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.
The sour relations have US officials downbeat about prospects for a turnaround between the two countries anytime soon. Beyond that, the onset of a turbulent presidential election campaign that is likely to feature the US as an enemy of the deceased leaderâ€™s vision for Latin America will also feed Latin Americaâ€™s deep divides, analysts say â€“ and Â could complicate prospects for US relations with the region.
Political heirs of the fiery and anti-US leader made it clear in the hours following the announcement Tuesday of his passing that the forces of â€śchavismo,â€ť Mr. ChĂˇvezâ€™s brand of populist socialism, intend to stoke the flames of anti-American sentiment as a means of rallying Venezuelans left distraught and confused by the presidentâ€™s demise.
ChĂˇvezâ€™s hand-picked heir apparent, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, accused â€śimperialist forcesâ€ť â€“ a clear reference to the US â€“ of infecting ChĂˇvez with the disease that took his life. He also announced an investigation into the cause of death that promises to keep the countryâ€™s â€śenemiesâ€ť at the forefront of Venezuelansâ€™ thought as they adjust to life without ChĂˇvez and prepare for a new presidential election.
The Venezuelan constitution says a new election must be called within 30 days of the presidentâ€™s passing, but no date has yet been set.
A Venezuelan election that exacerbates the divide between the forces of chavismo and an opposition that is more favorable to a free market economy, to democratic rule â€“ and to the US â€“ is likely to extend the countryâ€™s political turbulence, regional experts say.
Perhaps even more worrisome for the US, a political fight in Venezuela along Latin Americaâ€™s ideological fault lines â€“ broadly speaking ChĂˇvezâ€™s leftist populism versus Brazilâ€™s model of change through economic growth â€“ risks deepening the regionâ€™s divisions and complicating US interests, some analysts say.
US relations with Venezuela â€śare likely to remain difficult if ChĂˇvezâ€™s preferred successor [Mr. Maduro] succeeds ChĂˇvez, at least in the near term,â€ť says Patrick Duddy, a former US ambassador to Venezuela who is now a visiting senior lecturer at Duke University in Durham, N.C.Â
And turmoil in Venezuela would only harm US goals across the hemisphere, he adds. â€śPolitical instability and violence in Venezuela would damage US efforts to promote democracy, increase regional cooperation, combat narcotics, and protect its economic interests in the region,â€ť Ambassador Duddy says. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
US officials who first made contact with Maduro last November (as ChĂˇvezâ€™s condition worsened) and had been working to launch a dialogue with the government were dismayed by Maduroâ€™s accusations Tuesday against the US â€“ in part because they suggested the man who may very well succeed ChĂˇvez was adopting his mentorâ€™s tactics. Â
â€śOne of the consistent elements [of the ChĂˇvez approach] was using us [the US] as a foil, as a straw man that could be attacked,â€ť says a senior State Department official. Now Maduro, the official adds, is proceeding â€śin a away very consistent with the way this government has addressed these matters.â€ť
Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Bush administration, saw other worrisome signs in Maduroâ€™s â€śridiculous accusationsâ€ť 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.
â€śIt was a pretty brazen tactic by Maduro to sow doubts about the loyalty of some of his own military,â€ť says Mr. Noriega, now a fellow in Latin American issues at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. â€śThere is a struggle going on,â€ť he adds, â€śthe military is not unified, and neither is chavismo.â€ť
In that context, Maduroâ€™s broadside at the US â€“ and his message that contact with US officials is contrary to Venezuelaâ€™s interests â€“ hardly augur well for improved relations between the two countries.
Another senior State Department officials says the US will send a delegation to the ChĂˇvez funeral, but adds that the coming â€śweeks and monthsâ€ť of an election campaign arenâ€™t likely to be the time to â€śbreak new groundâ€™ in relations between the two countries.
â€śIt may take a little while before the Venezuelan government that emerges from elections is ready to have that conversation a bit more regularly,â€ť the officials said.
Others see this post-ChĂˇvez period as the time for the US to forge ahead with closer relations with Latin America â€“ and to publicly hold Venezuela accountable for upholding the democratic principles it signed on to through the Organization of American States.
â€śI think this is an opportunity [for the US] to reengage in the region â€“ and in fact to reach out and initiate better relations with Venezuela itself,â€ť says Noriega.
With the polarizing ChĂˇvez gone, countries in the region may be more interested in moving beyond divisions and working together, he says. â€śNow that ChĂˇvez is dead, it will be interesting to see if leaders in the region summon up the courage to say weâ€™re not going along with this agenda anymore,â€ť an agenda he describes as weakening the regionâ€™s commitment to democratic principles and to expanding prosperity.
Venezuelaâ€™s post-ChĂˇvez presidential election will be a test of those commitments. Senior State Department officials say the US will â€ścontinue to speak outâ€ť whenever â€śdemocratic principlesâ€ť are violated.
One clue to prospects for improved relations will be in how such observations are received.