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Hugo Chavez era ends: Will US-Venezuela relations improve?

Hugo Chavez passing may intensify the US dialogue with Venezuela on several key issues, including counterterrorism and energy. But many expect healing to take time.

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In fact, the Obama administration established more-intense lines of contact with the Venezuelan government in December, when it became clear Chávez would not return quickly from medical treatment in Cuba. The contacts suggested the administration held out hope of better relations with Venezuela, but administration officials were also clear that the US was not aiming to tip an eventual political transition a certain way.

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The US seeks “a more functional, more productive relationship with Venezuela,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in January, adding that America is “open to dialogue on a range of issues of mutual interest.”

The US is keen to intensify the dialogue with Venezuela on a number of key issues, State Department officials say, including counternarcotics and counterterrorism efforts, energy, and governance and rule-of-law issues.

As for any eventual political “transition [or] succession,” Ms. Nuland said the only US demands were that “it’s got to be constitutional and it’s got to be decided by Venezuelans.”

No doubt, the US will continue to debate how far to go in criticizing Venezuela’s record on upholding basic democratic principles.

“It’s sad the US has not been more public with its concerns” about Venezuela’s adherence to democratic principles and a concentration of powers under Chávez, Chris Sabatini, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, told a Washington audience in January.

That call for a more robust US critique of Venezuela’s political evolution was mild compared with the views expressed by a former US ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, in a September 2012 article for the Council on Foreign Relations. In the article, he urged the US to consider swift economic sanctions and punitive action at the Organization of American States and the United Nations Security Council if the Venezuela election the following month was illegitimate.

Chávez’s easy reelection ended such calls. But a view that the Obama administration has pursued a hands-off approach to what is widely perceived as Venezuela’s retrenchment from democratic principles and rights will probably emerge from dormancy as the country shifts to post-Chávez rule.

One thing that is likely to keep the two countries talking, just as it was the last glue that kept them from splitting, is oil.

The US may import less oil from Venezuela than it did a decade ago, but it is still the fourth largest supplier to the US market. And there’s a reason Chávez – virulently anti-American yet realistic – never cut off oil sales to the US.

As regional energy analysts point out, it’s really the US that has kept Venezuela afloat – and able to extend its generous petro-diplomacy to places like Cuba and Nicaragua. That’s because the US is the only major purchaser paying market rates for Venezuela’s oil. (Major purchaser China pays a discount rate based on a $40 billion loan deal with the Chávez government.)

In other words, despite the bad blood of the Chávez years, the two countries need each other – and will continue to as they adjust to the post-Chávez era.

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