countries are facing economic problems, and nobody is asking for political change or intervention,” he complained, citing an April 12 editorial in the Washington Post that essentially endorsed regime change after the Maduro government refused to negotiate with opposition leaders.
“Venezuela is desperately in need of political intervention by its neighbors, which have a ready mechanism in the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Democratic Charter, a treaty that provides for collective action when a regime violates constitutional norms,” said the editorial. “But the region’s leaders are distracted: Brazil is suffering its own political crisis, while the Obama administration is preoccupied with its outreach to Cuba. While the White House courts the Castros, they are using their control over Venezuela’s intelligence and security forces, and longtime acolyte Mr. Maduro, to foment his kamikaze tactics. An explosion is probably not far off.”
Showdown at OAS
The D.C.-based OAS has long been criticized as a toothless bureaucracy, although the 35-member institution has recently found itself in the crosshairs of Venezuela’s burgeoning crisis.
OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro is certainly no fan of Maduro. Despite his solid credentials as a leftist when he was Uruguay’s foreign minister, Almagro has emerged as one of Venezuela’s loudest critics — a contrast from his predecessor at the OAS, Chilean diplomat José Miguel Insulza, who was often viewed as too complacent when it came to Venezuela under Maduro, and before him, Chávez.
On May 30, Almagro submitted a 114-page letter to the OAS Permanent Council. In it, he documented Venezuela’s increasing poverty rate and demanded the immediate release of political prisoners, including prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López. In addition, he called for an urgent meeting to discuss whether Venezuela is violating basic democratic principles — paving the way for a vote that could suspend it from the OAS. He also supports calls for a recall referendum against Maduro, something that would have been unthinkable coming from the OAS under Almagro’s predecessor.
Thus far, the council has adopted a resolution encouraging dialogue and opposing foreign intervention in Venezuela. It has yet to vote on Almagro’s controversial request to invoke the OAS Democratic Charter, which could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the body.
Not surprisingly, the four traditional allies of chavismo — Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua — have rallied to Maduro’s defense. But so has Argentina, which is now led by a center-right administration. “I firmly believe that it is important to give space and pause to the dialogue because I know of no other way to find a solution to the problem of Venezuela,” said Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra.
Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank that on May 26 hosted Álvarez for a roundtable discussion on Venezuela.
No one knows if the way out of Venezuela’s crisis is through dialogue, “but if it is, the process will likely involve government officials like Bernardo Álvarez,” he told The Diplomat. Shifter considers him “among the most open and accessible figures in the Venezuelan government,” even though Álvarez staunchly defends the party line.
“He is seasoned and skillful, though it is unclear how much of what he claims can effectively counter the unremittingly negative accounts of the conditions in Venezuela today,” Shifter remarked. “The U.S. government knows that Álvarez is an influential player, not only as Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS but also as vice minister for North America at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Shifter said that Álvarez, working in tandem with Maduro, has led the resistance among OAS member states, effectively diluting the approach advocated by Almagro.
“The result has been a notably ‘light’ resolution that many regard as a celebration of the principle of non-intervention,” said Shifter, who warned that “OAS actions could become stronger if the government is unresponsive to calls for ‘dialogue’ and the situation deteriorates even further.”
The OAS has already gone too far, counters Larry Birns, director of the left-leaning Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). On June 1, Birns hand-delivered a letter to Almagro’s assistant, protesting the OAS chief’s “relentless attacks” against the Maduro and his “intervention on behalf of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) and its allies in Washington.”
Álvarez has his own views toward Almagro — and what he derides as a flashy media blitz to bash Venezuela.
“Almagro is not playing any diplomatic role here,” Álvarez told us. “Just to give you an example, he has done almost 200 tweets on Venezuela. I have been very public, but I don’t have the media access he has. In this city, if you hit Venezuela, you might get a prize. So he’ll get a lot of applause from the U.S. media. But this is not the role of the secretary-general of the OAS. He went beyond his role and has disqualified himself to work on anything regarding Venezuela. Instead of being a diplomat, he became part of the Venezuelan political opposition.”
Despite his bitterness toward the current OAS chief, Álvarez refused to label the institution irrelevant — and he still holds out a glimmer of hope that Washington and Caracas will some day patch up their differences.
“We are promoting a regionalism that represents a new era for Latin America, and this is going to affect the OAS,” he said. “For us, it’s a good place to have a collective dialogue with the United States. It’s important to have a place where we can talk.”