A conversation with Ambassador Patrick Duddy


CARACAS, Venezuela — For what it’s worth, here’s some more of the conversation from last Friday with Patrick Duddy, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 until 2010 and who kindly gave me nearly a half-hour of time to discuss current U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

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The late president Hugo Chávez ejected Duddy from the country on September 11, 2008, though Duddy returned a few months later, and I was curious as to his view of U.S.-Venezuelan relations especially because he served under both U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Obama’s appointee to succeed Duddy, Larry Palmer, was rejected out of hand by Chávez in 2011, and the post continues to remain vacant.  Palmer now serves as ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

Duddy, a veteran U.S. diplomat, has served throughout Latin America, including Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia.

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On the policy differences between the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama on Venezuela:

It would be easier to underscore the commonalities between the Bush and Obama administrations. I served as ambassador from 2007 to September of 2008 for President Bush, and then as you know, I was expelled on Sept. 11, 2008, spent some months out of the country, [and] returned the next summer as President Obama’s ambassador…

Both administrations, while I was ambassador had a pretty clear message which was we thought… both sides would benefit from a more productive relationship.

On Maduro and potential U.S. relations in a Maduro administration:

He was always very much in sync with President Chávez, and that included President Chávez’s public, virulent, anti-American rhetoric. So as I’ve said to a number of others, I think it would be naive under the current environment to expect him to walk away from those earlier positions. He is, after all, running as President Chávez’s personal preference as successor. He is running as a representative of chavismo and a central part of the chavista foreign policy, particularly when Nicolás Maduro was foreign minister, was the effort by the Chávez government to forge relationships in part specifically to confront the United States and to limit the reach and influence of the United States within the Latin American region and around the world. This was very explicitly part of the chavista foreign policy, and foreign minister Maduro was the spokesman for that policy anytime President Chávez was not advocating it personally….

I think that in the short term it is unlikely that we will see a significant improvement in the bilateral relationship if Maduro is elected in his own right. I think that there is a clear message in a number of things that he’s done in the last couple of months as Vice President or, as now, interim president. He expelled two members of the American mission, two American attachés on the very day President Chavez died… and since then, he has, preposterously, at times tried to suggest that somehow the U.S. might have infected President Chávez with the cancer that eventually killed him. The anti-American rhetoric has continued to be a very strong element in the public discourse, even since President Chávez’s death.

On whether Maduro might tone down anti-American rhetoric following the election:

It’s not impossible, but there’s been no indication that he is considering it, and one of the things we’ve seen in the past, even with President Chávez throughout his 14 years in office there were moments when there was an apparent thaw developing, but it didn’t last very long. There seems to be a penchant within chavismo to blame the United States for many of the ills that they see as bedeviling the country or the hemisphere. This is notwithstanding the fact that we continue to be their largest trading partner, and that according to some calculations, the importance of trade with the United States is greater than it might otherwise be, specifically because they have been using discounted financing, etc., through the PetroCaribe initiative to build relationships with others around the hemisphere.

They’ve also essentially mortgaged a good bit of oil production to the Chinese, as they’ve taken nearly $40 billion in loans from the Chinese, much of which will be repaid in product.

In the meantime, the U.S. continues to buy between 880,000 and 900-and-some-odd-thousand barrels of oil a day from Venezuela. The sales to the United States are at full price. Because a significant portion of current production is sold with discounted financing or, in the case of Cuba essentially using a barter calculation, the income from the sale of oil to the U.S. represents a greater portion of Venezuela’s income would be the case if all of the oil were sold at market prices.

The PetroCaribe program offers 40% discounted financing to PetroCaribe members, and oil shipments to Cuba are largely compensated through technical assistance and the loan of various professionals as well as some discounted financing, I imagine.

Sales to China, which have increased substantially, are partially directed at repaying loans. So some of the income from those sales has already arrived and either is being or has been spent.

It’s a very curious situation. We are frequently referred to by the chavistas as the empire; President Chávez would even sometimes refer to us as the enemy, and yet trade with the United States remains immensely important to Venezuela. And, the oil industry is virtually the only industry that’s bringing in significant receipts. Basically over 95% of all their foreign exchange earnings come from oil, and over 50% of the government’s budget comes from export earnings. So, oil is as important — arguably more important — than ever.This is because many of the industries which they’ve expropriated or nationalized, are functioning at lower levels of productivity than previously. Consequently, this country that was formerly a net exporter of food items, for instance, is now a net importer. So the United States is as commercially as important to Venezuela as ever — though I would argue they are somewhat less important to the United States.

This is in no way acknowledged or reflected their political rhetoric.

On whether China might push Venezuela toward economic reform:

I don’t think that is the Chinese approach in the countries where they have become more significantly invested. I can’t think of many examples where the Chinese have recommended policy prescriptions to a country like Venezuela as long as the country articulates acceptable conditions for Chinese loans or investments.

On Henrique Capriles:

I think he’s an energetic, highly intelligent, concerned public servant. I would note he’s frequently vilified in the presidential campaign as a representative of the right, [but] he actually represents a coalition of parties that span the political spectrum. I haven’t been there for his national campaigns, but what I have read [in] the positions he’s articulated, suggests he is committed to continuing the successful social programs, the misiones, that the Chávez administration has run. One area where he has seemingly been willing and careful to make a distinction is he has talked about the need to make sure Venezuela’s oil resources generate income for domestic use in Venezuela, and so there seems to be a sense that he would be much less likely to continue at least some of the oil-financed foreign policy initiatives, but very specifically he seems to have focused on the oil relationship with Cuba.

Photo credit to Noticias365.

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