Steely huntsman at helm of embattled US Embassy in Caracas

Steely huntsman at helm of embattled US Embassy in Caracas

Saturday, February 02, 2019

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In the normally genteel world of high diplomacy, the top US envoy to Venezuela cuts an unusual figure. Born in a small South Carolina town, James Story is an avid hunter and proud collector of memorabilia, featuring iconic revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Now the 48-year-old career diplomat at the helm of the US Embassy in Caracas is on the mission of his life: keeping himself and a core group of committed American diplomats safe as the Trump Administration ratchets up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to force him to cede power.

The US has led a chorus of more than 20 nations that have recognised Juan Guaido, the leader of the Opposition-led National Assembly, as the rightful leader of Venezuela — after he declared himself interim president before a rally of tens of thousands of supporters last week. In response, Maduro broke off diplomatic relations with the US, initially giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

The stand-off has thrust the Trump Administration into a bizarre, diplomatic twilight zone. While working hand in glove with Guaido to build a parallel government, the US still depends on Maduro’s defacto authority for the safety of American diplomats and more mundane affairs. The Trump Administration’s refusal to obey Maduro’s order has also raised concerns that his Government would forcibly expel the remaining diplomats, or cut off electricity to the US Embassy, as one prominent socialist has already threatened.

Managing it all is Story — universally known as Jimmy — who begins each of his 16-hour marathon work days with a motivational message laying out the latest US policy moves to his staff, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to discuss US planning on the Venezuela crisis with the media.

Story declined to comment for this report because he’s not authorised to talk to the press at this politically sensitive crossroads.

However, many others who have worked with him said his affable demeanour masks a steely toughness ideally suited for the current crisis.

“He can deftly sip cocktails with the diplomats but his heart is still somewhere duck-hunting in an early morning blind,” said John Feeley, the former US ambassador to Panama and Story’s former boss at the State Department.

Already, Story has managed to walk things back from the brink, negotiating immunity and privileges for an additional 30 days for the handful of US diplomats still in Venezuela. Maduro has tried to frame the agreement, which hasn’t been made public, as the first step in exchanging interest sections, much like the US and Cuba did for decades.

Kimberly Breier, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, called Story an outstanding leader who puts people’s safety and welfare first.

“He has managed a challenging situation skillfully and with creativity and perseverance,” Breier said. “His presence on the ground in Caracas, and that of our embassy, is critical to advancing our interests and working with the Venezuelan people for a peaceful return to democracy, and an end to this crisis.”

Story was posted to Caracas to serve as the deputy to Charg d’ Affaires Todd Robinson. But by the time he arrived in July 2018 Robinson had been expelled during a previous diplomatic spat, leaving it to Story to restore some civility to a US-Venezuela relationship that has been rocky ever since the start of the late Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution two decades ago. The two countries haven’t exchanged ambassadors in almost a decade.

By all accounts, his down-home Southern charm has opened doors.

In a rare feat for US diplomats in Venezuela, who are usually ensconced in the hilltop US Embassy compound liaising with Opposition politicians, Story has managed to establish a rapport with a number of powerful Venezuelan Government officials, all the while gingerly sidestepping the political minefield running through anti-Maduro Miami that has made engagement a risky endeavour for any US official. He also won the respect of his staff by joining the embassy’s softball team within days of arrival.

Chief among his interlocutors is Rafael Lacava, governor of the central state of Carobobo, who presented him with a painting of two joined fists — in the colours of the US and Venezuelan flags — that now hangs in the entrance to Story’s official residence in Caracas. Other mementos from a long career that took him to Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, as well as several jobs overseeing anti-narcotics policy in the region, include framed doodles by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that he acquired when both were working at the UN Security Council.

“Gaining the trust of others is more art than skill,” said Feeley, who is now a political consultant for Spanish-language TV network Univision. “Jimmy understood he had to operate in the reality he had, not the one he wished he had.”

Story even appears to have won the begrudging respect of Maduro.

“How are you, Jimmy?,” Maduro said in broken English on State TV Monday night, as he welcomed back to Caracas a group of Venezuelan diplomats he had recalled from the US. “I Bolivarian President Maduro. I’m still here, in Miraflores Palace, Jimmy.”

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