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U.S. Hopes for Some Rapprochement After Chávez

Nicolás Maduro, seen here at the United Nations when he served as foreign minister, is virtually certain to emerge as Venezuela's next president. UN Photo/Mark Garten

WASHINGTON, Mar 7 2013 (IPS) - While the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama says it would like to improve relations with Venezuela in the aftermath of the death Tuesday of President Hugo Chávez, officials and independent analysts here believe any rapprochement will take time and faces political obstacles both here and in Caracas.

Given the wave of sympathy from which his hand-picked successor is expected to benefit, as well renewed divisions among the major opposition parties and the degree of the government’s control over the electoral process and influence with the media, experts here also believe that Vice President Nicolás Maduro is virtually certain to emerge triumphant in an election that could take place as early as four weeks from now.

If Maduro were to be elected and lead a government with a broad consensus, it is likely that relations with the U.S. would improve.

“The opposition lost in (the) October (presidential election) and lost again in the (regional elections) in December, and now they’re pointing blame at each other,” according to Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a Washington-based hemispheric think tank. “I think Maduro is in a very strong position.”

But, in order to secure his victory, the vice president will likely seek to consolidate his political base which shares their late leader’s anti-U.S. sentiment, according to analysts here.

On Tuesday, Maduro announced the expulsion of two U.S. military attaches charged with trying to destabilise the country and suggested that Washington may have played some role in infecting Chávez with his fatal cancer.

“The timing certainly made it look like Maduro was using (the charges against the military attaches), as well as the suggestion that Chávez’s cancer had been caused by a foreign conspiracy, to circle the wagons and create unity before what they knew was the imminent death of Chávez,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who moderates the Venezuela Politics and Human Rights Blog.

“I think yesterday was a part of an election campaign, and therefore not necessarily directly related to the process we’ve had of trying to improve the relationship,” one senior State Department official, who called the Maduro’s charges “outrageous”, told reporters in a teleconference Wednesday.

“(I)t may be a difficult campaign for many. We will no doubt continue to hear things about the United States that will not help improve this relationship,” the official, who insisted on not being identified by name, said.

Still, most observers believe that Maduro will be more willing to engage Washington on a number of issues than Chávez, who had initially welcomed Obama’s election in 2008 but quickly grew disillusioned with the new president and declared Washington’s ambassador in Caracas persona non grata in 2010.

For instance, in late November, Maduro reportedly conducted a cordial telephone conversation about possible ways to improve bilateral ties with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roberta Jacobson.

“If Maduro were to be elected and lead a government with a broad consensus, it is likely that relations with the U.S. would improve,” noted Smilde.

“On the one hand, Maduro is a negotiator and was significant in a breakthrough in diplomatic relations with Colombia. One can imagine a similar improvement with the U.S.,” he noted. “On the other hand, the conceptual anchor of Maduro’s ideology is an anti-imperialism in which the U.S. is the more important symbolic foil.

“Maduro will obviously have to govern in a very different way from Chávez. He doesn’t have the same charisma or appetite for control and power,” Shifter told IPS.

“He’s a union leader with a lot of experience in negotiations, so we’ll see a different style that could offer some opportunity for the United States – not to have a warm and close relationship with Venezuela but at least to open up channels of communication and have ambassadors in both capitals. That would be a step forward from what we have now.”

At the same time, however, Shifter warned that the White House itself will likely move very slowly, so as not to provoke right-wingers in Congress who greeted Chávez’s long-awaited demise with undiluted enthusiasm.

They called, among other things, for the administration to retaliate for the two expulsions, a step which State Department officials said they were reviewing Wednesday.

“Hugo Chávez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear,” said Rep. Ed Royce, who has just succeeded the fiercely anti-Chávez and anti-Castro Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator.”

“The problem on the U.S. side of the bilateral relationship is going to be some members of Congress who will be very critical of any sign of rapprochement between the administration and Maduro,” Shifter said. “And they’re not going to want to fight with members of Congress over Venezuela. So they’re going to try to explore these openings but will be quite cautious and careful about doing so.”

Indeed, despite Chávez’s hostility toward the U.S., which reached its zenith after the George W. Bush administration endorsed a failed coup attempt against him in 2002, strong trade relations never suffered during his 14-year tenure.

As noted by Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the influential Council on Foreign Relations, in an op-ed for BBC Wednesday, the U.S. buys more oil from Venezuela than any other country, while Caracas has been a major consumer of U.S. manufactured exports, particularly automobiles.

“(A)s subsequent Venezuelan governments look to adjust their economic policies in the coming months and years, the experience of their (South American) neighbours provide incentives to forge a more amicable bilateral relationship,” wrote O’Neil.

Since November’s exchange between Maduro and Jacobson, lower-level Venezuelan and U.S. officials have reportedly held occasional meetings in Washington to further explore opportunities for renewing cooperation in what the State Department official called “a little bit of a rocky road”.

“We didn’t really begin the substantive portion of those conversations, …so we really hadn’t gotten very far and were not sure whether the government of Venezuela wanted to continue that road when yesterday occurred,” the official added in reference to Chávez’s death.

The official suggested that possible cooperation on counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, citizen security, and economic and commercial issues would serve the two countries’ mutual interests.

The official said Washington will likely send a delegation to Chávez’s funeral Friday and will push Caracas to permit international election monitors, as well as domestic groups, to observe the preparations for and the conduct of the upcoming elections.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

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