Venezuela: Nicolas Maduro’s Theory of Everything — Blame The Yanquis!

Posted: 19:07 EST
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Saturday was going swell and all until I saw the news out of Venezuela. Apparently, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is not handling the TP for oil offer from Trinidad and Tobago very well.  The Caracas Chronicles calls it Revolutionary TPlomacy or quite simply “toilet paper diplomacy.”  It’s not  just toilet paper, of course,  but …

“The concept of commodity sharing is simple -– the Government of Trinidad and Tobago will purchase goods identified by the Government of Venezuela from T&T’s manufacturers, such as tissue paper, gasoline, and parts for machinery,” Persad-Bissessar said.

 

 

Running out of TP.  A TP-oil swap.  While you’re digesting that, take time to read Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez’s New Yorker piece, Comedians Waiting for Cars and Coffee.

Bloomberg Business reported that due to the plunging oil prices, “Venezuela’s economy will contract 7 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, while inflation, which accelerated to 69 percent in December, is already the fastest in the world.”

In 2013,  Venezuela Kicked Out Top US Diplomat, Two Other Officials For … Wait For It ….Blackouts!

In 2014, Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicked Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests

It’s that time of year again.  One wonders when is President Maduro going to declare “Blame the Yanquis for Everything” as the national motto? Of course, sometimes, it just has to be somebody closer.

On February 19, the twice elected mayor or Caracas, Antonio Ledezma was arrested reportedly by some 80 men on charges that he was part of a conspiracy to mount a coup against the Maduro regime.

According to The Economists, this is just the latest of a dozen alleged plots against the president whose government has approval ratings below 20%.

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Here’s something shocking; I’ll never look at a box of cereal the same way again:

 

The NYT also reported that four American missionaries were detained on Wednesday in Ocumare de la Costa, a small coastal town west of Caracas.  The missionaries from the Evangelical Free Church in Devil’s Lake in North Dakota were reportedly providing medical aid to the coastal town’s residents and support to a local church. I don’t know about you but this is not hopeful news for American tourists or for approximately 36,000 Americans living in Venezuela.

 

And there were dueling protests.

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Because what do you do when queues for food are getting longer?  Hold a  major rally “for sovereignty and against U.S. interventionism,” claro que sí!  TeleSUR reported  that during the rally, Maduro announced that he would “reduce the number of U.S. diplomats working in Venezuela.”  The report includes the following actions directed against the United States:

  • Maduro to cheering crowd: “I have ordered the foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, to immediately, in compliance with article 11 of the Vienna Convention, to reduce and minimize the number of U.S. embassy officials in Venezuela. They have over 100 officials, while in the U.S. we have no more than 17.”
  • Rodriguez stated that current United States diplomats in Venezuela will have to re-apply for their visas.
  • The U.S. embassy will be required to inform his government of meetings that it has with different sectors of Venezuelan society.
  • United States citizens will have to pay the same price – in dollars –  “for obtaining a visa to travel to Venezuela as the U.S. currently charges Venezuelans to travel to the U.S.” (see the Visa Reciprocity Schedule note that fees are for visa processing and not for visa issuance).
  • Lists Americans who will not be allowed to travel to Venezuela “because of their involvement in human rights violations.” For starters, the list includes George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, George Tenet, Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio, Ileana Ross-Lethinen, and Mario Díaz Balart.

 

 

It’s worth noting that the U.S. Embassy in Caracas is one of the top 10 nonimmigrant processing posts in the world.  In FY2013, the embassy issued 204,758 visitor’s visas and 6,184 student visas (pdf).  The wait time to get an appointment for a visitor’s visa in Caracas is currently 59 days.  Although the reported reduction of the US Embassy Caracas staff has not been confirmed by the State Department, it is highly likely that if it proceeds, the US Embassy Caracas will soon return to the 2011 wait time for appointments for visitors visas which hovered at 264 days. Or depending on how many consular officers will be left at post after this reduction of staff, we could see a much longer wait than that for Venezuelan applicants.

Here’s something else: in FY2013,  124 diplomatic visas (A-1, A-2) were issued to Venezuelan officials assigned to the United States.  That’s a lot more than “we have no more than 17” that the Venezuelan president announced at his blusterous rally.

In any case, the last Senate-confirmed Ambassador to Caracas was Patrick Duddy who served from August 6, 2007 to September 11, 2008, during the Bush Administration. He was later 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.

On October 1, 2013, the Venezuelan Government declared the U.S. charge d’affaires persona non grata and ordered her expulsion.  The United States Government reciprocated by declaring the Venezuelan charge d’affaires persona non grata. The U.S. Embassy in Caracas is currently headed by career diplomat Lee McClenny who assumed post as Chargé d’Affaires in July 2014. The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C. is currently headed by the former Venezuelan ambassador to Brazil, Maximilien Sanchez Arvelaiz.

Despite the difficult bilateral relations, we anticipate that Venezuela and the United States will continue to maintain diplomatic relations and embassies in one another’s capitals. Why? Below via the Congressional Research Service:

Venezuela remains a major oil supplier to the United States, even though the amounts and share of U.S. oil imports from the country have been declining because of Venezuela’s decreasing production and the overall decline in U.S. oil imports worldwide. In 2013, Venezuela provided the United States with about 806,000 barrels of total crude oil and products per day, about 8.2 % of total such U.S. imports, making Venezuela the fourth-largest foreign supplier of crude oil and products to the United States in 2012 (after Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico). This is down from 2005, when the United States imported 1.53 million bbl/d of total crude oil and products from Venezuela, accounting for 11% of total U.S. imports.129 According to U.S. trade statistics, Venezuela’s oil exports to the United States were valued at almost $31 billion in 2013, accounting for 97% of Venezuela’s exports to the United States.

The CRS report also notes that Venezuela is scheduled to have legislative elections in September 2015, and that a recall referendum for President Maduro is not possible until 2016. The country’s next presidential election is not due until December 2018.

So what’s in the fopo fortune cookie? “The next 3-4 years will continue to be loud and noisy. The Yanquis will be trotted out at fault at every opportunity.”

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US Embassy Caracas FSN Arrested on Conspiracy/Bribery Charges in Visa Applications Scheme

Via DOJ, the following press statement dated May 7, 2012:

U.S. Embassy Employee Arrested on Conspiracy and Bribery Charges in Scheme Involving Visa Applications
– Defendant Worked at Embassy in Venezuela –

WASHINGTON – A visa assistant for the United States Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, has been arrested on federal charges stemming from a scheme in which he allegedly accepted payments to aid people in facilitating visa applications, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and Scott Bultrowicz, Director of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, announced today.

Christian Adolfo Paredes Uzcategui, 43, of Caracas, Venezuela, was arrested May 4, 2012, in Washington, D.C., on one charge of conspiracy and two charges of bribery. He appeared today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He pled not guilty and remains in custody pending a hearing on May 21, 2012. If convicted, the defendant could face up to five years in prison for the conspiracy charge and between two and 15 years for the bribery charges.

According to the charging documents, Paredes has been employed at the Embassy in Caracas since May 1997 and most recently worked in the Embassy’s Consular Section. As a visa assistant, he had access to Embassy databases and assisted in the processing of visa applications submitted by foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States.

Between March 2011 and January 2012, according to the charging papers, Paredes allegedly conspired with another individual to obtain illegal payments in exchange for facilitating applications for United States non-immigrant visas. The charging documents state that Paredes received more than $10,000 from the other individual, who was working with people who previously had been denied visas.

The filing of a criminal charge is merely an allegation that defendants have committed a violation of criminal law and is not evidence of guilt. Every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty in a court of law.
This case is being investigated by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and is being prosecuted by Special Assistant U.S. Attorney David Mudd of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

The original statement is here.

This report only says that the Foreign Service National employee (also known as LES or Locally Employed Staff) was arrested in Washington, D.C. Since Mr. Paredes is habitually a resident of Caracas, Venezuela, one has to wonder what he was doing in Washington, D.C. Of course, he could have been in the district on a personal trip, but why would he visit Washington, D.C. instead of say, Orlando, New York or Los Angeles.  Unless, he was in the district to attend a training course at FSI. Which was how, Jordanian national, Osama Esam Saleem Ayesh of US Embassy in Baghdad was charged with Theft of Public Funds and Conflict of Interest. That one was actually arrested as he got off the plane in Dulles on his way to attend a State Department training course in Arlington, Virginia.

Domani Spero

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.
  • [REDACTED]
  • 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.
  • [REDACTED]
  • 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.