When President Carter arrives here today on the first stop of a seven-day, four-nation trip, he is expected to receive the warmest welcome an American president has gotten in Latin American in years.
"Let's face it," a Venezuelan official said. "We love Carter. Hell, we're practically Southern Democrats down here."
Yet the expected royal welcome was prefaced by a lot of friction between the president's advance staff and Venezuelan officials. Venezuelans working with the Carter party in preparation for the visit have described the Americans as "culturally arrogant" and at times impossible to deal with.
"When we went to Washington," one Venezuelan official remarked, "they said, 'This is our country, and we do things our way.' Now that they're here, they still want to be in charge."
For their part, several U.S. officials here to prepare for the visit have said they find their Venezuelan counterpart slow to make decisions and difficult to get answer from.
Carter, who is genuinely popular with President Carlos Andres Perez and his people, is unlikely to encounter the violent demonstrations that former vice president Richard M. Nixon did in 1958 or the leftist-inspired graffiti that met President Kennedy when he was here in 1961.
Carter's trip also takes him to Brazil, Nigeria and Liberia. He returns to Washington Monday.
When Carter touches down at Simon Bolivar Airport he will be given the key to the city and he will address a mostly friendly Venezuelan National Congress. Moreover, the president and his family, including daughter Amy, have been invited to stay at La Casona, the official presidential residence, unprecedent for a visiting head of state here.
The president's advance party, however, has argued with the Venezuelans about the itinerary, treatment of the press, presidential security and whether to place a wreath at Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar's grave at the beginning of the visit, or at the end.
The difficulties in prepairing for a presidential visit are perhaps inevitable. In addition to the enormous security problems, there are logistical hassles of lodging and efficiently moving approximately 700 U.S. government and prss people through a dizzying schedule that allows no time for delay.
In Caracas, such problems are exacerbated by some of the most traffic-jammed highways in the world, an airport 40 minutes outside the city and a scarcity of hotels.
One of the biggest problems for both camps is the timing of the visit. Originally scheduled for late November, last year, as part of a planned 10-nation presidential swing, the trip was canceled when Venezuelan preparations were very advanced.
This time, Venezuela tactfully noted that the Easter season was not the best time to get anything done here. Holy Week is by far Venezuela's biggest holiday and the entire country closes down from the Wednesday before to the Monday after Easter.
Anyone who can afford it, from government ministers to taxi drivers, leaves town for the beach.
Then came the problem of scheduling the 24 hours Carter will spend here. As usual on presidential trips, the Venezuelan Foreign ministry and the State Department each drew up a schedule, traded them and began to negotiate.
Carter's major event of the visit will be a speech to the congress, which U.S. officials planned for this afternoon to gain maximum press attention at home. For a final event before departure tomorrow, they scheduled an obligatory wreath-laying at the monument holding Bolivar's ashes.
No good, said the Venezuelans.
"Bolivar is the holiest of holies here," said a Venezuelan official. "The first thing you do after you say hello is go put flowers on the grave."
A compromise was reached and Carter will go straight to Bolivar's grave from the airport and address congress tomorrow morning. To insure a press-worthy "event," at the grave, Perez himself will show up, and local ward leaders of Perez' political party were ordered to collect a crowd of at least 2,000.
Another major problem was where to put the press. Several hundred American journalists will be wedged into the Holiday Inn and Intercontinental hotels, two of the few first-class hotels in downtown Caracas.
The U.S. government staff insisted on being across town at the Hilton, where the Venezuelans had wanted to put the press, because of the better telephone service. To accommodate the press at the Holiday Inn, telephone lines had to be commandeered from private homes near the hotel.
"Beginning Tuesday afternoon, 100 phones in the area will go on the blink," a Venezuelan official said. "People who call for repairs will be promised them within 24 hours," or right about the time Carter leaves.
Press problems also caused the initial animosity between the two groups of officials. Venezuelans complained that their reporters traveling to Washington with Perez were given poor views of the presidential action and generally treated as inferior to the U.S. media.
Despite U.S. appeals, one Venezuelan said with a certain satisfication, buses carrying American journalists will not travel with the Carter motorcade. In Venezuela, he said, it just is not done that way.
Among the most rancorous debates have been those over presidential security.
"What we resent,' said a Venezuelan offical said, "is the assumption that we can't guard a president. We haven't lost one yet.'
"We're now here near as organized as they are, with their walkie-talkies," he said. "But our goons know who is who as well as theirs do."
While the Venezuelans wanted to provide human barricades of military cadets at presidential appearances, the Americans insisted on ropes strung between barrels.
"We just don't think human lines are effective for crowd control," said one U.S. official, who admitted that his group thought it looked bad to have Carter guarded by soldiers, even if they were only cadets.
When the Venezuelans said they had no barrels, the U.S. team decided to import some from home.