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Nikolas Kozloff

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Caracas Cables: U.S.-Venezuela Journalist Exchange; Charitable View of Obama, Cash Seizure at Venezuelan Airport

Posted: 09/15/11 05:59 PM ET

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.

Chávez's "Charm Offensive"

Even during the darkest days of the Bush administration, Venezuela made efforts to mend relations with Washington. In 2005, for example, Chávez's Minister of Communications Andrés Izarra met with U.S. ambassador in Caracas William Brownfield. In an earlier meeting, Brownfield had suggested that Venezuelan journalists visit the U.S., an idea which Izarra had found lacking as "such visits might merely be indoctrination trips by the U.S. government."

Nevertheless, during his follow up visit Izarra suggested that the two countries should explore the idea of conducting journalist exchanges, provided of course that the U.S. would follow up in kind and "invite U.S. journalists to Venezuela for reciprocal visits to poor Venezuelan communities where they might witness the government of Venezuela social missions."

Izarra's offer seems reasonable enough, yet the caustic and dismissive Brownfield was skeptical of Chávez's so-called "charm offensive." The ambassador remarked that Izarra had acted "very severely" toward several accredited U.S. journalists based in Venezuela. Izarra retorted that several American reporters, including the correspondent of the Miami Herald, had been "consistently and erroneously critical of the government of Venezuela and its policies," and therefore the Minister believed he "had a duty to criticize their errors."

Predictably, the meeting did not bear any fruit. It was unlikely, Brownfield remarked, that the U.S. Embassy would ever coordinate any journalist visits to Venezuela. Writing to his superiors in Washington after the meeting, Brownfield declared sarcastically "the charm offensive continues...Our judgment is still that the government of Venezuela offensive is tactical in nature."

Charitable View of Obama

In the summer of 2009, President Manuel of Zelaya, the president of Honduras as well as a Chávez protégé, was overthrown in a military coup d'etat. To this day, it's unclear whether Washington played a covert role behind the scenes in bringing about Zelaya's ouster, but in Venezuela diplomats gave the newly elected Obama the benefit of the doubt. Unlike the Bush era, when meetings such as the Brownfield-Izarra tete-a-tete ended in failure, the political climate seemed much improved during the first months of the incoming Obama administration.

Temir Porras, the chief of staff for Chávez's Foreign Minister, told the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Caracas that "elements within the U.S. government had been involved in the Honduras coup, but...President Obama has good intentions and was unaware of what his government was doing." Elaborating, Porras said that within the Chávez ranks there was "great debate" about the new administration in Washington and its intentions toward Venezuela.

Obama had taken a constructive approach toward Chávez, Porras said, but this had "irritated" and elicited pressure from other elements within the U.S. government. The American Chargé d'Affaires took issue with the notion that Obama was not firmly in control of American foreign policy, remarking that "the coup was in Honduras, not in Washington."

Note: to this day, the role of shadowy U.S. elements in the Honduras imbroglio remains something of a mystery [for full coverage of such groups, head to my web site for June and July, 2009]. Whatever the case about Honduras, the WikiLeaks cables suggest that Chávez was, at least initially, willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in Latin America. Unfortunately, however, relations took a sour turn subsequently.

Cash Seizure at Venezuelan Airport

On an unrelated note, this strange cable raises questions of U.S. government interference in Venezuelan political affairs. In 2004, customs authorities at the Caracas airport confiscated a shipment of $2.5 million in cash owned by Italcambio, Venezuela's largest exchange house. According to officials, Italcambio failed to properly declare the shipment. The money was aboard an American Airlines flight from Miami, seat of the anti-Chávez and anti-Castro crowd, and the owner of Italcambio, Carlos Dorado, was widely known as a Chávez critic. According to web site venezuelanalysis.com, Dorado was a columnist for right wing paper El Universal and funded opposition activities.

The pro-Chávez newspaper Diario VEA made a "public crusade" of the Italcambio case, floating theories that Dorado was conducting money laundering tied to U.S.-government "conspiracies." However, Dorado told the U.S. Embassy in Caracas that the seizure "was part of a pattern of government of Venezuela harassment of his firm in retaliation for his frequent anti-Chávez statements to the press," and that the cash shipment was a "routine activity" drawn from a Bank of America account not requiring any special advance customs notification.

Speaking to the Americans, Venezuelan officials remarked that the country's internal security service had proof that the shipment was "a funneling operation from the U.S. government," a claim rejected as patently "absurd" by embassy personnel. Other authorities stated that "on its face," Italcambio's actions were legal, but the firm could face legal problems if it failed to account for all of its imported dollars.

Mysteriously, I can't find any other news articles on the Italcambio cash seizure story for later years. If the Chávez government had any hard evidence against Italcambio it certainly backed away from its initial sensationalist claims, and predictably the U.S. embassy dismissed any conspiracy theories. Of course, this doesn't mean that other, more clandestine U.S. government agencies did not have an inkling of what was happening. For further revelations, we may have to wait for CIA leakers to come clean about what the U.S. government was up to in Venezuela.

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 at www.nikolaskozloff.com