US-Latin America Relations Hit New Low

Gregory Wilpert: US foreign policy only contributes to the further deterioration of US-Venezuela relations


Diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela reached a new low when on Monday, September 30, Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, announced the expulsion of three top U.S. diplomats working in Venezuela. 

Both the U.S. State Department and the departing head of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Kelly Keiderling, vehemently denied President Maduro's accusations of being involved in efforts to destabilize the government.

The decision to expel U.S. diplomats comes after series of recent spats with the U.S. government.  Last March, on the day that President Chávez died, Maduro announced that he was expelling two U.S. military attachés for allegedly meeting with Venezuelan military officials in an effort to enlist their opposition to the government.

Recent revelations of NSA wiretaps on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, as well as the denial of airspace to Evo Morales’ plane while attempting to fly over Europe, have also contributed to heightened diplomatic tensions between U.S. and Latin America.

U.S.-Venezuela relations have historically been tense, particularly since the U.S. appeared to support the 2002 coup attempt against Former Venezuelan President Chávez.

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Story Transcript

GREGORY WILPERT, PRODUCER: Diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela reached a new low this past week when on Monday, September 30, Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, announced the expulsion of three top U.S. diplomats working in Venezuela.

NICOLÁS MADURO, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Three North American diplomats. I have told Foreign Minister Elías Jaua that he proceed immediately to expel them from the country. They have 48 hours to leave this country. The officials Kelly Keiderling, Elizabeth Hoffman, and David Moo, out of Venezuela! Yankee go home! Out of Venezuela! Enough abuses against a country that wants dignity and peace. Out of here!

WILPERT: The U.S. government’s reaction to this expulsion did not take long, and on Tuesday the State Department announced that three Venezuela diplomats, including the recently appointed Venezuelan chargé d’affaires in Washington, Calixto Ortega, as well as an assistant of his and the consul in Houston, were declared persona non grata. According to diplomatic custom, such a tit-for-tat retaliation is customary, except for the fact that the U.S. retaliated by expelling a higher-ranking official, a Venezuelan consul, for the expulsion of its vice consul.

Both the U.S. State Department and the the departing head of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Kelly Keiderling, vehemently denied President Maduro’s accusations of being involved in efforts to destabilize the government. Keiderling went as far as to make the unusual move of holding a press conference shortly before her departure, where she argued that her meetings had been perfectly normal meetings within the realm of her work as a diplomat.

KELLY KEIDERLING, FMR. CHARGÉ D’AFFAIRES, U.S. EMBASSY IN VENEZUELA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This is the normal work of what all the embassies in the world do, and if they aren’t doing it, they aren’t doing a very good job. The idea that we cannot meet with this group but only with that group, that’s not part of the diplomatic world. All of the accusations, of sabotage, of conspiracy, that we are going to put an end to the world, they are false.

WILPERT: President Maduro reacted angrily to Keiderling’s press conference, saying that Keiderling had acted arrogantly and petulantly in her press conference.

Venezuela’s foreign minister, Elías Jaua, also criticized Keiderling’s efforts and explaining her actions, saying that the Venezuelan intelligence service had proof that Keiderling and the other two diplomats were not engaged in normal fact-finding meetings but were actively supporting protests in the labor movement and the indigenous populations of Bolívar and Amazonas state.

ELÍAS JAUA, VENEZUELAN MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): … officials entering the headquarters of this organization, where informants of ours within this organization were able to verify how the idea was once again discussed to not recognize the elections of December 8, especially in the state of Bolívar. The report is at the disposition of Mr. Kerry. If he wants to know what his officials are, if he doesn’t know … here is all of the information, with photos, with testimonies, with the cars, with the meetings recorded, photographed, the absolutely illegal activity of the officials of the Embassy of the United States.

WILPERT: A large part of the reason why U.S. government meetings with opposition officials is such a sensitive issue to the Venezuelan government is because these meetings took place in Bolívar state, a state with a long history of labor unrest, and the country’s most important region for resource extraction, including oil, iron, aluminum, gold, and other minerals.

Also, the decision to expel U.S. diplomats comes on the heels of a series of recent spats with the U.S. government, beginning with Maduro’s announcement last March on the day that President Chávez died that he was expelling two U.S. military attachés for allegedly meeting with Venezuelan military officials in an effort to enlist their opposition to the government.

Then, last June, all of Latin America was outraged at the treatment that Bolivia’s president Evo Morales received when his plane was declined overflight privileges in Europe, presumably at the behest of the Obama administration in a suspicion that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was hiding on Morales’s plane. This incident combined with Snowden-related revelations that were published shortly thereafter, according to which the U.S. was actively tapping the phones and emails of Latin American government officials, particularly of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, who subsequently canceled a state visit to Washington, D.C. And then, just last week, Maduro complained that the U.S. had denied him overflight privileges over Puerto Rico on his way to a state visit to China.

Some critics of the Venezuelan government, such as New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, argue that the real reason relations between the U.S. and Venezuela are souring have to do with Maduro’s effort to distract the Venezuelan public from problems within Venezuela, such as inflation and food shortages. While it is no doubt true that inflation and shortages have been serious problems in Venezuela this past year, both issues have become less acute in recent months. The argument that Maduro is seeking to distract from domestic problems might seem plausible at first glance, but the history of U.S.-Venezuela relations has been very tense for long time, especially since the U.S. appeared to support the 2002 coup attempt against President Chávez.

More recently, relations between the two countries took another turn for the worse in early 2010, when then-president Chávez refused to accept the new U.S. ambassador to Venezuela because he had made disparaging remarks about the Venezuelan military, upon which the U.S. expelled the Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Álvarez. The two countries have not had ambassadors in each other’s countries since then.

Venezuelan government officials point to this history of U.S. interference in Venezuelan affairs as being the cause for the bad relations and that they are not the result of an effort to distract from domestic problems.

Problems of inflation and shortages are an important concern in Venezuela today, but it is not clear whether they have more to do with active efforts at destabilization on the part of the opposition or with failures of the government. Government supporters, such as the head of the consumer protection agency, Eduardo Samán, argue that it is no coincidence that these issues keep cropping up whenever there are elections and Venezuela, such as this year, when there was a presidential election and in December there will be local elections for mayors and city councils.

In short, a sense of all-around siege has been rising among Venezuelan government officials and their supporters recently, and U.S. government actions such as the denying of airspace for presidential travel or U.S. diplomats meeting with opposition organizations easily contribute to the greater tensions and the further deterioration of U.S.-Venezuela relations.

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