The United States and Venezuela begin to make nice

An exchange of ambassadors is part of Obama's policy of engagement over confrontation.

Nestor Ikeda/AP
Bernardo Alvarez, declared persona non grata by the State Department in September, returns to Washington to resume his duties as ambassador of Venezuela on Friday as part of a new thaw in US-Venezuelan relations.

WASHINGTON -- Quietly, and as President Obama inched away from dialogue with Iran, the United States has reestablished full diplomatic ties with another thorn in Washington’s side -- Venezuela.

Fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ambassador returned to Washington Friday, while the US ambassador is expected to return to Caracas next week after nearly a year during which the two diplomats were “persona non grata” in their country of assignment.

The mutual return of expelled ambassadors follows a toning down of Mr. Chavez’s anti-American rhetoric. Chavez, who once declared from the podium at the United Nations in New York that President Bush was like the “devil” leaving the scent of sulphur in his wake, now jabs Mr. Obama as being “more socialist than I am” over the “nationalization” of General Motors. At the same time, the US administration has taken steps to put meat on the bones of Obama’s policy of engagement over confrontation.

Obama has made overtures to Cuba, a close Venezuelan ally, easing Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ contacts with their homeland and opening the door to Cuba’s return to full membership in the Organization of American States. The State Department has sent its top diplomat for Latin America to Bolivia to try to smooth out differences with the leftist government there.

Obama shook hands with Chavez in April at a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders, and it was also then that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton began exploring with Chavez the prospects for normalized ties. Beyond the Western Hemisphere, the US also reinstated its ambassador to Syria earlier this week.

Rocky relations between the two countries reached a breaking point last September when Chavez expelled the US ambassador over complaints from neighboring Bolivia -- a Chavez ally under leftist president Evo Morales -- that the US was meddling in its internal affairs. Washington returned the favor.

But underlying the bad blood are US concerns that Chavez, who has already held his office for a decade, is becoming increasingly authoritarian, while Venezuela continues to fault the US for hegemonic designs.

As a result, relations between the US and Venezuela -- a major oil supplier to the US that, under Chavez, has become a rival voice for Latin America’s path forward -- are unlikely to turn suddenly smooth.

The Venezuelan ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, said as much upon his return to Washington, telling Reuters that Caracas will continue to criticize US foreign policy when it sees fit. Referring to the example of Washington’s failure to extradite Cuban exile and former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles, who is charged in Venezuela in the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airliner, Mr. Alvarez said, “We have rejected and will continue rejecting all these attempts to unilaterally become the world’s judges.”

And no sooner had Alvarez returned to Washington than Venezuela’s foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, was on the phone with Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, to register Venezuela’s objections to comments made by the Pentagon’s top official for the region.

General Douglas Fraser, who assumed his duties as head of the US military’s operations in Latin America and the Caribbean on Thursday, questioned the purpose for Venezuela’s stepped-up military spending, especially with Russia. General Fraser signaled broader US concerns when he said that Venezuela faced no “conventional military threat in the region” so would not appear to need such a military build-up.

In the last four years Chavez has approved the purchase of more than $4 billion in weapons systems, including fighter jets and attack helicopters, from Russia and China. The build-up has alarmed neighboring Colombia, a close US ally whose relations with Caracas have deteriorated in recent years.

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