Former U.S. Envoy to Venezuela Reflects on Hugo Chávez’s Legacy

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When it comes to American diplomacy, Patrick Duddy is indeed a rare breed: He's one of only half a dozen U.S. ambassadors since World War II who've been unceremoniously booted out of the countries in which they were serving.

In Duddy's case, the top U.S. envoy to Venezuela happened to be in Washington with his wife, Mary, who had just been admitted to a local hospital.

"I was actually sitting in the waiting room during her surgery when we heard that Evo Morales had expelled Ambassador Goldberg from Bolivia," Duddy recalled, referring to Philip S. Goldberg, who was accused by the leftist Bolivian president of fomenting antigovernment unrest. "I was with another Foreign Service friend and we said, 'That's interesting, let's see what Chávez does now.' Only two days later, Chávez went on national television and said that in solidarity with Evo Morales, he was giving me 72 hours to leave the country."

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Photo: Duke University
Ambassador Patrick Duddy

Duddy heard the news as he was driving his wife home from the hospital, though the veteran Latin America specialist — no stranger to the anti-American rhetoric of Hugo Chávez — wasn't altogether shocked by his sudden persona non grata status.

"My expulsion was specifically characterized at the time as a gesture of solidarity with Evo Morales. But I had, in fact, been threatened with expulsion some weeks before, after expressing my disappointment that we had not been able to renew cooperation on counternarcotics," Duddy told The Washington Diplomat in a recent conversation.

"I had specifically said drug traffickers were taking advantage of the breach that had opened up between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments," he said. "I was warned then that I had better be careful, lest they send me packing."

Strangely enough, the State Department sent Duddy back to Caracas following the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. During that event, Chávez exchanged a friendly handshake with President Obama — and the ice was broken, albeit temporarily.

"At the summit, the possibility of restoring relations at the ambassadorial level was raised. Subsequently, that spring, the issue was explored further. I then returned to Caracas and [Venezuelan Ambassador] Bernardo Álvarez returned to Washington," he explained. "I left when I was originally scheduled to leave in mid-2010. Alvarez stayed on in Washington until problems erupted over Larry Palmer's nomination to succeed me."

In that diplomatic fracas, Chávez said he'd reject Palmer's nomination because Palmer had suggested that morale in Venezuela's military was low and that Caracas was sheltering Colombian rebels.

All of these spats are suddenly irrelevant, of course, in the wake of Chávez's March 5 death from an undisclosed form of cancer at the age of 58.

Since then, Duddy's phone has been ringing incessantly. Everyone, it seems, wants the former ambassador's opinion on what's likely to happen in Venezuela — where an April 14 special election will pit Chávez's handpicked successor, 50-year-old bus driver and chavista loyalist Nicolás Maduro, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, an ambitious, articulate state governor whom Chávez defeated in last October's elections.

We asked Duddy if Chávez, who inspired equally fierce devotion and animosity, would be treated kindly by history.

"Within Latin America, he will be remembered by his admirers for having advocated for social programs for the poor, and for having defied the United States," Duddy replied. "His critics will focus on the damage he did to the country's democratic institutions and economy. In short, he'll be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Over the last five or six years, there has been much more interest in the Brazilian experience than in the Venezuelan one. Peru has one of the highest economic growth rates in the region, and Chile continues to do well. There are lots of models out there now."

Duddy, 62, is now retired from the Foreign Service. He teaches two courses at North Carolina's Duke University: one on post-Cold War relations between the United States and Latin America (at the Sanford School of Public Policy), and the other on business trends in South America (at the Fuqua School of Business).

Duddy was officially ambassador for three years, from 2007 to 2010, but was absent for nine months of that time following his Sept. 11, 2008, expulsion by Chávez.

"It was a difficult environment, to be sure, made more difficult from time to time by the tendency of President Chávez and some of his closest associates to publicly criticize our leaders, and sometimes in very personal terms — beginning with President Bush but running the gamut of all our senior leaders," Duddy told The Diplomat.

Few will forget Chávez's 2006 speech during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, when he infamously declared that the green marble podium at which he stood smelled like sulfur right after George W. Bush had spoken; in that address, he repeatedly referred to Bush as "el diablo" — the devil.

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Photo: Larry Luxner
A leftist banner hangs in front of the Símon Bolívar statue in downtown Caracas. The "Sí" refers to a failed 2007 referendum bid by President Hugo Chávez to change the constitution and declare Venezuela a socialist state. Despite that failure, Chávez instituted a raft of generous social reforms underwritten by oil revenues.

Duddy presented his credentials to Chávez less than a year later.

"As a recently arrived American ambassador, I heard the rhetoric and I believed President Chávez's antipathy toward the United States was real," he said. "At the same time, you look around and see American brands, American autos on the road — many of them made in Venezuela, by Venezuelan workers — and they're of the highest quality. It certainly didn't look like Venezuelans had rejected the U.S. The enormous number of non-immigrant visas applications the mission processed every day also reflected this."

Duddy said he met Chávez three or four times during his assignment in Caracas.

"The last conversation I had with him was on July 5, 2008, on the margin of celebrations for their national day," he said. "Chávez spoke to me for a few minutes, in public, about the possibility of improving our relations, specifically on counternarcotics efforts. But when we tried to follow up, unfortunately we were rebuffed. I never spoke with him again."

Since Duddy's expulsion, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas has remained open, headed by a series of charges d'affaires.

A native of Bangor, Maine, Duddy joined the Foreign Service in 1982. Over the course of his career, he served in the Dominican Republic, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Panama, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela. He's also been posted to Washington several times, most recently as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

But as a New Englander, Duddy's also a diehard Red Sox fan — and that didn't change once he got to Caracas.

"I used to pick up the paper every morning and read the baseball box scores from the major leagues during the winter season," he said. "That's how I tracked the progress of some of my favorite baseball players."

Strange as it may seem now, Chávez threw the first pitch at a Yankees game during a 1999 visit to New York City. Duddy said that he, too, threw the opening pitch at a Venezuelan baseball game.

And while Chávez later decided he didn't want to "play ball" with the United States, that didn't mean he didn't want its business.

"Obviously, we still have an energy relationship, which is of fundamental importance to the Venezuelans and, while not as important to the U.S. as it once was, is still significant," he said. "They are still the fourth-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, and we are their largest customer by a significant margin."

In fact, more than 95 percent of Venezuela's export earnings and about 50 percent of the government's budget come from oil revenues.

Duddy said that during his 14 years as president, Chávez did little to lessen Venezuela's dependence on petroleum export earnings — but that was hardly the point.

"The real issue is this: Was Chávez trying to diversify the economy, or diversify markets? Basically, it was only the latter," he said. "They are selling significantly more oil today to China than they did before, but the relative weight of the U.S. market to Venezuela is still very significant. The U.S. pays full price, and Venezuela's Petrocaribe partners get concessionary funding. So, the relative weight of what they sell to the United States is even greater, even if the volume we purchase has declined somewhat."

Meanwhile, under Chávez, China has become Venezuela's largest creditor, having loaned the country around $40 billion to date. Because the only way to repay the Chinese is through oil, this makes boosting oil production a high priority for any future Venezuelan government, Duddy pointed out.

"In recent years, production has been largely stagnant," he said. "A portion of their future production is already committed to China. So they have already received some of their future revenue in the form of loans."

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Hugo Chavez
Chávez used the country's oil revenue to underwrite expansive socialist reforms that improved life for many Venezuelans, endearing himself to large segments of the population that had felt disenfranchised, while alienating himself from others who say the generous policies are ruinous and unsustainable.

According to the World Bank, per-capita GDP skyrocketed from $4,105 in 1999 (the year Chávez assumed office) to $10,810 in 2011. Meanwhile, the poverty rate was slashed from 49.4 percent in 1999 to 29.5 percent in 2011, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America. Likewise, the World Bank shows that unemployment plunged from 14.5 percent in 1999 to 7.6 percent in 2009. Infant mortality also went down, as did illiteracy.

At the same time, however, the incidence of violent crime has soared, with a homicide rate now estimated at 67 per 100,000 inhabitants, making Venezuela one of the most violent nations on Earth. That compares to neighboring Colombia, whose murder rate last year was 38 per 100,000 inhabitants, and Mexico, with 15 per 100,000.

Moreover, Venezuela's economy appears to be tanking, with annual inflation now running at 22 percent — the highest in Latin America — even though oil remains above $100 per barrel. In early February, the government was forced to devalue Venezuela's national currency, the bolívar, by nearly a third. That will make imported goods more expensive, sparking even worse inflation and exacerbating the country's intermittent food and power shortages.

"Beyond the shortcomings in the Bolivarian approach to economic policy, the fact is Venezuela's circumstances can't be replicated elsewhere because no one else has the oil resources they do. At the same time, Venezuela has become more dependent on oil in recent years," said Duddy. "While some have continued to admire Hugo Chávez because they sympathize with his very aggressive stance toward the United States, it seems to me Venezuela is no longer the reference point for good policy to the degree other economies in the hemisphere are."

Capriles in particular is known for admiring the Brazilian approach to fighting poverty. He favors the market-friendly economies policies pursued by Brazil's former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and describes himself as a centrist and a humanist.

Yet Duddy said Capriles heads into this election with significant disadvantages, the biggest being the fact that Chávez personally endorsed Maduro as the successor to his Bolivarian Revolution.

"Maduro has subsequently served as head of a caretaker government and has enjoyed all the media attention typically accorded an incumbent. Moreover, the chavista media dominates the free broadcast media," he pointed out. "So while Capriles will have some limited access to the media for campaign advertising, obviously Maduro will be covered as president, in addition to whatever campaigning he does. Furthermore, the country will be voting while still in a state of mourning for Chávez."

Another point: Capriles, a self-professed devout Catholic, is the grandson of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Maduro supporters have wasted no time subjecting him to anti-Semitic slurs; in 2009, a pro-Chávez mob spray-painted Nazi swastikas on the walls of his Caracas home. At 40, Capriles is also unmarried, leading chavistas to imply that the opposition candidate is gay, which he's consistently denied.

On the other hand, Capriles did defeat a previous vice president, Diosdado Cabello, to win his initial election as governor of Miranda state, as well as a second vice president, Elías Jaua — now foreign minister — to win his second term in office. And he did better against Chávez than any other challenger, picking up 44.3 percent of the vote compared to 55.07 percent for the now-deceased president.

Even so, he still lost to Chávez by 11 points — and the results of a poll published March 19 by Caracas pollster Datanalisis show Maduro with 49.2 percent support versus 34.8 percent for Capriles. Campaigning in oil-rich Zulia state, Capriles vowed to end subsidized petroleum exports to Cuba under which the communist-ruled island receives between 90,000 and 100,000 barrels per day.

"The giveaways to other countries are going to end. Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros," Capriles declared. "Nicolás [Maduro] is the candidate of Raúl Castro. I'm the candidate of the Venezuelan people."

Yet for many Venezuelans, Chávez was their candidate, even savior. Over the last 14 years, the Venezuelan people handily voted to elect Chávez as their leader four times — and odds are good that they'll do the same with his anointed successor.

Although U.S. officials may have quietly hoped for a slight thaw in relations under Maduro, Chávez's protégé seems to have taken a page out of his mentor's anti-American conspiracy playbook, recently accusing the United States of trying to destabilize the country.

Duddy warned that if Maduro wins as expected, the prognosis for U.S.-Venezuelan relations won't improve anytime soon. He noted that Maduro kicked out two American military attachés on March 5 — the same day Chávez's death was announced.

"Since that day, there have been repeated suggestions that somehow the United States or others may have had something to do with infecting Chávez — all of which taken together underscore the fact that in the near term, relations will continue to be tense," the veteran diplomat concluded. "There's been no movement that would encourage one to think otherwise."


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 1, 2013

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