Venezuela after Hugo Chavez: why US eyes upcoming elections warily (+video)

Hugo Chavez's handpicked heir, Venezuela Vice President Nicolas Maduro, has already signaled that his election campaign will employ the harshest of rhetoric against the US.

By , Staff writer

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    Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist as he walks alongside the coffin carrying the body of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez as it is paraded through the street.
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The elaborate public funeral Venezuela will hold for President Hugo Chávez Friday will take place with already troubled US-Venezuela relations at a new low point.

The sour relations have US officials downbeat about prospects for a turnaround between the two countries anytime soon. Beyond that, the onset of a turbulent presidential election campaign that is likely to feature the US as an enemy of the deceased leader’s vision for Latin America will also feed Latin America’s deep divides, analysts say – and  could complicate prospects for US relations with the region.

Political heirs of the fiery and anti-US leader made it clear in the hours following the announcement Tuesday of his passing that the forces of “chavismo,” Mr. Chávez’s brand of populist socialism, intend to stoke the flames of anti-American sentiment as a means of rallying Venezuelans left distraught and confused by the president’s demise.

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Chávez’s hand-picked heir apparent, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, accused “imperialist forces” – a clear reference to the US – of infecting Chávez with the disease that took his life. He also announced an investigation into the cause of death that promises to keep the country’s “enemies” at the forefront of Venezuelans’ thought as they adjust to life without Chávez and prepare for a new presidential election.

The Venezuelan constitution says a new election must be called within 30 days of the president’s passing, but no date has yet been set.

A Venezuelan election that exacerbates the divide between the forces of chavismo and an opposition that is more favorable to a free market economy, to democratic rule – and to the US – is likely to extend the country’s political turbulence, regional experts say.

Perhaps even more worrisome for the US, a political fight in Venezuela along Latin America’s ideological fault lines – broadly speaking Chávez’s leftist populism versus Brazil’s model of change through economic growth – risks deepening the region’s divisions and complicating US interests, some analysts say.

US relations with Venezuela “are likely to remain difficult if Chávez’s preferred successor [Mr. Maduro] succeeds Chávez, at least in the near term,” says Patrick Duddy, a former US ambassador to Venezuela who is now a visiting senior lecturer at Duke University in Durham, N.C. 

And turmoil in Venezuela would only harm US goals across the hemisphere, he adds. “Political instability and violence in Venezuela would damage US efforts to promote democracy, increase regional cooperation, combat narcotics, and protect its economic interests in the region,” Ambassador Duddy says.         

US officials who first made contact with Maduro last November (as Chávez’s condition worsened) and had been working to launch a dialogue with the government were dismayed by Maduro’s accusations Tuesday against the US – in part because they suggested the man who may very well succeed Chávez was adopting his mentor’s tactics.  

“One of the consistent elements [of the Chávez approach] was using us [the US] as a foil, as a straw man that could be attacked,” says a senior State Department official. Now Maduro, the official adds, is proceeding “in a away very consistent with the way this government has addressed these matters.”

Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Bush administration, saw other worrisome signs in Maduro’s “ridiculous accusations” against the US. By expelling two US military officials and publicly accusing them of inappropriate contacts with some Venezuelan military officials, Maduro was sending a chilling message to a domestic audience, he says.

“It was a pretty brazen tactic by Maduro to sow doubts about the loyalty of some of his own military,” says Mr. Noriega, now a fellow in Latin American issues at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “There is a struggle going on,” he adds, “the military is not unified, and neither is chavismo.”

In that context, Maduro’s broadside at the US – and his message that contact with US officials is contrary to Venezuela’s interests – hardly augur well for improved relations between the two countries.

Another senior State Department officials says the US will send a delegation to the Chávez funeral, but adds that the coming “weeks and months” of an election campaign aren’t likely to be the time to “break new ground’ in relations between the two countries.

“It may take a little while before the Venezuelan government that emerges from elections is ready to have that conversation a bit more regularly,” the officials said.

Others see this post-Chávez period as the time for the US to forge ahead with closer relations with Latin America – and to publicly hold Venezuela accountable for upholding the democratic principles it signed on to through the Organization of American States.

“I think this is an opportunity [for the US] to reengage in the region – and in fact to reach out and initiate better relations with Venezuela itself,” says Noriega.

With the polarizing Chávez gone, countries in the region may be more interested in moving beyond divisions and working together, he says. “Now that Chávez is dead, it will be interesting to see if leaders in the region summon up the courage to say we’re not going along with this agenda anymore,” an agenda he describes as weakening the region’s commitment to democratic principles and to expanding prosperity.

Venezuela’s post-Chávez presidential election will be a test of those commitments. Senior State Department officials say the US will “continue to speak out” whenever “democratic principles” are violated.

One clue to prospects for improved relations will be in how such observations are received.

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