VENEZUELA: ‘Like the Russian Ambassador during the Cold War’
Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, is not intimidated by a task that he himself describes as “feeling like the Russian ambassador during the Cold War.” The government he represents, headed by President Hugo Chavez, is in an escalating war of words with Washington over everything from nationalizations to Venezuela’s ambitious new program of arms acquisitions.
Cold War parallels are indeed apt. In a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com, the ambassador frequently responded to questions about his country’s policies and alliances with the type of moral equivalency talk that long characterized the Soviet bloc’s defense of its system as a successful political and economic alternative to Western models.
In defense of Venezuela’s program of nationalizations, Ambassador Alvarez, who was posted to Washington in 2003, compared them to action taken under eminent domain laws in the United States. In defense of the 2007 Enabling Law that grants Chavez the right to rule by decree for 18 months, he says current US laws give the American government greater powers than Chavez enjoys. When asked about the lack of freedom to choose a leader in Venezuela’s closest ally, Cuba, he points to the high cost of getting elected as a US senator as an equal impediment to true democracy. And so on.
In his address to the UN General Assembly last year, Chavez called President George Bush “the devil” and complained of the sulfurous odor in the chamber left by Bush’s recent presence there. And when Bush took a trip to Latin America in early March this year, Chavez responded with, “Yankee go home.”
We have no comparable quotes from Bush, but in its claim of moral equivalency the Chavez government has not shown itself concerned with the niceties of diplomatic speak.
When asked whether the recent parliamentary decision to grant Chavez rule by decree coupled with indications that Chavez might seek to end presidential term limits did not amount to steps into dictatorship, the ambassador responded with exasperation: “What is a dictatorship? Is Bush a dictator because [Congress passed] the Patriot [Act]?”
He noted that Chavez cannot change the constitution and that a change in term limits would require a referendum. But referendums are Chavez’s forte as he remains wildly popular among the poorer classes that have benefited from his social programs, funded by booming national income from oil exports. Their support at the ballot box helped him beat a recall effort by his opponents and last year returned him to the presidential palace with a 63 percent majority.
And Chavez himself took the opportunity of his swearing in on January 10 to stress: “This new period of constructing socialism has barely begun." High on the list of changes he wants are modifications to the constitution that will strengthen governmental ownership of petroleum and other assets and revamping the commercial laws: “We have to get rid of any references to privatization in the constitution; we are not going to privatize anything anymore," Chavez declared in the same speech.
Ambassador Alvarez insisted that his country is aggressively pursuing peace around the globe by calling for all countries with nuclear weapons to get rid of them. “We don’t accept the use of force. We are against the use of force. This is why we have been very, very active in what happened with the US in Iraq, and also what happened with Israel in Lebanon.”
Asked if Venezuela would ask its ally Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program, he responded with: “Why don’t you tell Israel to stop its weapons program?” He then echoed the Iranian line that it has “the right to use sources of energy for peaceful purposes.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad has become one of Chavez’s closest allies.
However, as with the Soviets, talk of peace is contradicted by aggressive armament. A February 25, 2007 article in the New York Times, titled: “Venezuela Spending on Arms Soars to World’s Top Ranks” begins: “Venezuela’s arms spending has climbed to more than $4 billion in the past two years, transforming the nation into Latin America’s largest weapons buyer and placing it ahead of other major purchasers in international arms markets like Pakistan and Iran.”
And why does Chavez need all those weapons? Washington is to blame, according to a senior Venezuelan official: “The United States has tried to paralyze our air power,” Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a member of Chavez’s general staff, told the Times.
Venezuela under Chavez is all about creating what it believes to be a strategic balance of power between the United States and a Latin America under socialist leaders who are united in their opposition to American influence and ‘hegemony’ in the Western Hemisphere.
Washington complains that current arms purchases by Caracas outstrip any possible domestic needs, and having them will only encourage Chavez’s adventurism in the region. And, although it is not clear what all the Venezuela-produced rifles from the first Kalashnikov factory in the hemisphere will be used for, Latin America’s long history of leftist insurgencies raises the specter of a new era of armed unrest in the southern part of the Western Hemisphere.
“Once we have gained strength as a group, we will be able to negotiate with the United States on an equal footing,” said the ambassador by way of explaining Venezuela’s policies.
Chavez has made a point of evoking Caracas-born, nationalist and anti-colonial hero Simon Bolivar, even going so far as to change the country’s official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and calling his alliance of like-minded Latin American countries the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA). Cuba under Fidel Castro was the first to join, followed by Bolivia under Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). New members are recently-elected Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government in Nicaragua and President Raphael Correa’s government in Ecuador.
A statement by the Venezuelan Bank of External Commerce compares ALBA to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas, supported by Washington: “While the FTAA responds to the interests of transnational capital and pursues the absolute liberalization of trade in goods and services and investments, ALBA places the emphasis on the fight against poverty and social exclusion; it thus expresses the interests of the Latin American people.”
Bolivar is taken as a role model for standing up for his people in the face of greater powers. His vision of a united Latin American was never fully realized, of course, but his fight against colonial Spain on behalf of native-born populations in lands that now comprise Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia (named after him) stands as an example for Chavez and his current contest with Washington, painted by him as today’s neo-colonialist power.
Chavez may draw inspiration from the fact that Bolivar wrote a Bolivian constitution that made the presidency an appointment for life with the right to appoint a successor. At one time Bolivar was simultaneously president of Grand Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and in 1828, following a failed attempt to create a federation of liberated states, he declared himself dictator in the name of preserving the republic.
But in principle Bolivar admired the American Revolution rather than the French, and his writings and speeches indicate he believed in limited government, the separation of powers, property rights, the rule of law and freedom of religion.
And others see a non-Bolivarian source of inspiration for ALBA. According to “A Continent in Revolt”, an article by John Lister on the hammer and sickle-emblazoned website of Britain’s International Socialist Group, at the group’s June 2006 conference, Cuban ‘freelance Trotskyist’ Celia Hart opined that: “Latin America today is the kind of situation Lenin would have hoped for when he created the Bolshevik party.” For Hart and other die-hard Marxists, Chavez is the new hope, the man come to inherit the mantle of Latin American revolutionary from an ailing Castro and long-dead Che Guevarra.
Hart must have been thrilled when Chavez referred to her hero in his January 10 inaugural address: “Trotsky said that the revolution was permanent, it never finishes. Let’s go with Trotsky. It is Trotsky who is correct that the revolution does not finish.”
Asked about Chavez’s close friendship with Castro, Ambassador Alvarez says that Venezuela respects Castro for standing up the United States for so long: “I cannot see any other country that could stand on its feet when they had this [difficult] period to go through. With all of the difficulties [the Castro government] has kept the support of the people. And they have gone through a process of transformation which, unfortunately, has very much been determined by the blockade.”
He goes on: “Castro is a model as far as a leader, as far as a person who has kept his fight for independence, for national pride, for dignity, for non-intervention, for more than 40 years, [just] 56 miles from the Florida coast and with all kinds of unimaginable hostility and violation of all international laws by the US during many administrations.”
“He says that Venezuela can learn from the Cuban example, and avoid mistakes made there and by other socialist countries in the past. A feature of this ‘new socialism’ is “21st Century nationalization”, a term employed by Venezuela and Bolivia to justify their take-over of private companies, done in the name of the social good and national security.
However, Chavez has had an outsize impact in Latin America not so much for his new model of socialism, which has been sustained through oil revenues rather than broad-based economic development, but rather for having offered large financial incentives for other governments to join ALBA.
For example, to help Daniel Ortega get elected last year, he offered heavily discounted fuel and free fertilizer for the Sandinistas to distribute to supporters, as well as free eye operations in Caracas (travel included) for poor Nicaraguans. And after the Sandinista victory, he pledged further aid to the struggling Nicaraguan economy.
“It’s amazing,” the ambassador says of the newfound popularity socialism enjoys in his country. “In the last poll conducted in Venezuela, for the first time 43 percent of the people had a positive opinion of socialism. That is amazing because, as you know, in the past the vast majority of people [had a negative view of] socialism.”
He elaborates: “In the past, of course there was a fight between socialism and capitalism, and what happened is that socialism was defeated…. Socialism was equated by people with misery, confiscation of rights. But in the case of Venezuela, socialism is identified with the fight against poverty, for justice, the promotion of popular participation.”
And his government is proud of the new level of participation in politics: “We have promoted a revolution of participation. Some of our critics say there is too much participation. Because some people think in countries like ours it is better if people stay basically quiet, and the political game is something being done basically by elite, or small groups.”
Ambassador Alvarez sees Venezuela leading a Latin American break with what he calls the Washington consensus neo-liberal policies, a generally agreed formula for economic development based on democracy, private ownership and free markets.
“On the one hand, we believe it is not only enough to be against neo-liberalism,” he says. “We have done that in the past. We have to go beyond. What are the alternatives to capitalism?”
He says sources of inspiration include the huge Mondregon Cooperative in Spain and early Christian communalism. A key strategy of the Chavez government is to set up community-based enterprises and to shift power to community councils.
“Some people say that instead of discussing and describing socialism as a theory, why don’t you do something in practical terms? This is basically what we have done, getting away, in the first phase, from these Washington consensus neo-liberal policies. As you know, we have recovered control of the natural resources, education and health services for Venezuelans. [And we have] started a process of land re-distribution.”
The ambassador is particularly critical of Washington over the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban émigré now in the United States who had been based in Venezuela when, in 1976, he allegedly masterminded the bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976, killing all 73 aboard. The ambassador accused the US administration of a double standard in championing a war on terror while not turning Posada over to Venezuela.
“They [the US] say they fight terrorism, but they keep a terrorist that we have requested in Venezuela, Luis Posada Carriles, because they don’t like Venezuela or because Venezuela is a country that is not friendly to the US. And [Posada] has been in a court of law here because he is a liar,” the ambassador said. “They have only two options if they don’t want to have [a double standard]: send him to Venezuela or [prosecute] him here for terrorist activities.”
Again and again the conversation leads back to accusations against the United States, and unfavorable comparisons between it and the Chavez government. “The power of the US government and US president that can basically go to war all over the world, can invade… and throw bombs [cannot be compared to] a government that wants to change some taxation and wants to recover some of the natural resources. This is all we are doing.”
Don’t expect an improvement in US-Venezuelan relations any time soon.
Biography of Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera
Place and Date of birth: Carora, State of Lara, Venezuela. August 18, 1956
Languages: Spanish, English and French
Marital Status: Married to Margarete de Alvarez.
Children: Mariana (1986), Bernardo Augusto (1990) and Ana Elisa (1994)
The Ambassador presented his Letters of Credence to the President of the United States on February 26th, 2003
Degree in Political Science, School of Political Studies, Universidad Central de Venezuela (1975-1980)
M.A. degree in Development Studies, University of Sussex, England (1980-1982)
2000-2003: Vice Minister of Hydrocarbons, Ministry of Energy and Mines
1999-2000: Director-General of Hydrocarbons, Ministry of Energy and Mines
1993-1994: Director of Cooperation, Universidad Central de Venezuela
1988-1991: Executive Secretary and Venezuelan representative in the Forum on Debt and Development (FONDAD)
1986-1987: Chief of the Research and Development Division, Venezuelan Institute of Foreign Trade.
1985-1986: Executive Secretary of the Working Group on Political Reforms of the Presidential Commission for the Reform of the State
1983-1985: Academic Advisor, Institute of High Studies on National Defense
1982-Present: Professor, School of Political and Administrative Studies, Universidad Central de Venezuela
1989-1993: Representative to the Council of the Faculty of Law and Political Science, Universidad Central de Venezuela
1990-1992: Academic Advisor, Institute of High Studies on National Defense
1990-1992: Professor at the Superior School of the Venezuelan Air Force
1977-1980: Research Assistant, Institute of Political Studies, Universidad Central de Venezuela
1977-1980: Assistant Professor, School of Political and Administrative Studies, Universidad Central de Venezuela
1989-1993: Professors' Association, Universidad Central de Venezuela
1994-1999: Deputy to the National Congress (Miranda State)
Vice President of the Defense Committee, Chamber of Deputies
President of the Energy and Mines Committee, Chamber of Deputies
1999-present: Venezuelan Representative to the Energy Council of the United States of America
2000-2002: Venezuelan Coordinator of the Venezuelan, French Energy Task Force (Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Mines, and French Ministry of Industry)
2000-2002: Venezuelan Coordinator for the Cooperation Agreement between the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Department of Energy of the United States
2000-2001: Head of the Venezuelan Delegation to the Conferences of Ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
Politics and the process of elaboration of laws in Venezuela Ministry for Relations with Congress , Caracas, 1997
The Military expense in Venezuela Magazine "Política", Caracas, 1997
Venezuela: Foreign debt and crisis of the developing model FONDAD Editions, Lima, Peru, 1989
State Companies and Capitalist Development University of Sussex, England, 1982