If all the crises in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan weren't enough, the Obama administration last week embarked on a path to break diplomatic relations with Venezuela. But the drama was cut short last night when the Dutch government announced that it would not allow the extradition of Hugo Carvajal, a Venezuelan retired general and military officer whom Washington wanted to bring to trial in U.S. courts. The story will most likely disappear quickly from the news. But it's worth a post-mortem because the episode reveals an important split within the administration on policy toward Latin America -- similar to the one that has been evident in the case of Argentina vs. the vulture funds.
On Wednesday, July 23, Carvajal was detained by authorities in Aruba, despite the fact that he was admitted to the island on a diplomatic passport and was named consul general to Aruba by Venezuela. Aruba is a small island of 100,000 residents just 17 miles from the north coast of Venezuela that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The U.S. claims that Carvajal was involved in drug trafficking, and he was put on a U.S. blacklist list in 2008. But whether there is any substance to the charges is beside the point in this case. An extradition of this sort, were it to happen to almost any government in Latin America, would be a serious offense that could cause that government to break diplomatic relations with the U.S.
First, there is the violation of the basic principle of diplomatic immunity, which is one of the most fundamental international agreements that allows governments to negotiate even during wars. The authorities of Aruba, and by extension the government of the Netherlands, were until yesterday relying on some technicalities to argue that Carvajal did not enjoy diplomatic protection. For example, they claimed that Carvajal was not yet officially approved as consul general.
But some may recall that when the American "contractor" Raymond Allen Davis was arrested in Pakistan in January 2011 for shooting and killing two Pakistani citizens on the street, U.S. officials including President Obama demanded that he be immediately released on grounds of diplomatic immunity. Davis was not a diplomat in practice or in name (it later turned out that he was working for the CIA, but this was not public at the time, and of course that is very far from diplomatic work). The basis for the U.S. claim of diplomatic immunity was that Davis -- like Carvajal in Aruba -- was admitted to the country on a diplomatic passport, the implication being that the Pakistani government recognized his diplomatic status upon entry.
The Wall Street Journal cited G.J. Alexander Knoops, an international criminal defense attorney in Amsterdam and The Hague, in favor of Carvajal's case:
"The argument that Mr. Carvajal wasn't yet appointed, and so therefore wasn't yet a diplomat, this doesn't seem valid," said Knoops.
On Friday a judge in Aruba upheld the detention, but then Sunday night the Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands cut the legal process short by announcing that Carvajal did, in fact enjoy diplomatic immunity. Carvajal was released and ordered to leave, and immediately headed home to Venezuela.
Legalities aside, most governments and people outside the U.S. do not see the U.S. government as having the right to simply snatch anyone whom they are pursuing in their planet-wide "war on drugs," including citizens and officials from other countries, and bring them to trial in the United States, especially when there are political motives involved. And that brings us to the most important part of the story: the political motives.
This is where we must depart from the world of the major media and U.S. politicians, and enter the world of diplomacy and international relations. These are often two different worlds. In the current controversy, the international media will treat the case as one in which U.S. attorneys in New York and Miami are pursuing a government official who happens to be Venezuelan, in a case involving international drug trafficking. But the governments of the region, and the world, can see the reality behind the magic act.
Washington under President Obama has long been divided on how to deal with Venezuela, even as it pursues a general strategy oriented toward regime change. Most of the foreign service professionals generally prefer to have diplomatic relations, including ambassadors, with Venezuela as with other countries in the region. But within the executive branch and of course in Congress there are others who fear that this could lead to a normalizing of relations. In late May, the House passed legislation placing economic sanctions on selected Venezuelan government officials.
There is no need to comment on the alleged rationale for the legislation, which was to punish human rights violations. The Egyptian government has killed more than a thousand people since the military coup in July 2013, and sentenced 700 to death. The Israelis have also killed more than a thousand people in Gaza in just the past three weeks -- most of them civilians, including more than 200 children. Not only is there no talk of sanctions against Israel or Egypt, there is not even talk of reducing or even conditioning the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, including military aid, that flow annually to these two countries. By comparison, 43 Venezuelans died in more than two months of violent protests seeking to topple a democratically-elected government, about half of them at the hands of the protesters themselves.
The sanctions legislation was a transparent attempt to blow up diplomatic relations with Venezuela, indifferent to the collateral damage that it would do to relations with the rest of the region. But it was blocked in the Senate. The Democratic Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is Senator Robert Menendez, a hard-liner who favors as much as any Republican a jihad against Venezuela and Cuba. The full Senate committee voted 13 to 2 in favor of the sanctions. Why then did these sanctions not pass the Senate? Because President Obama did not want to blow up diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and he wasn't about to put himself in the position of having to veto the bill.
In February the Venezuelan government offered to exchange ambassadors with the U.S., but Washington would not accept. A few weeks ago the U.S. and Venezuela exchanged chargés d'affaires, one step below ambassador. In U.S. diplomatic history for at least the past 50 years, there are almost no known cases of Washington refusing to exchange ambassadors with a country with which it has diplomatic relations. So, an exchange of ambassadors could be delayed, but probably not denied. By now you can see where this story goes: the move to extradite Carvajal was another attempt by the hard right to blow up diplomatic relations with Venezuela and thereby further isolate the U.S. regionally.
Most of the media, again adopting a fiction that is transparent to the diplomatic world, will treat the Dutch government's decision as independent of Washington. But there is little doubt that if President Obama really wanted the extradition, the government of the Netherlands would have cooperated. Just look at all the European governments who collaborated with Washington in forcing down Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane in Europe last summer, even though they had to apologize for it afterward. It was a gross violation of the Vienna Convention, based on the false pretext that Edward Snowden was on the plane.
So once again President Obama has managed to block a right-wing attempt to break diplomatic relations with Venezuela, without even having to say a word about it. To avoid further drama of this sort, he should just exchange ambassadors with Venezuela, and announce that the U.S. government intends to normalize relations with Latin America in general. This would send a message to the extremists both inside and outside of government that it is not so easy to sabotage diplomatic relations in the hemisphere.
An abbreviated version of this column was published by The Hill on July 29, 2014.