WASHINGTON -- The Venezuelan government is puzzled about why it has become a small side issue in the Democratic presidential primary, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a group with close ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both beat up the late South American socialist icon Hugo Chavez.
It began Monday, when a Clinton-connected super PAC called Correct the Record circulated opposition research that compared Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn, the United Kingdom's new Labour Party leader. It noted that Corbyn had in the past praised Chavez, while Sanders supported a Chavez-driven program in 2006 that provided discount heating oil to low-income Vermont residents. The group helpfully provided four news clips about Sanders' role in the deal.
Maximilian Sanchez Arvelaiz, Venezuela's chargé d’affaires in Washington, said he understood that candidates do what they need to in order to gain an advantage in a campaign, but questioned whether attacking Chavez in a Democratic primary was a winning strategy.
"For the left, Hugo Chavez is/was a reference," he said of his former boss on Tuesday during a lunch with reporters at the Venezuelan residence in Washington. (There is no embassy, and Sanchez Arvelaiz is not an official ambassador, as Venezuela and the U.S. do not have normal diplomatic relations, though Venezuela has been hoping to warm the climate.) He added that Corbyn, who didn't disavow Chavez, handily won his own election to become the Labour Party’s leader.
Later during the lunch, Sanders responded to Correct the Record by sending out a fundraising email blasting them for comparing him to a "dead communist dictator." Chavez had now been insulted not just by those allied with the more moderate Democratic candidate, but one who calls himself a democratic socialist.
Sanchez Arvelaiz, when informed of the new email, paused to decide how to respond diplomatically.
"I can send a couple of good books to Senator Bernie Sanders," he said, mentioning Pirates of the Caribbean by Tariq Ali, as well as Oliver Stone’s documentary "South of the Border."
Francesca Emanuele, an embassy official also on hand at the lunch, noted that Chavez was first elected in 1998 and that Venezuela has consequential elections almost every year.
"How can you call a person 'dictator' if they faced 16 elections?" she wondered.