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.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, yell 'Long Live Chavez!' and sing their nation's anthem after learning that Chavez has died.

The passing of Hugo Chávez removes one of the prickliest thorns in US relations within its own hemisphere and could portend brighter days for US-Venezuela relations – eventually.

But any warming in ties won't happen overnight, especially after the Venezuelan government accused the United States, on the same day Mr. Chávez died, of having a hand in causing his demise.   

Yet as the United States and Venezuela move on from more than a decade of rocky relations that correspond to Chávez’s 14 years as president, one short-term move that the two countries could make to symbolize a turning of the page would be to again send ambassadors to each other’s capitals, some regional experts say.

The US and Venezuelan embassies in those capitals have sat without ambassadors since 2010, when each government rejected the credentials of the other country’s ambassador. Diplomatic relations were even severed for a short period beginning in September 2008.

Yet even if ambassadors are exchanged in the coming weeks or months as a goodwill gesture, no one expects tensions to evaporate from the relationship overnight. Any doubts about that were erased Tuesday when Venezuelan officials expelled two US diplomats it accused of conspiring to destabilize the government. 

Chávez may be gone, but his supporters will still have their hands on the country’s levers of power, Venezuela analysts say – and could keep them there for some time to come.

And the fiery-tongued leader’s anti-American rhetoric won’t lose its influence any faster than will suspicions about US intentions, some regional experts predict.

“Chávez conditioned much of Venezuela to think negatively of the US,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society in Washington. Many Venezuelans won’t forget quickly Chávez’s claims, especially early in his rule, that the Central Intelligence Agency was trying to assassinate him or that the US was behind a 2002 military coup that briefly forced him from office.

“Healing is going to take time,” he says, “and I’m not convinced that whoever takes over after Chávez will be that interested in healing.”

Some are more optimistic.

“I think Venezuela does care about [its relations with the US],” says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American studies and Venezuela specialist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. “Even under Chávez there was talk of hoping to see a rapprochement, and I think most Venezuelans feel there is nothing to be gained from maintaining a contentious relationship.”

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.

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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