Venezuelan President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, who died March 5 while still in office, long has been known as a strident and vocal opponent of U.S. policies. But there was a time when he actively sought the support of the U.S. government and — in the post-9/11 days when few were challenging America’s with-us-or-against-us approach — Chávez attempted to pointedly ally himself with President George W. Bush.
Feeling the heat from opposition forces at home, Chávez paid a very-short-notice visit to the U.S. Navy’s USS Yorktown (CG 48) on March 2, 2002. The cruiser, along with several other U.S. ships and participants in the annual UNITAS naval exercises — including a Venezuelan Navy support ship — was in port at Willemstad, Curacao, capital of the Netherlands Antilles, just off the Venezuelan coast. The objective for Chávez was a photo opportunity with the U.S. Navy, using the ship to demonstrate solidarity with the Americans.
The U.S. Navy was notified of the intended visit only about a day before the Saturday visit. The flag officer in command of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command hurriedly rushed to Curacao from Puerto Rico, the ship spruced up the wardroom and planned a luncheon menu, and Commander Robert Kerno and his crew prepared to host a visit from a head of state.
While the luncheon was still in progress, your reporter, then an editor at our sister publication Navy Times, arrived to embark the ship for the UNITAS exercises. We waited pierside for the event to end, as the crew was fully engaged in hosting the visit.
Eventually, Chávez emerged, profusely thanked his hosts, made his way down the brow and strolled leisurely toward a group of reporters, taking his time so photographers could take in the Venezuelan president with the large U.S. warship in the background. Chávez told reporters the visit demonstrated his close relationship with Bush, and that his critics, in attacking Chávez, were also attacking the U.S.
The U.S. Navy, for its part, wished nothing more than for little notice to be taken of the visit, and it was barely noticed by U.S. media. This correspondent was asked to consider not reporting it and, since the political visit was not the point of the embark, I agreed. The visit was certainly not a secret — the photo below of Chávez on the ship comes from Wikipedia.org — but it was little publicized in the U.S.
In the end, the gambit didn’t deter Chávez’ opponents. Just over five weeks later, on April 11, 2002, after mass protests in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas in which 20 people were killed and more than 110 injured, Chávez was forced to step down, apparently in advance of a coup planned by high-ranking military officers. Down but definitely not out, Chávez rallied support and was able to return to power on April 14.
But his feelings towards the U.S. hardened greatly. His rhetoric from then on treated the Americans as adversaries, and military spending increased — underpinned, Chávez said, by the threat of a U.S. invasion.
Only a few years after his visit to Yorktown, Chávez declared that an American assault ship visiting Willemstad on a liberty call in between exercises was evidence of hostile U.S. intentions, since there was no other reason for a U.S. Navy ship to be there. Yet, as these photos show, he personally knew otherwise.
Kerno, now retired from active duty, remembers the visit clearly.
“The whole thing was pulled together rather quickly,” he said March 6 in a telephone interview.
“I never looked at it from a political perspective. This was a standard VIP distinguished guest and we needed to put Yorktown’s best foot forward. He was a head of state, we wanted to do our best.”
Kerno remembers Chávez as being “very engaging, very interested. He was in a great mood.” His English, Kerno added, “was much better than I would have expected. We were communicating without the interpreter.”
During the visit, Chávez spoke of his service as a soldier, Kerno said. “He was very proud of his background and military service.”
Chávez presented Kerno with a small book, a paperback biography of 19th century Venezuelan military hero Ezequiel Zamora. The book’s forward was written by Chávez who, Kerno remembered, “seemed to have read everything on Simon Bolivar,” the revolutionary liberator of Latin America.
Kerno commanded two cruisers during a 30-year Navy career, and had a variety of experiences with distinguished visitors coming aboard his ships. “I’ve met heads of state before, and Chávez was an easy-going, smiling, happy-go-lucky guy” during the visit, Kerno said. “He seemed like a guy who was generally interested in what I had to say and about the ship.”
The visit, Kerno said, “was one of the more memorable events I’ve had in the Navy.”
A confidential report was filed by the U.S. Department of State on Chávez’ visit to the Yorktown. The report has since been declassified and posted online , and is presented here. Thanks to the Center for International Maritime Security for bringing this report to our attention.