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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Venezuela after Chavez
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“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.