Cables from Caracas—Lost in the Department of Justice’s misguided attempt to prosecute Wikileaks founder Julian Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, and the rhetoric of extremists such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin describing Assange as a terrorist, is the humor in the some of the cables released by Wikileaks. Hugo Chavez’s narcissistic, military socialism is a persistent concern at the State Department. Cables from Caracas illustrate the unusual efforts of foreign service officers trying to take some measure of the man and the country he rules.
Nobody’s Fool—Several “poloffs” (political officers) interviewed Chavez’s former common law wife, Herma Marksman, who warned that the opposition’s description of Chavez as “an idiot” was off base. As a poor child growing up in a rural state, Chavez was influenced by a teacher who admired Fidel Castro. When Chavez was 20 years old, Marksman said, he was already talking about running the country. She also said Chavez identifies with the country’s poor, to whom his five-hour TV broadcasts appeal, and that Chavez describes his enemies as devils because the devil is a powerful symbol among Venezuela’s poor. (Recall Chavez’s comments about the odor of sulfur lingering over the podium at the United Nations assembly hall after George W. Bush spoke there.) Marksman’s claim that Chavez is “focused on his goal of transforming the country and is willing to win at any cost” is as evident as the poloff’s observation that the dictator’s ex-wife “might be biased.” According to Marksman, Chavez “does not have true friends. If he has a problem, he will only confide in his brother … and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.”
Will Hugo Go Nuclear?—Chavez’s lack of confidence in anyone outside his circle of two hasn’t helped his country’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons or energy, according to a June 2009 cable from Caracas. “A plain-spoken nuclear physicist told Econoff that those spreading rumors that Venezuela is helping third countries (i.e. Iran) develop atomic bombs ‘are full of (expletive).'” The physicist said that Venezuela is currently unable to provide such assistance because Chavez “does not trust scientists.” The physicist added that Venezuela’s nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia is “pure political theater as Venezuela is incapable of cooperation with Russia on the development, design, construction and operation of nuclear reactors.”
You Say Arepa, I Say… One snarky cable describes state-owned restaurants that serve arepas at a fraction of their usual cost. Under the heading “Making Socialism Easier to Swallow,” the cable’s author describes the opening of the first Arepara Socialista in a lower-middle class neighborhood. The cable’s author describes the Venezuelan cuisine that Chavez is “branding … as part of his Bolivarian Revolution.” “(Note: “Arepas” are a Venezuelan-style thick cornmeal tortilla usually used for a type of sandwich. End Note.)” And he describes intelligence operatives going into the field to write restaurant reviews: “EmbOffs witnessed a long line of people waiting to get into the restaurant but surprisingly rapid service. … One man in line said he worked in the neighborhood and came every day since the food was excellent and cheap.” The EmbOffs were critical of cheap ingredients such as boxed juice from state-owned stores. The foreign service officer’s conclusion? “Let them eat arepas.”
Lost In Translation?—A confidential cable sent from Caracas in October 2008 describes a diplomatic standoff that ensued when an American Airlines crew member announced: “Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is X.” “(NOTE: In December 2007 Venezuela created its own time zone, moving the clock back half an hour on a permanent basis. The crew member was likely trying to remind passengers of this and to suggest they turn their watches back 30 minutes. END NOTE.)” A passenger who was a friend of a Venezuelan National Assemblyman claimed that the crew member had said “loco Chavez time.” The indignant passenger immediately reported what he heard to a security official, who called Venezuelan Vice President Carriles, who ordered the Directorate for Venezuelan Domestic Intelligence and Prevention to investigate. The crew was detained and the situation further complicated by a report that described the crew member’s comment as “the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women.” (La hora del loco Chavez y sus mujeres is a mouthful in any language.) The standoff ended when American Airlines Country Manager Omar Nottaro offered to order the flight and crew to leave Venezuela as soon as the plane was refueled.