Does the US Really Want Better Relations with Hugo Chavez?

No 'Reset' with Venezuela Soon

While President Hugo
Chavez 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
detente 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:

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."

didn't take long for this to be all over the news, especially in
Venezuela. President Chavez 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 Chavez 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 Chavez. The Washington Post editorial board wasted no time in hysterically blaming Venezuela for the problem.

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.

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