News Column

US Hopes for Thaw With Post-Chavez Venezuela

March 6, 2013

Silvia Ayuso

Despite the strident anti-US rhetoric from Venezuelan vice president and expected new leader Nicolas Maduro, Washington is hoping that president Hugo Chavez's death will lead to a diplomatic thaw.

Maduro "can be very tough rhetorically, but behind the scenes, he is somebody you can talk to and make a deal with," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told dpa.

Chavez's leftist "Bolivarian revolution" was a constant source of friction with the United States during his 14 years in power. Not only did he habitually slam US "imperialism," but he also forged alliances with some of the United States' biggest enemies, such as Cuba and Iran.

Relations did not really improve with the election victory of Barack Obama, even if the new US president shook hands with Chavez at a Summit of the Americas.

Chavez handed Obama a book with a suggestive title - Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of the Continent, by Eduardo Galeano.

On Tuesday, just a few hours before Chavez died of complications related to cancer in a military hospital in Caracas, Maduro said the president could have been intentionally given the disease.

He accused the US and government enemies of waging "a psychological and dirty war" against Venezuela. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that Caracas had expelled two US military attaches.

The US State Department's response: "This fallacious assertion of inappropriate US action leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, the current Venezuelan government is not interested in an improved relationship."

Many analysts, however, believe that Maduro is a more pragmatic man than his rhetoric makes him appear.

His comments on Chavez's disease could be meant for domestic consumption in the run-up to the elections scheduled to be held within a month's time, Geoff Thale, a programme director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told dpa.

WOLA is a non-governmental organization whose stated goal is to promote human rights, democracy and economic and social justice in Latin America.

Maduro, whom Chavez appointed as his successor, is widely expected to win the elections and to become Venezuela's next president.

Shifter, who has spoken to Maduro several times, emphasized his trade union background. It could make him a more flexible negotiator than Chavez, who came from a military background, he said.

"Maduro is smart enough to know he does not have Chavez's charisma and power of unification, so he is going to have to rely on other strategies, and one of them is to strike deals with those who have been adversaries of the regime until now.

"Maduro is interested in opening channels of communication ... But he has to be careful. He cannot go too far and start putting the American flag in his office and eating apple pie and hot dogs, because he has got to keep the support of the Chavez base, and it is anti-US," Shifter added.

The situation "is going to test his ability as a politician to reassure his movement and the base of the party, and at the same time to try to moderate a little bit and to communicate a little bit with the US and even with parts of the opposition" in Venezuela, something that Chavez did not allow, Shifter said.

He does not see Maduro as a "democrat," but nevertheless as a "very practical guy who wants to stay in power."

Thale said Maduro showed a "pragmatic and flexible" side when he was Chavez's foreign minister.

The Obama administration started laying the groundwork for improving relations well before Chavez underwent his last surgery in December.

The State Department confirmed in January that its Latin America director, Roberta Jacobson, spoke to Maduro in November.

Washington has pegged the possibility of improving relations to measures inspiring "confidence," such as stepping up cooperation against terrorism and drug trafficking.

The US will also keep a close watch on the elections in Venezuela to make sure they are democratic.

If such conditions are met, the two countries could eventually return their respective ambassadors, who were pulled out in 2010.

Once the news of Chavez's death became public, Washington immediately adopted a conciliatory tone, with Obama calling for a "constructive relationship" as a "new chapter" opens in Venezuela.

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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