547. Telegram From the Embassy in Venezuela to the Department of State1

9001. Ref: Caracas 8987.2

President Leoni’s reaction to my conversation this morning with Mantilla was prompt and vigorous. I saw him at his request late this afternoon. The President said he had been greatly concerned by Mantilla’s description of his conversation with me. Our position implied to him a US tendency to wash its hands of the situation because of preoccupation with serious problems in other parts of the world. He was able to understand this but felt that it left Venezuela in the position of fending for itself on matters of vital importance to its security. He asked rhetorically whether it would not be necessary for Venezuela to turn to France for military equipment to defend itself now that there was the implication that the US would not assume responsibility and did not, in any case, want to furnish Venezuela with equipment at least equal in quality to that secured by the Cubans from the Soviet Union. He said that Venezuela might even find itself in the position of being forced to come to terms with the Soviet Union for its own protection. The President spoke in this vein for some time and I listened patiently, knowing from experience that he was blowing off steam.
After he finished, I read suitable excerpt from Deptel 2752313 to give him the flavor of the Department’s position as I had previously [Page 1140] described it to Mantilla. This then produced another monologue along the same lines.4
[I] then told the President that in my opinion he was misinterpreting the Department’s position. We were most definitely not washing our hands of Venezuela’s problem. We understood and appreciated Venezuela’s position at this critical electoral period with respect to very clear efforts by the Cubans to cause trouble. We had access to the same intelligence information he did. The Department’s reaction, I said, was that of a friend and ally offering advice. We were counseling caution and the importance of playing the game according to the rules to avoid giving our common enemy an argument against Venezuela which could be used effectively in the UN and other international forums and as an excuse for reprisal. This was the tactic followed by us in our dealings with Cuba, the Soviet Union and the Communist world as a whole in the face of provocation. We felt it important for Venezuela to act only when sure of its position. In effect, I said, we were asking the President to “cool it.” This apparently struck his fancy since he smiled broadly and visibly relaxed.
The President said that there was no question that the Cubans would allege that the vessel was seized outside of Venezuelan territorial waters. Venezuela’s position was that the vessel was seized within Venezuela’s territorial waters. There was no reason to believe the Cubans more than the Venezuelans. In the case of the Pueblo, the North Koreans claimed that it was seized within North Korean territorial waters while we claimed it was seized outside of territorial waters. As far as the President was concerned, Venezuela has acted in accordance with the rules and very definitely intended to do so in the future—that is, exercise its sovereignty over suspicious vessels when they were in Venezuelan territorial waters. He said Venezuela had no desire to impede the right of innocent passage. The important thing was that the passage had to be innocent. If foreign vessels wanted to transmit Venezuelan waters, there was nothing to prevent them from doing so by notifying the Venezuelan authorities of their intention. If, however, [Page 1141] foreign vessels were found in Venezuelan waters, particularly vessels of countries to be considered hostile, it was incumbent upon the GOV to make certain of their bona fides. In this case, the Cuban fishing vessel was called upon to stop. Instead of acceding to this legitimate request, it ignored it, therefore rendering itself suspect. The President said that as far as he was concerned, any Cuban vessel found in Venezuelan territorial waters was going to be looked upon as suspicious. Fidel Castro was now on notice to that effect.
The conversation then turned to the domestic situation. The President said that the Communists presumably with Cuban assistance were planning to stage disturbances in Caracas with the allegation of electoral fraud. Subversive elements were infiltrating Caracas for that purpose. Recent assistance from Cuba was substantial and was continuing. A UPA announcement published in Ultimas Noticias on November 18 for all practical purposes represented a declaration of war. The GOV did not look upon this threat as dangerous but it was required to take all precautionary measures. The investigation of the Cuban vessel had to be appraised in the light of this situation.
Although I do not think that the President’s ire and preoccupation over our position has been eliminated, I do believe that I left him in a considerably more relaxed state of mind and conscious of the need for caution in the future. I think it important that we have his problem in mind during any UN debate which may ensure and avoid statements which might tend to exacerbate GOV suspicions and concern without necessarily supporting this specific Venezuelan action, in the debate which may take place, reference by us to historically demonstrated Cuban subversive intervention in Venezuela and to its continuation would be in order and well received in Venezuela and other parts of LA. The Communists would do no less for their allies.5
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL US–VEN. Secret; Priority; Limdis.
  2. In telegram 8987 from Caracas, November 21, Bernbaum reported: “Due unavailability FonMin until tomorrow morning, I conveyed substance reftel [Document 546] to Manuel Mantilla SecGen Presidency. He said would immediately inform President Leoni. He showed understanding our position but emphasized importance of not giving Cubans idea US so worried over danger any problem with Cuba as to give Castro idea he could operate with impunity. He hoped Cubans would not get this impression from our position in UN debate. I said this obviously delicate problem and assured him that what I just said strictly between US and Venezuelan Government.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL US–VEN)
  3. Document 546.
  4. In a November 29 letter to Vaky, Bernbaum expressed fear that emphasizing Cuban access to “highly sophisticated equipment” may have backfired, noting “the emotional reactions of both Leoni and Leandro Mora to our admonition as an indication that they could not count on U.S. support.” Although Leoni only hinted at the consequence, Leandro Mora was more explicit: if the Venezuelans “did not get the necessary equipment from us they would turn to Europe.” Bernbaum admitted: “I have been kicking myself for having conveyed that portion of the Department’s telegram to Leoni. We are now, unfortunately, in the position of having stimulated a desire, even demand, by the Venezuelans for the kind of equipment we don’t want to furnish them and probably cannot furnish them in view of the temper of our Congress. I am afraid that both ARA and I fell down on this one.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–4 VEN–CUBA)
  5. The Alecrin was allowed to return to Cuba on December 20, nearly 3 weeks after the Presidential elections on December 1. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry released a statement admitting that, “although vessel’s way of proceeding was suspicious, no proof was found to confirm that ship was being used for transport of guerrillas or weapons.” (Telegram 9396 from Caracas, December 21; ibid., POL 33–4 CUBA–VEN)