Sometimes, an insult can get you free breakfast. After rashly calling President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela a dictator on our blog, TAPPED, I received an invitation from Chávez's embassy: Come to breakfast, and we'll tell you why he isn't an autocrat. Two members of the Venezuelan national assembly were on tour to explain their country's democratic process to the world prior to a referendum eliminating Chávez's term limit.
It was as though the U.S. had sent Sens. Jim Inhofe and John Cornyn on a 30-country tour to explain the Bush administration's environmental and torture policies. They doth protest too much.
On a bitterly cold February morning, I walked up the curved drive of the mansion residence of the Venezuelan chargé d'affaires, where I was ushered into an ornate receiving room complete with a baby grand piano and a dozen people milling about. As my glasses defogged and a tiny cup of coffee was pushed into my hand, I found myself kissing the cheek of the embassy's spokesperson and being pushed toward Venezuelan Assemblyman Calixto Ortega, a big man with a Blagojevichian mane of black hair. He greeted me in rapid-fire Spanish -- a language I don't speak -- and gestured for me to sit in an uncomfortable Victorian chair.
As reporters and embassy officials chatted away, it quickly became apparent I was the only person in the room not fluent in Spanish. Avoiding eye contact with everyone, I nodded carefully when one man turned to me and said something that ended in "Obama bien, eh?" I was rescued when tuxedoed butlers came to take us into the next room for breakfast, revealing an ornate dining table opposite a crowded buffet, all framed by giant abstract paintings and two huge silver candlesticks like in a scene from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
I pulled aside the embassy's press aide to remind her of my linguistic difficulties, and she promised me a translator. In the meantime, munching on arepas and eggs, I struck up a conversation with two reporters, from Argentina and Colombia respectively, and remarked that I had heard wonderful things about Buenos Aires. The Argentine replied that it was "cheap" there. "I'm sure it's more than just that," I said quickly, receiving only a dark look in response. Diplomacy fail.
Once the reporters and officials were settled around the table, an embassy official brought me a small radio with a single earphone -- a link to my translator, a woman who paced around the far side of the room whispering into a transmitter as the two members of the assembly, Ortega (the bearish man I met earlier)and Francisco Torrealba, his trimmer and more intense colleague, began to speak. The quiet translations in my ear made quite the contrast with the Abbot-and-Costello duo's bombastic delivery.
"Venezuela is the victim of a campaign of misinformation, poor information, and sometimes disinformation," Ortega began, occasionally consulting a souvenir notebook from the Museum of Modern Art. "We should be given the benefit of the doubt."
Doubt could only be a benefit for Chávez, a career military officer, who began his political career with an attempted coup in 1992 and spent some time in jail for the trouble. He was elected president in 1998 and remains in charge to this day, having surmounted a coup attempt, a recall vote, and a second election campaign. A democratic socialist who enacted massively popular programs to fight poverty and improve the living conditions of his people, Chávez has also passed constitutional reforms that centralized power and allowed him an 18-month period of rule by decree. In 2007, he pushed another referendum to eliminate presidential term limits and expand his powers in key areas; it was barely defeated and led to opposition protests in the streets. During that campaign, Chávez promised to rule until 2050 -- when he will be 96 years old.
Despite all of this, the diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Venezuela is more rhetorical than substantive. Chávez used George W. Bush as an international foil, but the U.S. remains the largest consumer of Venezuela's oil -- the single economic factor that allows Chávez to continue the social programs that constitute his "Bolivarian revolution." With oil prices dropping and the international economy in shambles, Chávez is more dependent than ever on U.S. purchases -- not to mention that Barack Obama is actually admired in Latin America, where Bush was not. Chávez will need to carefully recalibrate his strategy abroad to maintain his popularity at home.
This is, presumably, where Ortega and Torrealba come in: There's no time like the present to make nice. At the breakfast meeting, when they said they wished Obama luck and hoped for further engagement between the countries, they meant it. But they won't tip their own economic hand.
"Those of us who are inspired by the liberator ... [knew] the crisis of capitalism and the wild neo-liberalism, as John Paul II termed it, was going to explode," Ortega said. "In Venezuela, scholars had announced this and the government echoed the announcements."
They were more concerned, though, about having the world recognize the purity of their democracy. When an Associated Press reporter questioned the representatives on Chávez's slow concession to the defeat of his 2007 referendum, eventually prompted by opposition protests in the streets, Ortega snapped. "That's an outright lie!" he said before proceeding more calmly. "I'm not suggesting that you are lying."
Torrealba picked up the refrain. "The Bolivarian revolution, which is not the old Soviet Union revolution, is of a Venezuelan kind," he explained delicately. "We will abide by what the majority of Venezuelans think."
Ortega again: "In other times, proposals have been supported by fire arms, but we will use words and the law to support our process."
The Venezuelans seem insecure in their status as a major petro power, consorting with the Russians and the Iranians while simultaneously paying lip service to more democratic ideals. With Chávez shopping around, this might be the time for the U.S. to extend the old hand of friendship. Leaders from both countries will meet at the Summit of the Americas at the end of April, giving them a chance to feel each other out. Careful engagement with Venezuela could split the country from other more dangerous rivals and improve our relations with other South American nations. It would also be an opportunity to push for more democracy in Venezuela -- a country, like Cuba, where heated rhetoric hasn't led to any improvements in government or international relations.
Despite shifts in global leadership and the tanking economy, Chávez has declared he's here to stay. Just 10 days after the breakfast, Venezuela passed the pared-down referendum that eliminated term limits. "The world sees the glow of the people of Simón Bolívar!" Chávez proclaimed from the People's Balcony of Miraflores Palace after his referendum's success. "I will not fail the hope, the clamor, the love of the people. ... It is also a victory for those who voted No, even though they neither accept nor understand it."
Count me in that latter group.