Steely huntsman at helm of embattled US Embassy in Caracas

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In the normally genteel world of high diplomacy, the top U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. has led a chorus of more than 20 nations that have recognized 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 U.S., initially giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

The standoff has thrust the Trump administration into a bizarre, diplomatic Twilight Zone. While working hand-in-glove with Guaido to build a parallel government, the U.S. still depends on Maduro’s de-facto 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 U.S. 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 U.S. policy moves to his staff, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss U.S. planning on the Venezuela crisis with the media.

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

However, many others who have worked with him said his affable demeanor 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Cuba did for decades.

Kimberly Breier, the U.S. 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 Chargé 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 U.S.-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 U.S. diplomats in Venezuela, who are usually ensconced in the hilltop U.S. 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 endeavor for any U.S. 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 colors of the U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. “I Bolivarian President Maduro. I’m still here, in Miraflores Palace, Jimmy.”


Goodman on Twitter: