By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Imagine you're Hugo Chávez's man in Washington, and you live less than two miles from the White House, whose occupant your boss has called a drunken, sulfur-smelling "political cadaver."
Some days must be harder than others.
"Being an ambassador of Venezuela in the U.S. is sort of an unhappy happiness," says Bernardo Alvarez with a wistful smile.
But he doesn't look all that unhappy. He looks revolutionarily liberated -- at least from his stuffy ambassador's tie and suit coat, for which he apologizes, explaining that the official residence has been turned upside down for Independence Day preparations, completely overrun with cooks and musicians, and it's impossible to get in there to change or do anything else.
Wait, Independence Day? Is Team Chávez going all Yankee Doodle Dandy on us?
No! But in one of those excellent ironies of the calendar, Venezuela's Cinco de Julio begins just as smoke from Fourth of July fireworks -- that sulfur smell again! -- clears, with parties extending into the wee hours of July 7. July was a good month to throw off colonial masters. (Also see: Argentina, Colombia and Peru).
The U.S. and Venezuela even share a revolutionary hero or two.
But the Venezuelans don't do fireworks. By midnight Friday, Alvarez would be crooning folk ballads under a tent in the ambassadorial garden on Massachusetts Avenue NW, backed by a band of traditional cuatro players, before a crowd of Chavista true believers and international allies, who were dancing and throwing red roses.
By the time he starts singing, he will know if anyone from the Bush administration showed up to help celebrate.
"We hope they come," the ambassador says with a smile.
* * *
The morning of July 5, the statue of a sword-wielding Simón Bolívar mounted on a steed towers over a small group of diplomats and military officers on a plaza near the White House. The dignitaries represent Venezuela and other Latin American countries. Bolívar led Venezuela to independence from Spain on July 5, 1811. Born in Caracas, the dashing commander also helped free Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Panama.
An embassy official gives a ceremonial reading of the Venezuelan Declaration of Independence. Alvarez declares, "Now, more than ever, Venezuela is struggling to assume a full independence" -- referring to the freedom to carry out the Chávez program without meddling by the United States, which now plays the part of Spain in the national drama.
Chávez takes Bolívar as his revolutionary role model. At Chávez's urging, Venezuelans voted to rename the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Elected president in 1998, Chávez has wrought large changes, with popular support, extending access to health care, education and a political voice to the poor. But he has also taken greater control of the oil industry, obtained legislative permission to rule by decree and closed a television station. Critics in Washington say he's leading the country away from democracy.
Alvarez bats away such cavils. Why, he asks, is Venezuela held to one standard of democracy when there is nationalized oil in Mexico and television stations are closed in other nations? "Do you think it is a democratic practice that if you want to be elected senator in this country, you need at least $20 million?" But there's still the famous Chávez mouth, unavoidable even when the man himself is on another continent. A table near the statue holds copies of Chávez speeches. One of them from January devotes a page-and-a-half to excoriating José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States: "He's a true idiot, from the 'i' to the 't,' " Chávez said.
But hey -- isn't that Insulza himself, here now, joining Alvarez in laying wreaths to Bolívar?
"I am not the first one or the last one to be treated that way by President Chávez," Insulza says later.
That night Insulza is in the front row for a spectacular performance in the organization's downtown headquarters. It is the creation story of Venezuela, told in dance and music. Every country has a triumphal narrative it likes to tell itself on Independence Day, and in the Venezuelan version, three races -- white, Indian and black -- unite, after some initial bloodshed, throw off colonial bonds and build a vibrant modern nation.
There is no Chávez in this vast, mythic rendering of Venezuelan history, as there might not be a President Bush in a July 4 recounting of the Story of America.
* * *
Friday night, the Venezuelans aren't done yet.
Alvarez, now in a dark suit and peach-colored tie, greets hundreds of guests streaming into the residence. The crowd is thick with ambassadors from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. Here comes Gustavo Guzman of Bolivia, representing Chávez's ideological soul mate, Evo Morales, looking bohemian in hippie hair, black suit, no tie, black-framed glasses and a boyish smile. He's the maverick. The rest of the men bow to the Washington consensus of dreary, tightly-knotted and buttoned-down embassy dress, while the women are permitted to strut on the highest of heels in the sleekest of silk.
A towering gringo in a blue suit appears in the mansion's doorway and powers inside with a hearty greeting to all. It is Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the State Department's point man on Venezuela.
Shannon says he has come out of "respect for the people of Venezuela, and a recognition that while in democracies governments may come and go, the ties and friendships between people will remain."
How diplomatic. But on second thought, that's the theme of the evening, of the entire two-plus days of Venezuelan independence in the belly of the beast that can be Washington.
Presidents come, presidents go. History is long.
"Bush is a man, Chávez is a man," says Dilenia Lopez, rolling her eyes as if to say, You know how men are. "The problem between Bush and Chávez has nothing to do with the people."
The Afro-Venezuelan group Eleggua strikes up percussive dance music. But the night is still young, and the crowd remains on best Embassy Row behavior, so there are few dancers. One of them is Maia Rodriguez, 19. "If we were back home, it would be crazy!" she says. Born in Bolivia to an American mother and raised in Venezuela, she has triple-citizenship.
"I like my president," she says, waxing idealistic about Chávez, as do so many young supporters. It sounds as if they are talking about Bobby Kennedy. "There is so much hope."
Susana Mota brought her American fiance to the party to show him there is more to Venezuela, and Venezuelans, than what sometimes appears in the media. "This is a good representation of my country: beautiful women, nice people, good food," she says.
And she passes on a secret -- don't tell Chávez: "We like Americans. We love to copy you guys. The music. The styles. Venezuelans, just to be sophisticated, we talk English sometimes."
It's getting late, most of the non-Venezuelans have left, and now the dance floor is filled. The women's high heels are getting caught in the rubber mat spread on the lawn, temporarily trapping them like exotic birds.
The cuatro band takes the stage -- with traditional guitar-like instruments and a flute -- and the old songs come out. The folk tunes, the love ballads, the salsas and boleros, songs everybody knows, older than any regime, songs that have seen presidents come and go.
It's like karaoke with a live band. A Venezuelan army sergeant in uniform sings, then the press attache and then the ambassador himself: glass in hand, unhappily happy, singing sad songs about love of the land, about love itself and not about politics.