While President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and the new president of Colombia, Manuel Santos, met in Santa Marta, Colombia last Tuesday and agreed to normalise relations after a fierce diplomatic fight, there are no indications that such détente is on the cards for Venezuela and the United States. Washington, it now appears, may not even want to maintain ambassadorial relations. This could be a significant turn toward the worse for the United States' already rocky relationship with its third largest oil supplier. Back in June, the Obama administration announced the appointment of Larry Palmer, president and CEO of the Inter-American Foundation, to replace the current ambassador in Caracas. The Venezuelans gave their initial approval. But then came the US senate confirmation process. Although there were no major problems in Palmer's testimony before the Senate on 27 July, Palmer was subsequently asked to respond to questions from Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the senate foreign relations committee. Palmer's answers to these questions were presumed to be for the senators and not for the public, but a week later, they were posted on Senator Lugar's website. Unfortunately, Palmer wrote some things that a candidate for ambassador would not say publicly about the host country. He referred to "morale" in the Venezuelan armed forces as "considerably low", and to "clear ties between the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas". There were a number of other remarks about Venezuela that most governments would consider quite unfriendly or even insulting. Alan K Henrikson is director of diplomatic studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University; in a telephone interview, he said:
"While we would expect candid answers to queries from a Senator that were supposed to be confidential, the publication of such comments - considered hostile and demeaning by the host country - is extremely unusual. Many countries would not accept as ambassador, someone who made such comments while being considered for appointment."
It didn't take long for this to be all over the news, especially in Venezuela. President Chávez announced on 8 August that Palmer was not acceptable, and appealed to President Obama to appoint another ambassador. According to congressional sources here, the Lugar questions to Palmer and the leak of his answers is seen as a "setup from the right". But there is no indication so far that the Obama administration is going to replace Palmer with another choice. Washington is a city of diplomatic intrigue, and there is an interesting "whodunit" aspect to the diplomatic row. Was this leak simply the work of Lugar's office, or was it done in collaboration with officials in the State Department who wanted to torpedo the nomination? Whatever insider game is going on, the sabotage of this appointment is yet another clear indication that Washington is not ready, or willing, even to try to normalise relations with Venezuela. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's gratuitous public insults to Venezuela - widely condemned when Chávez engages in the same behaviour towards the United States - are another indicator that high-level officials here do not want to normalise relations. What the Obama administration doesn't seem to realise - or perhaps care about - is that this will also alienate most other governments in the region. The administration's strategy is almost always oriented toward the media, and it may succeed in convincing most of the media that any fight with Venezuela must be the fault of Chávez. The Washington Post editorial board wasted no time in hysterically blaming Venezuela for the problem.
But every Latin American diplomat will see - given the offensive character of Palmer's written statements - that Venezuela cannot accept this nomination. Like the Obama administration's efforts to help the coup government in Honduras gain international legitimacy over the past year; its continuation of the Bush administration's trade sanctions against Bolivia; and its expanded military presence at seven military bases in Colombia and now in Costa Rica, this diplomatic fight will sow distrust and further erode what is left of Washington's credibility in the hemisphere.