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Caracas Cables: "Loco Chávez Time," Chinese Ambassador in Venezuela & "Fascist Military Elements"

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For the past year or so, I've been writing steadily about WikiLeaks and U.S. diplomatic correspondence between various American embassies in Latin America and the State Department in Washington, D.C. For a full inventory of these pieces, you may head to my web site, which complements and further contextualizes my two books, Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left, and Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.

It's a bit difficult for one person to stay on top of all the communication back and forth, and WikiLeaks' recent decision to place all of the remaining cables online has made the researchers' work even more of an uphill climb. In an effort to stay afloat, I decided to sift through many of these cables, taking note of intriguing, incendiary or just plain odd documents which may be worthy of further investigation. In coming weeks, I'll be publishing my own guide to the "Caracas cables," which may aid journalists, researchers or activists. In the interest of saving time, I've opted not to insert too much of my own commentary or analysis but have added in links to the original documents where useful.

"Loco Chávez Time"

Underscoring the highly sensitive political environment in Venezuela, U.S. diplomats alerted Washington in 2008 to an odd incident which had occurred at the Caracas airport. One evening, the manager for American Airlines in Venezuela called the U.S. Embassy to report that the captain and crew of flight 903 were being held at the airport. What was the reason? Apparently, upon landing a crew member had remarked "'Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chávez time is' X."

One year earlier, Venezuela had created its own time zone, and most likely the crew member was simply reminding the passengers of this fact so as to turn their clocks back 30 minutes. However, one passenger thought the crewmember had actually said "loco Chávez time" while Venezuelan immigration officials claimed the actual quote was "the hour of the crazy Chávez and his women." American Airlines diffused the situation by flying the captain and crew out of Venezuela shortly thereafter and offering profuse apologies to Chávez authorities.

"Fascist" Elements Within Chávez's Coalition?

In another unrelated cable, the U.S. Embassy made explosive and incendiary charges regarding Chávez's inner circle. During a lunch, a "well respected political economist" told embassy staff that Minister of Public Works and Housing Diosdado Cabello "was expanding his network of corruption into the financial sector." Cabello, the source claimed, had joined with several other veterans of Chávez's 1992 attempted coup and this "fascist and military" trend "was gaining ascendancy within Chavismo" to the detriment of older leftists.

Indeed, according to the embassy source "the traditional left was becoming increasingly disenchanted, at least in private, with Chávez's Bolivarian revolution, largely due to blatant corruption and the realization that desire for power, rather than achievement of socialist goals, was its driving force." In a damning aside, the economist described Cabello as a potential "Montesinos-like" figure within the Chávez regime, referring to the sinister Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos who aided the Fujimori regime back in the 1990s. Going further, the economist claimed that Cabello was "amassing great power and control over the regime's apparatus as well as a private fortune, often through intimidation behind the scenes."

Perhaps, Chávez himself had grown concerned about Cabello but "was unable to diminish" his colleague's influence. Personally, the source was hoping to expose Cabello's dealings but had to proceed carefully given how "dangerous" the minister was. Embassy staff was unable to confirm all of the reports about Cabello, but believed "that people close to the government have been buying, or trying to buy several small banks, and we would not be surprised if Diosdado Cabello and his associates were involved."

I have not followed this story, but I wouldn't be surprised if the right wing media makes a lot of hay over the cable. More interesting perhaps would be to observe the reaction of the traditional left in Venezuela, and to gauge whether it is concerned about assorted figures within Chávez's amorphous political coalition. Historically, Latin American populism has often been associated with an authoritarian streak and hopefully Chávez rule in Venezuela will not come to resemble Perón's Argentina.

China Bowing to U.S. in Venezuela?

Recently, commentators have made much of China's rise on the world stage and suggested that the Asian Tiger is challenging the U.S. in all kinds of ways. Yet, if this 2006 cable is indicative, Chinese officials are hardly acting combatively toward Washington in Latin America and, indeed, are all too willing to inveigh against Chávez in private in an effort to reassure U.S. diplomats.

Writing his superiors in Washington, American ambassador in Caracas William Brownfield recounted a meeting with Chinese ambassador Jiu Yijie. Brownfield had effusive praise for Jiu, remarking that his counterpart "is the best Chinese diplomat I have dealt with...He speaks Spanish well. He understands Latin American culture. He has wide experience in the region."

Nevertheless, Brownfield wrote that Yijie was "very careful with me, holds me at arm's length, and clearly does not intend to give anything away for free. He correctly assesses that our meetings are higher risk for him than for me." Jiu, who had a "close relationship" with Chávez, was "wary of close contact with the U.S. Embassy" and was "quietly pensive" at the suggestion that China might apprise the U.S. in advance of its sales of communications satellites to Venezuela.

Nevertheless, when Brownfield asked whether the U.S. and China could "work together to avoid surprises on Venezuela," Jiu responded somewhat positively. Within certain left circles, China still enjoys some political support but if this cable is any indication the Asian Tiger has no ideological principles: at one point, when asked if China had any other interests in Venezuela besides energy, Jiu answered in the negative. Moreover, Jiu went overboard in an effort to please Browning, remarking "emphatically" that China was not "looking for confrontation in the region" and "recognized that Latin America, and Venezuela in particular, were regions of importance to the United States."

When asked again if it were true that "China did not agree with Chávez, confrontational approach to the United States, and sought to restrain him at times," Jiu "said it was so" and "could not associate with Chávez' U.S.-bashing." The Chinese diplomat also agreed that China would be extremely careful to engage in security issues in Venezuela. Overall, Brownfield was very pleased with the meeting, declaring that he would "keep hammering away at Jiu and his embassy" in an effort to influence Chinese activity in Venezuela and "annoy the Bolivarian Gentleman." Even if such efforts did not bear fruit, Brownfield said, "just meeting with the Chinese will make Chávez' paranoid mind suspect the worst."

Though some leftists may hold outdated views about China as a champion of Third World interests, this cable casts considerable doubt on such claims. Far from espousing any political agenda, China seems focused on narrow-minded business in Latin America and hardly seems interested in counteracting the U.S. or overtly taking the side of the embattled Chávez regime.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left, and Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. Visit his web site, www.nikolaskozloff.com