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NPR: Interview with Ambassador Alvarez/ The Relationship Between Washington and Caracas

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made news again. This time, announcing that foreigners who publicly criticize his government will be expelled from Venezuela. It?s been two months since thousands protested the closing of an anti-Chavez TV station, though Chavez?s supporters argue the TV station lost its license because it backed a coup attempt in 2002.

These supporters or Chaveztas also trumpet the sharp decline in poverty and say Chavez? socialism of the 21st century has brought Venezuelans free health care, subsidized food and land reform. He?s gained political capital internationally by being an outspoken and provocative critic of the United States, calling President Bush the devil in a now legendary United Nations speech.

Joining us to talk about all these is Venezuela?s Ambassador to the United States. But we?d also like to hear from you. Do you have a question for the ambassador? What should the relationship between Washington and Caracas be? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that?s 800-989- TALK. Or e-mail us at talk@npr.org. And as always, the conversation is also on the blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us here in our studios in Washington is Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, ambassador of Venezuela. Ambassador Alvarez, welcome to the program.

Mr. BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA (Venezuela Ambassador to the United States): Thank you very much and it?s a pleasure to be here.

ROBERTS: I must say you have something of a tough job. I mean, considering that Hugo Chavez does say some rather outspoken things about President Bush and it?s your job to represent him to President Bush. What kind of relationship does Venezuela want with the U.S.?

Mr. HERRERA: Well, with the U.S., we have ? normally, we would like to have the best possible relationship with the U.S. as a nation, as a country. And in fact, we have a very lively and interested relationship with the U.S. Let me just give you numbers of them. Venezuela is the second trading partner of the U.S. in the Americas. We supply U.S. ? we are, in the hemisphere, the most important supplier of crude end products. We have a huge investment in the U.S. We have 50 Venezuelan players in the Major Leagues. We have, I don?t know, you go to an airport now, and it?s almost impossible to get a ticket to go to Venezuela or to come to the U.S. from Venezuela. So actually there is a very, very important relationship ? historical relationship between the two countries.

Another thing is the differences we have with administration. And of course, for some people that they don?t know, when I tell them those figures about the relationship between the two countries, they say to me: are you talking about the same Venezuela we listen and we see in the media that is an enemy of the U.S.? And I said, yes, this is exactly the same Venezuela.

So for us, this has been clear that all these ideas of Venezuela promoting an anti-Americanism ideology is not true. I mean, we do have differences with the administration and, particularly, with the view they have regarding development, democracy in the Americas.

ROBERTS: So you would characterize President Chavez? attacks on President Bush - most famously, the United Nations speech - as something personal about his administration rather than about the U.S. as an international entity?

Mr. HERRERA: Yes. I think when President Chavez said that - and that is incredible because, you know, normally in this countries, you know, when you have a news, after a week or two weeks, people forget, no? But, you know, I think there is also the idea of keeping Venezuela, you know, into priority as a reference.

But he said that, basically, because ? and he said the U.S. people, I understand that it?s difficult because on the one hand, probably, you don?t like that somebody come to your country and name your president whatever. But at the same time, I have to alert you that what your government is doing is destroying the world.

So how can I respect the U.S. people on one hand and say it loudly because - I remember, I was in the United Nations and I remember that President Bush, in his speech, he said that people were killed in Lebanon because there was crossfire. It was not crossfire.

ROBERTS: But you said that, on the one hand, it might be hard for Americans to see Venezuelan come to the U.S. and criticize our leader. On the other hand that particular prospect is now exactly what Chavez is trying to outlaw in Venezuela. He says, it?s not okay for someone to come here and criticize us, and if they do, they?ll be deported.

Mr. HERRERA: Yeah, but the thing is ? imagine for a second that you have the president, the general-secretary of the - I don?t want to name any country, but country X. The secretary-general of the socialist of party of country X in Europe that come here and publicly said that President Bush is not a democratic leader, that he is an authoritarian, he?s a dictator. I would like to see what is going to be the reaction of the authorities of the U.S. regarding ? because this person came here with a visa, and you cannot go into a country to undermine the institutions of the country. You are free to say whatever you want.

For a second, think who comes to the U.S. as a foreigner? I?m not saying the U.S. people because you are entitled. But imagine a leader - and there was a case in Venezuela. There was a member of the Mexican political party that came to Venezuela with that. By the way, even the governor of Mexico publicly said we don?t have anything to do with what this person said, and we don?t agree that this is the way of treating a friend, a country. So, of course, I mean - and the thing is you have even people that you pay then to go to a country to attack a president.

ROBERTS: I guess, I?m failing to see the distinction, partly because the rhetoric of Chavez? speech was so heated with the smell of sulfur in the hallway and all of that. I mean, imagine if in America we had the law in place that Chavez is proposing now - that people who?ve said that will be deported - don?t you think President Chavez would have been escorted to the airport?

Mr. HERRERA: Well, let me tell you something ? no, don?t forget that Chavez talked in the United Nations. He was not talking in the U.S. I mean, New York, unfortunately?

ROBERTS: Well, but he then went on to say things in Harlem in the same visit.

Mr. HERRERA: Yeah, but the thing is he was ? you can, and this is a ? for the U.S. to give or to deny a visa to a person. What I want to say, you have - and I?ll just ? I would leave it to you. They?re from pages of Venezuelan ? all media in Venezuela, today. You will see that they can say whatever they want. Basically, what we are saying is you cannot allow people representing all other public?s entities, political parties, et cetera, from other countries to come to your country and just undermine the institution of this country because imagine, I mean, no country if it were?

ROBERTS: But it would be okay for Venezuelans to?

Mr. HERRERA: No, of course. We don?t do that anywhere.

ROBERTS: Let?s take a call from Greg in St. Louis, Missouri. Greg, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

GREG (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. Mr. Ambassador, welcome. I wonder if you could address a question that I have. President Chavez is clearly not in favor of President Bush or his policies, and there are times when I certainly agree with that.

I just wonder if he and the people of Venezuela make a distinction between the administration that some of us live underneath, versus those people that would rather see our government in a different course, that there?s any cognition of the fact that America is a changing place with variable interests that can easily be insulted in either form by our own leaders or by others making generalizations. I?ll take my answers off the air. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Greg. Mr. Ambassador?

Mr. HERRERA: Yeah, I think you are right. And what we have done lately is clear you, tell you that we do make that differentiation. And I don?t know, I mean, I just want to refer to you what we did, for example, in Katrina, what we?re doing with the communities in the U.S., where we provided them some assistance through the heat and oil programs to more than 200,000 families.

There is a lot of interaction, even in business. I mean, there are business ? a lot of businesses, and there is a lot of interaction, so it?s clear for us that one thing is, of course, is the policies of the administration and the foreign policy of the U.S. because basically, there has been a discussion over the years that on the one hand, you have a lot of democratic opportunities inside the country, but foreign policy is basically not a non-democratic policy. It?s very difficult.

So it?s a clear differentiation about that. And we all want that there will be some changes. I mean, I think everybody is realizing that now there is a new era in Latin America. And there is a need for reengagement and there is a need for trying to understand what is going on there. And we would like to have an administration with which we could ? respectable and with a lot of disagreement, but we can at least sit down and work together.

ROBERTS: My guest is Venezuela?s ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez. You?re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let?s take another call. This is Alex(ph) in New Orleans, Louisiana. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ALEX (Caller): Thank you, Rebecca. Actually, my question ? first, I want to thank the ambassador for a great help to New Orleans, especially in the Katrina. Also, we tend ? the world tend to overlook all the tremendous help that Venezuela provides for the neighboring poor countries in South America. We get obsessed with what the President Chavez says, and who hates who in their leadership. But the nation of Venezuela has tremendous help. And the world should thank that and, ambassador, please bring that into light.

And the other question, the U.S., with all respect, tend to be obsessed with changing the world. They want a change in Cuba, 80 miles away; also, they want to change Iraqi democracy and all that nonsense, 10,000 miles away. I think the U.S. should reevaluate their international(ph). The historic ? the history with Venezuela and the United States have been much deeper, and I believe that the U.S. should improve their relation with the South American countries. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks for your call. Do you think that some of the sort of broader policy coverage of Venezuelan gets lost in the coverage of Chavez? rhetoric? I mean, do you think that the fact that he is so colorful and so quotable sometimes overshadows more sort of ? I don?t want to use the word drab ? but, you know, more sort of in-depth policy issues?

Ambassador ALVAREZ: Yeah. I think so. And what you get is more and more people wanting to know what is really going on in Venezuela, because after all those years ? and when President Chavez keep a very strong support and everybody?s looking for Venezuela ? we have hundreds of people who want to go to Venezuela every week just to see what is going on there, and to see the new social experience. And I would say that model, though, we?re trying to build up in Venezuela. And on the one hand, people - I mean, this same idea of trying to simplify Venezuela on ? concentrating on features of President Chavez, although the (unintelligible) people now realized to ? that there is more than that and they want to go there.

But yes, you are right. I mean ? let me tell you something out of rhetoric because ? particularly in the diplomatic world, I mean ? I think that you cannot justify ? I mean, people try to present us is the rhetoric of Chavez was ? is the only problem.

My perception after being in this country for almost five years is that the real problem is not the rhetoric, the real problem is that we are trying to promote an alternative model of development ? a new democracy. A new way of doing a radical change in society. And that is something that in dominant thinking of this country regarding Latin America doesn?t fit.

ROBERTS: Do you think Chavez? rhetoric is a strategic political move or is that the way he talks when he?s ? there?s not a microphone in front of him?

Ambassador ALVAREZ: He is a very unique leader in many sense. And he is person that talks directly. And one thing about him is you don?t need too much intelligence. You don?t need to spend too much money doing intelligence in Chavez because you know exactly what he thinks and what he do. And he has been doing what he said he was going to do from the very beginning. This is one thing.

Secondly, I think he is a person that ? he breaks the traditions of these very kind of elite and sophisticated politics. I mean, it?s like saying politics ? government politics are so much in which is very restricted to a certain number of people and nobody goes there. It?s like a black box. And I think he has changed that completely. And on the other hand, I think he said he thinks that we have been in the defensive a lot of times. And sometimes, when you want to defend yourself, you have to be very aggressive in what you said.

ROBERTS: Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us.

Ambassador ALVAREZ: Thank you very much.

 
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