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.
But any warming in ties won't happen overnight, especially after the Venezuelan government accused the United States, on the same day Mr. ChĂˇvez died, of having a hand in causing his demise. Â Â
Yet as the United States and Venezuela move on from more than a decade of rocky relations that correspond to ChĂˇvezâ€™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 otherâ€™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 countryâ€™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.Â
ChĂˇvez may be gone, but his supporters will still have their hands on the countryâ€™s levers of power, Venezuela analysts say â€“ and could keep them there for some time to come.
And the fiery-tongued leaderâ€™s anti-American rhetoric wonâ€™t lose its influence any faster than will suspicions about US intentions, some regional experts predict.
â€śChĂˇvez conditioned much of Venezuela to think negatively of the US,â€ť says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society in Washington. Many Venezuelans wonâ€™t forget quickly ChĂˇvezâ€™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.
â€śHealing is going to take time,â€ť he says, â€śand Iâ€™m not convinced that whoever takes over after ChĂˇvez will be that interested in healing.â€ť
Some are more optimistic.
â€śI think Venezuela does care about [its relations with the US],â€ť says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American studies and Venezuela specialist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. â€śEven under ChĂˇvez 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.â€ť
In fact, the Obama administration established more-intense lines of contact with the Venezuelan government in December, when it became clear ChĂˇvez 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 â€śa more functional, more productive relationship with Venezuela,â€ť said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in January, adding that America is â€śopen to dialogue on a range of issues of mutual interest.â€ť
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 â€śtransition [or] succession,â€ť Ms. Nuland said the only US demands were that â€śitâ€™s got to be constitutional and itâ€™s got to be decided by Venezuelans.â€ť
No doubt, the US will continue to debate how far to go in criticizing Venezuelaâ€™s record on upholding basic democratic principles.
â€śItâ€™s sad the US has not been more public with its concernsâ€ť about Venezuelaâ€™s adherence to democratic principles and a concentration of powers under ChĂˇvez, Chris Sabatini, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, told a Washington audience in January.
That call for a more robust US critique of Venezuelaâ€™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.
ChĂˇvezâ€™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 Venezuelaâ€™s retrenchment from democratic principles and rights will probably emerge from dormancy as the country shifts to post-ChĂˇvez 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 thereâ€™s a reason ChĂˇvez â€“ virulently anti-American yet realistic â€“ never cut off oil sales to the US.
As regional energy analysts point out, itâ€™s really the US that has kept Venezuela afloat â€“ and able to extend its generous petro-diplomacy to places like Cuba and Nicaragua. Thatâ€™s because the US is the only major purchaser paying market rates for Venezuelaâ€™s oil. (Major purchaser China pays a discount rate based on a $40 billion loan deal with the ChĂˇvez government.)
In other words, despite the bad blood of the ChĂˇvez years, the two countries need each other â€“ and will continue to as they adjust to the post-ChĂˇvez era.