WASHINGTON — The embittering of relations between Venezuela and the U.S. sank so low in recent years that even a McDonald's combo meal and a two-for-one offer from Domino's Pizza were the subject of acrimony.
The tale of the fast-food kerfuffle is one of a multitude of snapshots offered by U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and released to McClatchy that shed light on steadily rising tensions between the U.S. and the government of fiery populist Hugo Chavez.
Many of the snapshots are of singular events such as a tussle over a diplomatic pouch, the parsing of an insult by Chavez, and the travails of U.S. companies operating in Venezuela. But together, they offer a plethora of details of diplomatic strain between the U.S. and its largest hemispheric adversary.
Amid constant skirmishing over small issues, U.S. diplomats remained aware of the stakes for Washington as a petro-rich Chavez sought greater sway.
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"Overall, Chavismo poses a serious threat to democracy not just in Venezuela but throughout the region, and it directly competes against U.S. influence in Latin America," a U.S. diplomat cabled confidentially to Washington in June 2009 as he ended his stint in Caracas.
Caracas and Washington no longer have ambassadors in one another's capitals, and the cables reveal U.S. diplomatic concern that rupture may be in the offing.
In one cable, a U.S. diplomat warned that Chavez's "hate-sowing rhetoric" had convinced many Venezuelans that an oil-starved U.S. would one day invade his country, and that military officers regularly trained soldiers on how to repel invasions.
"One press report," the cable said, "had an officer throwing a rifle to a reservist and screaming, 'The gringos are coming for your women. What are you going to do?' "
Another cable said Chavez was moving inexorably toward a one-party state with a personality cult around "el jefe supremo," or the supreme chief.
"So far, Chavez has not erected statues of himself or put his visage on Venezuelan stamps and currency, but it may only be a matter of time," the 2007 cable says.
The feud over fast food unfolded in late 2008. A cable describing the event was titled: "Venezuelan government versus the combo meal."
Like many of the U.S. cables, it held a slight tone of derision. It noted that a consumer protection law a few months earlier "is wide open to interpretation and has led to odd rulings resulting in frequent restaurant closures and bans on such promotions as fast food combo meals and 'two for one Tuesdays.'"
Armed with a law with only "vague provisions," regulators were targeting restaurants to cut down on promotions leading to "excessive consumption."
A McDonald's executive told the Embassy that of the chain's 134 restaurants in Venezuela, more than half were receiving daily inspections by regulators.
Regulators "explained that in the case of Domino's, 'two for one Tuesdays' discriminated against persons . . . who would like to eat pizza on the other days of the week," the cable said.
The "comical" actions, the five-paragraph cable said, "serve as yet more examples of the Venezuelan government's visceral distaste for big business."
Executives from U.S. automakers, airlines, oil industry service providers and other groups regularly trudged to the U.S. Embassy to complain about matters such as labor strife, the threat of expropriation and late payments from the government.
By April 2009, one cable said, the government owed automakers in Venezuela $2.2 billion, and "their foreign suppliers have cut off shipments until arrears are cleared." The cable message line summed up the situation: "Venezuelan auto industry nearing collapse."
Even as companies such as General Motors and Ford saw Venezuelan operations totter, Chavez issued new threats, warning automakers later that year "to transfer their technology to local companies or be replaced by Chinese, Belarusian and Russian manufacturers," another cable said.
U.S. diplomats repeatedly warned Washington of the tendency by Chavez to demonstrate that his power in Venezuela was nearly unlimited.
One cable noted that Chavez had added a star to the Venezuelan flag, flipped a horse on the national seal to make it run left, not right, and ordered "all Venezuelan clocks changed by thirty minutes to create a unique Venezuelan time zone."
Chavez, it said, dominates daily life, from store shelves to the airwaves.
"Venezuelans can buy a wide range of Chavez paraphernalia from Chavez action figures to Chavez watches to a compact disc of Chavez singing Venezuelan folk songs," the mid-2009 cable said. "He dominates all state media."
A tally of lengthy speeches by Chavez broadcast by television and radio showed that "he has wracked up over 1,200 such hours (50 days) on the air," the cable added.
The cables detail — and even parse — the Spanish words that Chavez uses to describe the U.S., which he calls "the Empire," and its leader, then President George W. Bush.
"Chavez frequently refers to the President by any number of insulting and offensive names such as 'the little gentleman,' 'the drunkard,' 'Mister Danger,' and following his infamous performance at the UN General Assembly, 'Satan,'" a 2007 cable (id 98903) said.
Two months after Barack Obama's inauguration, Chavez used an "extremely vulgar Venezuelan expression" against him, a cable said, going on to explain that it was a not-quite-exact English version of the F-word.
Such derogatory terms held some sting, but U.S. diplomats described more substantive ways in which the Venezuelan government interfered with their work.
In June 2009, the Embassy informed Washington that Caracas wanted to inspect "classified escorted diplomatic pouches." A cable said that on June 2, "Venezuelan officials at the airport denied an Embassy officer access to a classified diplomatic pouch and insisted on inspecting and X-raying the pouch. After a standoff, the Venezuelans agreed to return the pouch uninspected to the U.S. ..."
Under international conventions, such diplomatic material is immune from search or seizure.
In January 2009, Chavez personally threatened to expel the No. 2 U.S. diplomat at the time, charge d'affaires John Caulfield, if it were proven that he'd traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with the director of Globovision, an opposition television network, and three opposition party leaders.
A cable said Caulfield went to Puerto Rico for a wedding "and did not meet with any Venezuelans there." It added that Caulfield "was tipped off by USG officials that he was possibly under surveillance in San Juan by Venezuelan agents."
"That opposition leaders feel compelled to strategize outside of Venezuela and that the GBRV (Venezuelan government) advertizes that it is monitoring their activities speaks to the creeping totalitarianism in Venezuela," the cable said.
A month later, the embassy warned that Venezuela's denial of visas to U.S. diplomats assigned for a stint Caracas "will, if not resolved, bring us to a mission critical situation."
At lower levels, Caracas seemed to want less tension with Washington.
Patrick Duddy, the last U.S. ambassador to serve in Caracas, sent a cable in early 2010 describing how he'd finally gotten a meeting with a foreign ministry official after a six-month wait.
When the meeting wound to a close, the Venezuelan official's assistant approached Duddy's assistant and "evinced relief . . . that at long last a substantive bilateral meeting had been held, even if in an informal setting."
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