Playing Hugo Chávez’s Kind of Poker

by Mark Falcoff

The latest crisis, or rather pseudo-crisis, in U.S.-Venezuelan relations concerns statements made in a Senate hearing by the Obama administration’s nominee to be ambassador to Caracas. President-for-life Hugo Chávez is claiming he may not grant Larry Palmer, a career diplomat, the approval to represent the United States in his country. Hide the silver! Send the children to bed!

Ambassador-designate Palmer’s apparent offense was his answer to a question from a senator concerning the presence of Colombian guerrillas along the joint border of the two countries. Palmer had no choice but to report that there were, in fact, such camps — in fact, there are perhaps as many as 1,400 of them. For Chávez, this answer was not a statement of fact — something that, actually, every cat and dog in Latin America knows — but rather a hostile ideological broadside. He now questions whether Palmer is sufficiently diplomatic to represent the United States in his country. The Venezuelan strongman already kicked ambassador Patrick Duddy out of the country in 2008 for no good reason; why not get bigger headlines by refusing to accept a replacement?

This little drama is typical of the way Chávez plays poker — it is always a lose-lose game for the United States. If we withdraw Palmer’s nomination and propose someone else, Chávez has won; if we insist on sending him to Caracas, Chávez can simply withdraw his government’s agrément, and he wins in that case, too!

The way out of this dilemma is simple. The administration should not only withdraw Palmer’s nomination, it should refuse to nominate a replacement. Ever. The presence of a presidential envoy in a fifth-rate capital like Caracas is, after all, largely  symbolic; the day-to-day relationship between the two countries (such as it is) can be carried out by the local diplomatic and consular staff under the direction of a senior career person. And in the meantime, it would be nice if the White House would politely and quietly withdraw approval from Chávez’s ambassador in Washington and put him on the next plane home. Poker is a game that both sides should be able to play.

Mark Falcoff is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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