Hugo Chávez's ex-wife gives Washington insights into strongman's psyche: WikiLeaks

The Clinton and Bush administrations were flummoxed by Hugo Chávez's anti-Americanism. Rabid and inexplicable, it started soon after Chávez was elected Venezuela's president in 1998. During his presidential campaign, on the other hand, he'd presented himself as a moderate seeking a "Third Way" between socialism and capitalism.

Venezuela had traditionally been pro-American, aside from the occasional burning of an American flag outside the U.S. Embassy or a blood-thirsty mob attacking Vice President Richard Nixon's limo in 1958.

The likes of Chávez had never been seen in a Venezuelan leader. What made Chávez tick?

By 2004 -- well into President Bush's first term and six years into Chávez's -- Washington still apparently didn't know. However, the Bush administration finally wanted answers, having belatedly realized it had been distracted for too long by 9/11 and the war on terror.

In Caracas, accordingly, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy sought out an interesting source of information -- Chávez's former common-law wife, Herma Marksman. A history professor, Marksman lived with Chávez for nine years between 1984 and 1993. In Venezuela, such arrangements are common.

According to a confidential diplomatic cable dated July 9, 2004, and released by WikiLeaks, the officer's objective in interviewing Marksman was to understand "the development of Chávez's political ideology."

Among highlights of the cable based on Marksman's comments:

*Chávez as a poor youngster was influenced by a teacher who admired Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Ambitions from an early age, Chávez imagined himself running the country as a 20 year-old.

*As a junior officer in Venezuela's Army, Chávez fell under the influence of Douglas Bravo, a former communist and guerrilla leader during Venezuela's 1960's communist insurgency. It was Bravo, not Chávez , who developed the philosophy of the "Bolivarian Revolution," which takes its name from Venezuelan liberator and national hero Simon Bolivar. A cornerstone of the Bolivarian Revolution is close civil-military cooperation.

*"Marksman stated that Chávez is loyal to no one and does not have true friends. If he has a problem, he will only confide in his brother, Adan, whom she characterized as a communist, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro," wrote the Embassy officer.

According to WikiLeaks, the full cable was not available and so it provided a "partial extract."

Interestingly, the WikiLeaks cable provides nothing new, but echoes much of what Venezuela's news media had reported well before 2004. In short, the cable is remarkable for the lack of insider's knowledge one expects of diplomatic cables.

Marksman, for instance, had been interviewed by Venezuela's media numerous times before 2004. In addition, two Venezuelan journalists published a well-received book in 2004 that mentioned much of what was contained in the cable. Marksman is mentioned in numerous passages of "Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of the Venezuela's Controversial President."

If the cable's information was new to anybody in the Bush administration, this suggests the administration in 2004 was as behind the curve on Chávez as the Clinton administration had been in 1998.

Consider Clinton-era Ambassador to Venezuela John Maisto. He regarded former coup leader Chávez as democrat who'd traded the bullet for the ballet. Maisto, according to former Heritage Foundation analyst John Sweeney, was "a career diplomat strongly associated with the Democratic Party and Liberation Theology ideas."

"Maisto was always soft on Chávez, like he was soft on Daniel Ortega during his stint as Ambassador to Nicaragua in the 1990s, before he was sent to Venezuela," Sweeney wrote in an essay, "Playing the Washington Blame Game."

Whatever became of Maisto after leaving Caracas? Incredibly, as Sweeney points out, Maisto "became the first senior appointee on Latin America in the Bush administration."

Eventually, Chávez's anti-Americanism had its intended effect -- poisoning the views of millions of Venezuelans about the U.S.. Accordingly, the U.S. Embassy finally decided it must respond with a major campaign to counter such anti-Americanism. 

It sent a confidential cable on March 26, 2008: "Embassy Strategic Communications - Countering Chavez' (sic) Anti-Americanism." It stated: "The strategy's goal is to counter the active and deliberate campaign by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) to instill in the population a negative perception of the US. and distort more than 100 years of close and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries. Regrettably, the BRV has had some success. From a pre-Chavez level of over 65% approval, today the positive image of the US has fallen to a historic low of 31% in Venezuela."