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Venezuela's Maduro globe trots: building regional ties or a domestic distraction?

On his first official trip abroad, Venezuela's new leader is visiting Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. But a domestic dispute over the legality of Maduro's presidential victory drags on at home.

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (l.) talks with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez at the government house in Buenos Aires, Argentina, May 8. Maduro is on a South American tour that began in Uruguay and will end in Brazil.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP

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After a stop in Uruguay, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro was received in Buenos Aires today by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the Argentine presidential palace, La Casa Rosada.

Speaking on the tarmac of the city airport, Mr. Maduro recalled that former President Hugo Chávez "deeply loved" Argentina, and told local press he came to "ratify that love."

In his first official tour abroad, Venezuela's new leader is visiting Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil in hopes of strengthening relations and deepening cooperation within the South American trade block, Mercosur. However, while a domestic dispute over the legality of Maduro's presidential victory continues to drag on at home, analysts say Maduro's tour is more about saving face domestically than improving relations abroad.

"When there's problems domestically, there's nothing quite like an international tour to make a president look presidential," says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York.

Mr. Sabatini adds that turning to foreign diplomacy is not a new tactic. He points to the example of former US president Bill Clinton, who when embroiled with the Monica Lewinsky scandal embarked on a series of overseas missions. Presidents tend to travel when they are under fire at home, Sabatini says.

'Alleviating' doubts?

Venezuela has been in the throes of a political crisis since Maduro, Hugo Chávez's handpicked successor, inched out opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in last month's election by less than two percentage points – about 225,000 votes. Mr. Capriles and the country's political opposition have since cried foul and demanded a full audit of the vote.

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Julio Burdman, a political scientist at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, says that the trip could help boost Maduro's popularity back in Caracas. After six years at the helm as Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Maduro "feels comfortable in international settings," Mr. Burdman says.

Generating new accords and working abroad, Burdman explains, "helps to alleviate doubts about his legitimacy as he's being recognized internationally as president by friendly nations."

While the United States and the European Union have still yet to recognize Maduro's April 14 victory, Latin American leaders in both The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Mercosur were quick to show their support for Chávez's successor, a move observers say reflects their desire to secure a stable trading partner.

Prior to departing from Caracas on Monday the Venezuelan president said he sought to "guarantee the country's food supply" with his trip. Venezuela relies heavily on imports to feed its population, with an estimated 70 percent of food products imported from abroad.

Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Caracas explains that many imports and deals stalled while Chávez's health deteriorated last year.

'More united'

In Montevideo yesterday, Maduro promised Uruguayan President Jose Mujica a "permanent" supply of petroleum. The presidents signed agreements securing food exports and Uruguayan transportation services to Venezuela. Maduro also pledged his commitment to Mercosur, and the further integration of Latin America.

"Uruguay and Venezuela, more united, in the framework of Mercosur," Maduro said.

Venezuela, which was admitted into Mercosur last year, is set take the reins of the trade block as it takes on the annual rotating chairmanship next month. In addition to brokering new deals, many believe the tour is an opportunity to showcase international support for the soon-to-be trade block boss.

Maduro was presented with the "keys to Montevideo" yesterday and a ceremony in his honor is scheduled to take place this evening at a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires.

To the rest of the world, Romero says this trip, "is a demonstration that [Maduro] has control of his country. That he has the luxury to leave without a trace of instability waiting for him at home."

But with Capriles officially contesting the April poll results before Venezuela's Supreme Court, instability could still await Maduro upon his return home.

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