Expensive lobbying efforts seek to rehabilitate Venezuela's image

By Andrea Daza Tapia
El Mundo Economía y Negocios, Caracas
Friday, December 18, 2009; 2:06 PM

Introduction: Episode I

The term "lobbying" in the United States refers to the process in which persons or interest groups pay individuals or firms to represent their interests to government officials and the public in hopes of obtaining attitudes or government decisions favorable to those interests. There are all sorts of lobbyists in Washington, the capital, some of whom are registered with Congress under the federal Lobbying and Disclosure Act. These registered lobbyists (an estimated five times as many people who lobby are not registered) must identify their clients, the issues on which they lobby and whom they intend to lobby, among other things.

Lawyer Jan W. Baran, an expert on the subject, reminds us that lobbying is a right guaranteed in the First Amendment. "It generally means that people are meeting or communicating with government officials," he said. "There are five freedoms enshrined in the Constitution: The freedom of expression, association, press, religion, and the right to lobby the government for redress of grievances."

The framers of the Constitution spoke of the right "to petition the government." The growth of highly paid professional petitioners is a later development.

For foreign governments, there is more. The 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act requires those acting as agents for foreign governments in a political context to disclose those relationships twice a year. Under both pieces of legislation, the disclosures become public record.

Following the lead of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, we decided to introduce this [second] chapter as "Episode I." In this case, the reporting mission was to examine these public records and interview relevant individuals to determine what kinds of influence-seeking activities the government of Venezuela has disclosed. What we found was surprising.

WASHINGTON -- A new tenant had arrived at the White House, but since September 2008, there had been no ambassador to spearhead the interests of Venezuela in the United States. Bernardo Álvarez had been the chief Venezuelan diplomat here since 2003. But he had been recalled by Caracas in a diplomatic spat with the outgoing Bush administration.

During the 10 months of his absence, he traveled the world as Venezuela's delegate to the Union of South American Nations. Meanwhile, others were taking care of business at the republic's embassy in Georgetown.

On Dec. 30, 2008, according to lobbying disclosure documents filed at the U.S. Department of Justice, Lorenzo David Díaz, the embassy's chief of staff, signed a $50,000 contract that would last until April 2009 with Venable LLP, one of Washington's most influential -- and most expensive -- lobbying houses. The objective was spelled out clearly: "To provide strategic advice and counseling to the Embassy with respect to the fostering of Venezuela/U.S. relations in which the United States accords Venezuela the respect and dignity appropriate to dealings between two sovereign nations and to attain the goals that are established by the Embassy regarding Venezuela/U.S. relationship."

The embassy said it wanted Venable to meet with the appropriate people in the White House, the departments of State and Commerce and both houses of Congress and their committees on foreign affairs.

Point C of the contract instructed the lobbyists to "discreetly seek to obtain information about the likely foreign policy thinking of the Obama administration, of the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively."

Álvarez, who returned to his ambassadorial duties June 26, said in a September interview at the embassy that he believed that the embassy stayed active during his absence, under the leadership of its minister counselor Ángelo Rivero-Santos, "who did an excellent job." Rivero-Santos is still in Georgetown and, according to Álvarez, "is almost a second ambassador." The contract, however, was signed between Díaz, representing Venezuela, and Michael D. Sherman, representing Venable.

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