Wednesday, September 24, 2003

THREE EMBASSIES

Wednesday 24, September 2003

The Venezuelan plight has had interesting ripple effects on the diplomatic representations in Caracas, which of course cannot escape the turmoil of the Bolivarian Revolution. The problems faced by three of these institutions are quite telling.

The Embassy of the United States of America

Let's start by saying that the status of this embassy as the one from the "Empire" has not helped its dealings with the anti-globalization leadership of the "glorious Bolivarian Revolution". In the tradition of the yanqi go home Latin American leftist past, the US ambassador is critics's target of choice. In particular to distract the opinion from other unrelated uncomfortable topics of the Revolution own doings.

Until April 11 2002, the relationship although tense was not frayed. After April 13, things did change. In the all out effort to rewrite history at all costs, the US is regularly accused to have shouldered the alleged April 11 coup. Certainly the past interventionist history of the US does not help, and the avowed dislike of Chavez is on every one's mind. However, from likely US blind eye promises to anti-Chavez initiatives, to actively sending weapons, intelligence and advisers is quite a stretch. Chavez and his minions have no problem to bridge that stretch offering tomorrow all sorts of proofs, any wilder than the other. But tomorrow never comes.

Charles Shapiro, the US ambassador, seems to be a brave man. And a decent one too, with that naïve but implicit proposal that the US always offer: embrace our values, rewrite your laws to imitate ours, dollarize your economy and you will be a happy nation. In a country where the only values and law come from our great leader, and where the real currency is already the dollar as can be observed with capital flight, the US message can only be seen with contempt by the leadership. Mr. Shapiro keeps his smile no matter what vulgarity Chavez throws at him on his Sunday monologues. Chavez's opposition, some probably wishing the Marines to land soon, is not adverse to criticize the US ambassador for his lack of pressure on Chavez. Mr. Shapiro must be doing something right.

But sometimes he does some bad moves. One was on a reception May 13 when a humorist came to the embassy party with a show of dubious taste . Another one was the visit to the newly minted Electoral Board, offering US technical assistance. This initiative, worthwhile certainly, was ill timed. It showed undiplomatic eagerness to have elections A.S.A.P., and this from a country that
was the laughing stock of the Western World during the Florida electoral
debacle.

The Italian Embassy

The new Italian ambassador did not have the leisure of a honey-moon period. Within a few weeks of his arrival Mr. Carante was concerned with two major threats to the Italian interests.

The first was a fight between the minority partners of DIGITEL, one of the three big wireless in Venezuela, and the majority stock owners, Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM). Well, TIM did experience the direct effect of the twisted Venezuelan judicial system when the minority partners were able to subject the majority owners to actions that in normal countries are reserved to the parties that lost a trial. The beauty of the Venezuelan system is that you do not really need a trial to ask for redress. Trials are such a cumbersome procedure when there are "other ways".

The second one was even worse. The Venezuelan oil monopoly, PDVSA, had developed a successful way to use heavy oil by emulsifying it in such a way as it can finally be sent through pipelines and tankers to be burnt, with minimum environmental concern, in power stations. Big contracts were written with Italy which invested heavily in retooling some of its power plants to accept Orimulsion, that emulsified shale oil.

Unfortunately for Italy the PDVSA strike resulted in firing most people that were involved with this high tech venture. The political hacks sent to replace the personnel are probably unable to keep the installation running. And even less to build new facilities to fulfill the contracts that PDVSA worked so hard at gaining (see Petroleumworld). The solution, in true Bolivarian Revolution spirit, was just to close down the facilities saying that it was a pet project of the corrupt PDVSA management that, thanks to our leader, has finally been fired.

The Italian Ambassador promptly visited the vice-presidency and from the podium of the Vice President press room, with the seal Vice Presidency in the background he demanded Venezuela to fulfill its contractual obligations. The Spanish was perhaps heavily italianated but the subliminal message was extremely clear for all: "Italy does not mix into your politics. Italy just wants to know if it is possible to do serious business in this joint. If not, Italy wants its money back."

The Italians might have invented Carnival and La Dolce Vita, but since the Medici bankers of the Renaissance, they have been dead serious with their money.

No official response so far from PDVSA except a lame "the decisions were not final" and "supply of Orimulsion is assured". Obviously the Italian ambassador did something right.

The French Embassy

Mr. Vandoorne had the misfortune to initiate his tenure at the helm of the French Embassy while the events of the December general strike were unfolding. He had another misfortune: his connections with some sectors of the intellectual left in France became public knowledge. But this might not be a misfortune. Apparently, France is doing brisk business with the Chavez administration. For example some French companies are getting some of the oil concessions that the Nationalist Bolivarian Revolution is giving away to private capital to try to bolster oil production in view of the troubled PDVSA production. If we can learn from the French experience in Africa, French have a gift to deal with unsavory regimes of all stripes. With the likely blessing of the Empire, of course, who cannot do everything everywhere.

But among the opposition to Chavez the embassy image is at its lowest. It all started during the December 2002 strike when the US, British, German and other embassies recalled their non-essential personnel. The French, according to an embassy communicate, were staying in solidarity with their Venezuelan friends, while Air France flights were full of families leaving for a longer than expected holiday break in France. Other faux-pas followed. A noted one came this last April 13. Chavistas called for a celebration of the first year of the restoration of Chavez's democracy. They invited a whole bunch of dubious intellectual and political personalities from the French left. This did not go down well since to this date the truth of the April 2002 events and its various crimes are far from solved, and the intention to clarify them even less certain than ever. One just needs to observe that suspicious acts of some of the April 2002 agents have been rewarded with high positions within the regime.

Press interviews were offered here and there by the Ambassador to clarify positions, only mucking them further. The lack of credibility by the French embassy kept growing as it is now deemed openly pro-Chavez. Incidents at the Bastille Day celebrations of July 14 at the French embassy hit the gossip columns with the same force as the US embassy May show hit the political columns.

This image degradation has even claimed an unfortunate victim. A "photography month" copied from the successful Paris similar event was organized by the French embassy in an attempt to at least play on the intellectual and cultural image of France. The noteworthy show, about to open all over Caracas, has been mired for two weeks in what is now the biggest cultural scandal in Venezuela since the subtraction of the Venezuelan Matisse last year. The reason was very silly. In their apparent desire to avoid controversy with Chavez and the opposition a few pictures from a photo-journalism exhibit were removed for being "too political" (imagine that!). And this after having been accepted by the curator. The screams of censorship of course have been littering the press, a censorship coming from France, of all places. This caused withdrawals from notable photographers, suspension of exhibit spaces, "alternative anti censorship exhibits", more murky press conferences, etc… and giving a perfect excuse for the Caracas Metro direction to exert its own censorship on the pictures of journalists from El Universal, a consistent critic of Chavez's policies that were going to be exhibited in some of the subway stations.

In the state of political excitement that Venezuela suffers, the French embassy seems to be digging a bigger hole for itself as days pass. The French ambassador surely is not doing something right.

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