Ambassador contemplates a 'new moment' for Venezuela-U.S. relations

Bernardo Álvarez Herrera, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States.
Bernardo Álvarez Herrera, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States. (AP File Photo)
By Andrea Daza Tapia
El Mundo Economía y Negocios, Caracas
Friday, December 18, 2009; 2:04 PM

Introduction: Return of the Jedi

Today, a saga begins: a series of reports produced in the capital of the United States, a place that the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, has called The Empire, an empire of "savage neo-liberalism."

These articles are the result of the participation of El Mundo Economía y Negocios (the World Economy and Business, or EMEN) in the Fellowship Program for Latin American and Caribbean Journalists sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and The Washington Post.

Andrea Daza of EMEN's special reports unit was one of five journalists who spent three weeks researching and reporting in Washington. Her subject was lobbying -- the influence industry -- and the Venezuelan government's efforts to improve its image. How does the government spend its dollars, with whom and why? Daza's reporting took her beyond the official actions of Venezuelan officials to other role players as well.

Following the pattern of the "Star Wars" movies, EMEN decided to dispense with chronological order and begin the series with an interview with Bernardo Álvarez Herrera, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States. Álvarez is making his second debut in Washington, after he was recalled by Chávez on September 11, 2008. He answered all of the questions posed to him in the interview, which was conducted in Spanish.

"I am pretty much just arriving," Álvarez said from his Georgetown embassy, a building whose lobby is adorned with jerseys signed by Alex González, Tony Armas and Ramón Hernández, to mention just a few of the Venezuelan major leaguers who have made it to this particular hall of fame. The ambassador emphasized his desire to play by the rules and let it all hang out. He knew that all eyes would be upon him, and he wanted to hit a home run.

WASHINGTON -- In this capital, Ambassador Bernardo Álvarez Herrera has a name with swing. Here, in the "capital of the empire" they just call him Bernardo-o, with a long American "O".

This native of Carora, a town in northwestern Venezuela with strong agricultural and industrial roots, has been posted in Washington since January 2003 -- with a 10-month interruption in his diplomatic duties. He was recalled to Caracas temporarily after Venezuela's expulsion of Patrick Duddy, the U.S. ambassador in Caracas. Álvarez is quite active, knocking on the doors of everyone who has an adverse opinion about "The Process," as President Hugo Chávez has branded his Bolivarian revolution. "I think I am the ambassador that has published the most editorials and letters in the history of Venezuela, and of Latin America. Maybe even the world," he said.

Since presidents Chávez and Obama shook hands at the Summit of the Americas earlier this year in Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship "has gone back to where it was before," he said. But since "before" was a two-way disaster of conflict full of bickering and accusations from north to south and vice-versa, what does that say about "now," he is asked? "Well, it's like amnesia," he explained. "Or amnesty, let's say. It's a new moment." It's a brand new ball game, one could say, with Bernardo at the bat.

'We are not out to curry favor'

What are the key points of the Venezuelan lobby in Washington?

Well, one important thing is this: [The work that we do here] has been translated into Spanish as "cabildeo" [lobbying]. But our work has been more that of education than anything else. Lobbying has to do with trying to achieve very concrete things. This is a very complicated society. For example, if you want preferential tariffs, you have to go through a very complicated process. You present your case, you get to know what interests are involved, and finally you get a favorable decision in the executive branch and then the legislative branch votes on it. Because in the end, it's Congress that approves the laws and allocates resources.

Doesn't the country have interests to defend in the U.S. Congress?

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