An Interview with Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera
By Hugh S.Galford
A focal point in the American press earlier this year, Venezuela has disappeared from the radar with the continuing war in Iraq and US elections. Venezuela’s own election, however, was an important turning point in that country’s history…and perhaps for the hemisphere as a whole.
Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, named Ambassador to Washington in 2003, is an energetic man, very upbeat about both his nation’s prospects and Venezuela’s relationship with the US. Much of the rancor surrounding the Venezuelan elections has recently subsided, leading to a resumption of normative politics.
President Hugo Chavez, elected December 6,1998, has from his first days in office, attempted to destroy the status quo ante of Venezuelan politics. As Ambassador Herrera says, Chavez’ first decree, was to ask the people if they wanted a new National Constitutional Assembly. Chavez, the ambassador says, “was reaching out to the excluded and making major political changes.”
The new Constitution, ratified in 1999, set off three years of unrest. Chavez called for a referendum on his rule to be held August 15 of this year. The referendum was a resounding victory for Chavez. Despite cries of foul play from the opposition, monitors from the Organization of American States and the Carter Center declared the vote free and fair.
Since the referendum, even the opposition has come to a better, if still uneasy, relationship with Chavez. Ambassador Herrera describes the situation saying, “there are those in the opposition who don’t recognize Chavez and who want him out. Some members of the opposition, though, see that there is a process, that Chavez is not a nightmare, that Chavism is a reality, and that the President is playing within the Constitution and putting forward issues.” The opposition’s major issue with Chavez, he says, is that “they have lost their privileges.”
Indeed, Chavez is moving to recast Venezuelan political life, both domestically and internationally. At home, Chavez has instituted wide-ranging social, land and education reforms for the poor. Ambassador Herrera notes that in Caracas, the capital, “the poor have been living for years — or decades — but have not been entitled to their land. Now, there is a program of giving these poor people the property rights to where they live. The government is giving property rights to them.”
A similar program is taking place in the realm of social reforms. Chavez’ opinion, says the ambassador, is that “we must empower the people.” A major restraint for the poor in Venezuela is their lack of identity cards. Without these cards, they are excluded from social programs and political rights. “The ID card is the basis for everything: voting, land rights, getting a job, etc.,” explains Ambassador Herrera. Chavez’ government has given ID cards to over 3 million Venezuelans, enfranchising them for the first time.
Chavez is also moving to redirect revenue from the oil industry. Venezuela is the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter. How then, the ambassador asks, “can a nation so rich suffer the same problems as poor nations?”
For the first time in the country’s history, Chavez is trying to use oil wealth directly, funding access to health, education, etc. Past governments have used income from oil, but placed those funds into a bureaucratic system. “The money went into the system, not into programs,” the ambassador says. Now, the money is channeled directly into projects such as building and supplying popular health clinics and schools. The 1999 Constitution opened the institutional doors, Ambassador Herrera says, but the programs are the outcome of the social and political movements since. “The people of Venezuela,” he says, “for the first time feel that they are entitled to these services.”
One medical program has drawn especial attention from the US: the Liberty Mission, a program for cataract sufferers. Cuban doctors have developed a technique to remove cataracts with only 30 minutes’ surgery. The Liberty Mission flies patients to Cuba (where there are better and more numerous medical facilities than in Venezuela), provides the surgery, and flies them home three days later. Fifty thousand patients have had their sight restored, for free, through this program.
Internationally, Chavez is trying to point Venezuela in a new direction as well. In a global world, the ambassador says, “Venezuela must have some strengths. We should have some unity in Latin America to negotiate with the rest of the world.” He points out that South America, Latin America and the Caribbean consist of 34 countries, “some of which are not viable.” There is a need, he says, “to negotiate with each other, then negotiate with the US. But the US doesn’t see this — it wants either one deal with all the countries, or bilateral agreements with each nation. But Latin America needs to be a bloc.”
This is not a new idea. Ambassador Herrera points out that at the beginning of the 18th century, Simon Bolivar called for a political alliance in Latin America to deal with the US. Even the Organization of American States does not provide the proper framework; 60 percent of the OAS’ budget comes from the US, which gives it a great deal of influence.
Venezuela should not, however, be viewed as an unimportant country in a backwater region. Venezuela is the third-largest oil supplier to the US, and its third-largest trading partner in the hemisphere. Venezuela has invested over $14 billion in the US, and Citco Corp. is 100 percent Venezuelan-owned. For the US, the Latin American market, he underlines, is larger than that of Europe and Japan combined. Ambassador Herrera points out that the hemisphere is self-sufficient energy-wise. Latin American nations, he says, “basically speak the same language. Imagine if we acted as a political entity — respecting each country but presenting ourselves as a unity.”
For Venezuela, this is not a theoretical nicety of politics. The new Constitution mandates regional integration. Towards this end, the Constitution makes Venezuela a “war-free zone;” war and the use of force are forbidden in the country. “It calls for a positive peace…a pro-active peace. Peace,” the ambassador adds, “is not just the lack of war.”
While progress has been slow, Ambassador Herrera feels that regional integration is “inevitable. The government and the people are working towards this.” Given the right leadership and the failures of past go-it-alone policies, the ambassador believes a regional bloc will be a reality.
The Bush administration’s antipathy towards Venezuela confuses the ambassador. Venezuela, he says, “is a very responsible country. When we talk about oil, we think about the consumers. If we cut supplies, we hurt people.” Venezuela’s approach is pragmatic: “We need markets,” and it regulates supply accordingly.
Chavez’ populism has seemed to rub the US government the wrong way. Following his election, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched, protesting for changes to the old way. Some people in the US, the ambassador says, “try to reproduce the situation with Cuba with Venezuela.” Others, he says, “see Venezuela as another example of Cuba, Haiti, etc.” While Venezuela respects Cuba’s self-determination and opposes the embargo against Cuba, Chavez is not looking to become ruler for life.
For Ambassador Herrera, the US and Venezuela “must have constructive relations, based on cooperation where we respect our differences and promote our common interests.” The imbalance of power is undeniable, but the ambassador’s first priority is to “defend and represent Venezuela and its strategic interests” in the US, and to remind the US of its strategic interests in Venezuela. His task is made more difficult in that Venezuela is looking for a new relationship, one of mutual respect and non-intervention, rather than a return to the old ways (desired of Washington).
The ambassador is still hopeful. He has, by his own admission, good relations with industry, social movements and the Congress. Ambassador Herrera has concentrated on the media and against its campaign of Venezuela as a pariah state; the media, he says, is now fairer to his country. He also points out that there is a long history of individual relations between the two countries. In Houston, nearly 30 percent of the population has worked for extended periods in Venezuela’s oil industry. A similar percentage holds for the state of Louisiana. In the past, Venezuelans have had a positive view of the US. The current administrations, though, “must do much work to regain the trust of the Venezuelan people. Everyone there expects better relations
“We must do our best. When you are hostile to a country, you get hostility from there.”