No matter how hard the Obama Administration tries to "reset" U.S. relations with Latin America, Hugo Chavez is there to spoil the fun. After coming into office believing that George W. Bush was singularly responsible for frayed relations with a gaggle of radical populist regimes in the region, and all that was needed to set things right was the president extending an open hand and flashing his biography, the administration is finding out that things aren't so simple.
After 18 or so months of the Obama presidency, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez continues to bully domestic opponents, aid and abet Iran's effort to evade international sanctions, and provide material and moral support for Colombian narco-terrorist groups operating next door.
And, now, Chavez has rejected Obama's new ambassador.
It seems the administration's nominee, eminently qualified career diplomat Larry Palmer, who served as President Bush's ambassador to Honduras, provided a series of forthright answers to "Questions for the Record" submitted by the Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN).
Such "QFRs" are part and parcel of the Senate confirmation process and are used by Senators to satisfy themselves that a nominee (or the administration) has a good grasp of the political dynamics in the country to which he has been nominated before their nomination is voted on by the full Senate.
Senator Lugar's questions were admittedly sharp; but then again Ambassador Palmer is not being nominated to go to Uruguay.
Responding to Senator Lugar's question about recent Venezuelan government repression against owners of an independent TV station, Ambassador Palmer replied, "I share your deep concerns about limitations on freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Venezuela." On another question regarding free and fair elections, he replied, "I am also concerned by the increasing centralization of power in the executive branch."
But what really has appeared to have gotten under Chavez's skin was a Palmer comment on the Venezuelan armed forces, that, "Morale is reported to be considerably low, particularly due to politically-oriented appointments." And, when questioned on Chavez's ties to narco-terrorist in Colombia: "I am keenly aware of the clear ties between members of the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas."
Armchair analysts can debate whether Palmer's answers were "diplomatic," but the fact is he had little choice but to speak the truth. Anything less than the forthright answers he gave would likely have led to a hold on his nomination by Senate Republicans and political blowback against the president that his administration was soft-peddling the true nature of the Chavez government and its destructive policies at home and abroad.
Still, the administration deserves credit for not sugar-coating their responses, although now their options are few. They cannot now withdraw Palmer and submit another candidate. The policy bar has already been set. The administration is not going to refute itself and maintain any credibility. They are just going to have to sit tight and let Hugo Chavez decide whether he wants a U.S. ambassador in Caracas. And, until he does make up his mind, his ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, should be immediately informed to start searching on-line for a cheap one-way ticket back to Caracas.
Regardless, at the end of the day, not having a U.S. ambassador in Venezuela will hardly matter in the great scheme of things -- at least to anyone who doesn't believe George Bush was the root of all evil in our hemispheric relationships.