Venezuela’s Maximilien Arvelaiz strives for better U.S. relations but hits a wall

Maximilien Arvelaiz, Venezuela’s ambassador-designate, is in Washington working to mend deep-seated tensions with the United States. It hasn’t been easy. Photo taken Dec. 16, 2015.
Maximilien Arvelaiz, Venezuela’s ambassador-designate, is in Washington working to mend deep-seated tensions with the United States. It hasn’t been easy. Photo taken Dec. 16, 2015. McClatchy

Maximilien Arvelaiz does not look or sound like a hardened socialist tactician going toe-to-toe with the U.S. government.

Instead of military garb emblazoned with medallions, the young Venezuelan diplomat wears designer suits and vintage glasses. His talk isn’t peppered with vitriolic attacks on Yankee imperialism, but with references to pop culture and U.S. television.

Yet Arvelaiz, 43, is at the center of one of the most acrimonious relationships in the Western Hemisphere. For the last year and a half, Arvelaiz has been working behind the scenes trying to re-establish a functional relationship with U.S. officials.

It hasn’t been easy.

“It’s like you’re on a plane and it feels like every five minutes you have to put your seat belt back on because of the turbulence from the two countries,” Arvelaiz said during an interview at the Venezuelan Embassy.

The United States and Venezuela haven’t had full diplomatic relations since 2010, when Venezuela refused to admit the newly appointed American ambassador. The United States followed suit by expelling Venezuela’s envoy to Washington.

Five years later, inspired by the breakthrough between the United States and Cuba, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro sent Arvelaiz – as his ambassador-designate – to Washington to establish a new channel of communication.

It’s like you’re on a plane and it feels like every five minutes you have to put your seat belt back on because of the turbulence from the two countries.

Maximilien Arvelaiz, Venezuela’s ambassador-designate

While Arvelaiz has made inroads with U.S. officials, the two sides remain far apart. The Obama administration has been reluctant to give Arvelaiz the ceremonial tap on the shoulder that would allow him to become the official ambassador.

It’s not personal. U.S. officials like Arvelaiz. They say he’s a good diplomat who understands the benefits of a constructive agenda. But they don’t think he necessarily has the full backing of his government.

“It is safe to say that dealing with Venezuela has been extremely frustrating for us,” said a senior administration official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, lacking authorization to speak publicly.

It’s understandable that the United States would want a more productive relationship with Venezuela. It would allow for greater cooperation on important issues such as energy, trade, drug trafficking and human rights. A U.S. ambassador in Venezuela would be there to defend U.S. interests.

Since the ascendancy of Venezuelan icon Hugo Chavez to the presidency in 1999, the two countries’ relationship has been defined largely by differences – over Cuba, over human rights, over the U.S. presence in Latin America. Chavez famously described then-President George W. Bush as the “devil” in a 2006 speech to the United Nations. He later called President Barack Obama a “clown.” Maduro took over as president when Chavez died in 2013.

Patrick Duddy, the last accredited U.S. ambassador in Venezuela, said the Venezuelan government might want to assure the global community that it was serious about engaging in the global economy. But he doubted it wants meaningful relations with the United States.

They have not yet abandoned the notion that a part of their dialogue with the base revolves around perpetual conflict, with the eternal struggle, with colossus to the north.

Patrick Duddy, former U.S. ambassador in Venezuela

The U.S. government has made several serious attempts to re-establish a working relationship with Venezuela. But, he said, each time a breakthrough appeared close, something would scuttle the talks.

“In the last 10 years, anti-Americanism has been a central tenet in the Chavista narrative,” said Duddy, who served in Caracas from 2007 to 2010. “They have not yet abandoned the notion that a part of their dialogue with the base revolves around perpetual conflict, with the eternal struggle, with the colossus to the north. An ambassador on the ground saying the U.S. is interested in a functional relationship bilaterally does not fit that narrative.”

Arvelaiz, who also served as Venezuela’s ambassador to Brazil, thinks many of the problems stem from a lack of communication. It’s not that Venezuela expects to become best friends with the United States, he said. But the government does expect a mutually respectful relationship.

Arvelaiz is a bit of a boy wonder in Venezuela. The French-born diplomat first met Chavez as a student in London. They met again in France, where Arvelaiz was hosting a seminar on the Venezuelan revolution.

Impressed with the young academic, Chavez invited Arvelaiz to join him back in Venezuela.

“From your extraordinary forum organized in Paris in October 2001 – ‘Transform Venezuela: Is utopia possible?’ – I’ve seen in you a tenacious fighter with a strong vision: deploy all efforts and intelligence to prevent the isolation of our revolution,” Chavez wrote to Arvelaiz on his birthday in 2005.

Like his boss, Arvelaiz’s career has experienced its share of controversy. He’s been accused of leading revolutionaries in France. As ambassador to Brazil, he endured days of headlines in the Paraguayan press when he was accused of involvement in the parliamentary dismissal of the Paraguayan president. The departure of Fernando Lugo from the presidency led to Paraguay’s suspension from membership in Mercosur, a trade bloc that at the time included Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela is now a full member of the group.

“It’s part of the myth and the legend,” Arvelaiz said. “They wanted to present Chavez as kind of manipulating. But that was completely crazy. And I remember, yes, it was tough. For a few weeks, it was tough. They presented me as a kind of mastermind of this plot and the coup . . . if only.”

Arvelaiz said he saw his work in the United States as explaining to the White House, Congress or anyone who would listen what had happened in Venezuela over the last 15 years.

He described Chavez’s so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” as a process of social inclusion. In his description, the changes Chavez ushered in empowered a large part of the Venezuelan public that previously had been kept out of key social and political aspects of the country.

Arvelaiz compares the movement to the civil rights era in the United States and said that just as the push to end segregation in the United States met fierce opposition, so had the changes in Venezuela, especially from the elite.

“What was fundamental in the Bolivarian Revolution was the fact that the majority of people who were regarded as second-ranked citizen, they have become real citizens with political, social and economic rights,” he said. “And that is very important.”

As for the inflamed rhetoric, Arvelaiz defended his bosses. He said much of the talk was in response to U.S. efforts to undermine Chavez’s and then Maduro’s governments.

When the United States declared last year that Venezuela constituted a threat to U.S. national security, a necessary step to placing sanctions on seven top Venezuelan officials, Maduro promised to retaliate against the “imperialist elite.”

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, sought to lessen the tensions, saying later that the threat language was “pro forma.” But the strain didn’t really ease, Arvelaiz said.

“One day you wake up and you realize you represent a country that’s been declared as an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States,” Arvelaiz said.

He paused.

“That’s quite a lot.”

It’s not that there hasn’t been movement to lessen the tension. The United States has designated Thomas Shannon, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and a former ambassador to Brazil, as a go-between for Caracas and Washington. Obama met briefly with Maduro last spring during the Summit of the Americas.

But there’s opposition, as well, to a rapprochement. Roger Noriega, who was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States by Bush and also served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, warned that U.S. officials ought not to get involved with the socialist government.

He said sending an ambassador to Venezuela or accrediting an ambassador here when the Maduro administration appeared to be blocking democratically elected members of Congress from taking their seats would send the wrong signal that the Obama administration was neutral on “Maduro’s assault on democracy.”

“We’re engaging with a terrifically unpopular and – for that matter, I’d assert – illegitimate government,” said Noriega, who is a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a research center. “Why can’t the United States find a way to be on the right side of not only history, but our own values and most Venezuelans’?”

U.S. officials say they have a lot to work through before they come up with a bilateral agenda the two countries can agree on.

They’re not bothered by the vitriolic attacks – “We’re big boys,” the senior administration officials said – but they are concerned about the detention of political prisoners, mismanagement of the economy, evidence that government officials are involved with the drug trade, the removal of U.S. diplomats from the American Embassy and the Maduro administration’s unwillingness to work with the democratically elected opposition-led Congress.

“So who are they ready for?” one official said. “It takes two to tango.”

It’s not that the two countries don’t have any relations. They do a lot of business together. The United States is Venezuela’s largest importer of its oil. Exports to Venezuela totaled $11.1 billion, while imports from Venezuela totaled $30.2 billion, according to the State Department.

Arvelaiz argues that more could be done. He said his country was open to discussing staff at the embassy and other concerns. But he thinks a good first step is getting the ambassadors back in office.

“The fact that I’m not the ambassador to some extent can be seen as a way that this administration regards Venezuela,” he said. “In diplomatic matters, it’s all the same, yet it’s not exactly the same. It’s missing that little touch that can make a big difference in the conversation.”

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-0010, @francoordonez

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