US Embassy Caracas: Where do I begin, to tell the story of how bad a post can get?

In 2007, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General conducted an inspection of the US Embassy in Venezuela. At that time, the inspectors determined that 1) skillful leadership of a focused and imaginative Ambassador has kept the U.S. government as effectively engaged as possible in Venezuela; 2) The Ambassador and DCM have worked through an outstanding and empowered regional security officer (RSO) to instill an admirable culture of security at Embassy Caracas – a post operating in a critical threat environment; 3) The energetic consul general manages an efficient, cost-effective operation that emphasizes staff cross-training and cooperative public outreach with other mission elements. More here. It was generally a good review.

In Fall 2011, less than five years later, the OIG returned for another round of inspection. The new report includes 71 recommendations and 41 informal recommendations and has the following key judgments:

  • Lengthy staffing gaps in the front office have undermined mission oversight and contributed to management deficiencies and poor morale. Now that the front office is fully staffed, the chargé and the deputy chief of mission (DCM) are addressing these shortcomings.
  • Past inadequate front office oversight, prolonged staffing shortages in key management positions, weak section leadership, and lack of a customer service focus combined to produce significant deficiencies in support.
  • The information management program faces immediate challenges. Bandwidth limitations and diplomatic mail operations, in particular, require urgent attention.
  • The consular section is emerging from an lengthy period of ineffective leadership. [REDACTED] The challenge has public diplomacy, security, commercial and management ramifications.
  • Political and economic reporting has been effective, despite restricted access to Venezuelan policymakers. More analytical reporting is needed.
  • The public affairs section (PAS) has a robust program, including a network of effective binational centers that take the embassy’s message nationwide. However, the PAS needs to develop formal written media engagement and alumni outreach plans.

That’s not all.  Staffing gaps, inexperience staff, lack of leadership and unrealistic mission goals plagued the mission:

  • The embassy has been without an ambassador since July 2010 and is short staffed in key areas. Staffing is complicated by a preponderance of first-tour, entry-level officers (ELO) and inexperienced LE staff, because of attrition caused in part by low local salaries. Both permanent staff and temporary duty support visits have been restricted by Venezuelan visa issuance, which impinges on mission operations.
  • Between July 2010 and October 2011, the two interim chargés, including the current DCM, relied upon a series of acting DCMs, which contributed to inconsistency and confusion regarding internal direction within the mission and interactions with Washington. While performing front office duties, embassy section heads could not provide consistent supervision for their sections nor adequate mentoring to junior staff.
  • As noted in the Executive Direction section, the front office is committed to the embassy’s MSRP [Mission Strategic and Resource Plan] goals. However, few political and economic ELOs report having read the MSRP. Discussions with section heads suggest that the MSRP is viewed as less relevant to their ongoing reporting and is given little emphasis. They indicate that the plan cannot anticipate reporting on the erratic Chavez government and that opportunities to influence the Venezuelan Government are so limited that some MSRP targets are unrealistic.

The Consular Section’s Constant Struggle:

The typical wait time for NIV appointment for visitors visas at US Embassy Caracas is currently at 264 days.  The OIG report has redacted the current staffing numbers of the embassy, so besides the already known staffing gaps, here are other issues the Consular Section is struggling with:

  • In all Department sections, but especially the consular section, there is a preponderance of first-tour ELOs. In an environment where surging workload and local government hostility combine to fundamentally challenge the mission, recruiting more experienced ELOs would make a difference.
  • With some 250,000 applicants, Embassy Caracas is one of the top 10 nonimigrant visa (NIV) processing posts in the world. In the past five years, visa demand has grown by 77%. [REDACTED] According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Venezuelan visitors spend approximately $2.5 billion in the United States each year, mostly in Florida. By not meeting visa demand, potential tourism export earning (and U.S. jobs) are being lost.
  • A diligent but overextended visa chief manages the unit, supported by a talented deputy. LE staff expressed concerns about the lack of attention to customer service and to factory-like working conditions in the visa unit. The visa chief and deputy have recently introduced a thorough orientation and training program for incoming ELOs, all of whom are first-tour officers.
  •  The commulative effect of an appointment system, convoluted entry process, and crushing backlog, combined with the inevitable staffing gaps and computer system problems, means that consular managers are constantly struggling with resource [REDACTED] challenges.

The Management Section’s Incoherent Services

Management services are incoherent and customer service is poor. Client feedback unanimously points to frustration with lack of information and clarity from service providers, from pre-arrival to post-departure. Management policies and notices do not contain clear information on what the client should expect or where to go for help. Lines of responsibility and authority are so blurred within management functions that no one is clearly accountable for any given task. The management counselor has not clearly defined the responsibilities of each section nor held individuals accountable for their performance.

And nobody knows about nonacceptance of free labor?

The embassy has accepted volunteer work and, on occasion, has asked eligible family members to perform official tasks without compensation. Eligible family members routinely begin work prior to being officially cleared and processed for employment. The Antideficiency Act1 prohibits the acceptance of voluntary services and generally allows uncompensated services only under narrowly defined conditions, such as the 5 U.S.C. § 3111 exception authorizing acceptance of voluntary service from students.

We have to recognize the challenge and stress that comes with living in a state sponsored hostile environment like Venezuela. But it’s hard to read this report and not wonder if some folks just did not know what they were doing or if they gave up trying.  For example:

  • The embassy’s required Designation of Responsibilities document available on the Internet is dated September 2004. That’s the one that says which officer is responsible for what. The OIG report did not say if this document had been updated since 2004, or if it is available but not disseminated.
  • The FSN handbook was written in 2005 and is terribly out of date.
  • Hotel and restaurant survey  which is used for lodging and meals and incidentals expenses for per diem rates have not been updated since January 2006. Caracas was #100 in the most expensive cities in the world for expatriate employees in 2010, and was ranked #51 in 2011.
  • Embassy Caracas has not submitted an updated education allowance survey since 2007. The Department’s Standardized Regulations requires completion of Department form DS-63 report annually for each school that U.S. Government dependents attend.
  • FSN  staff members throughout the mission have never received training, including those in need of technical skills in general services, human resources, and financial management. The mission policy on training dates back to 2004.

One bright light in this report is that of an Assistant Regional Security Officer for Investigations whose cooperation with working-level local law enforcement entities, resulted in 50 arrests and fewer fraudulent documents submitted with visa applications. His investigations into visa malfeasance also led to the dismissal of three FSN staff members in 2010.

The most recent Ambassador to Caracas was Patrick Duddy who served from August 6, 2007 to September 11, 2008, during the Bush Administration, and was expelled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Eight months after that he was returned as Ambassador to Caracas by the Obama Administration. He left the mission on July 2010. That same month, Larry Palmer was nominated by President Obama.  By December 2010, the Venezuelan Government had withdrawn its agrément on the appointment of Larry Palmer to Caracas.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, James M. Derham,  who retired from the Foreign Service in 2008 after a career of more than 30 years is the current Chargé d’Affaires, and just one of the interim chargés temporarily assigned to Caracas since 2010.  I don’t know how much longer he will be in Caracas or if he can effect a mission turnaround during a limited assignment.

2 responses

  1. It was pretty bad (read: coup) when we were there, but is amazingly depressing how it has gone so far downhill. The fact of the matter is that the local political climate makes everything so difficult. It did when we were there and has just gotten so much worse. Here’s hoping for a turnaround there in 2013 (or sooner)…

    • Dear J – I feel depressed reading this report, and I did not even have to live there. The sad thing is with the bilateral relation as bad as they are, and with no amb nominee in sight, it could take years for this mission to recover.