In this April 17, 2009 file photo, President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez before the opening session of the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. (AP Photo/Mariamma Kambon, Summit of the Americas, Pool, File)

Friend or foe? Venezuela-US relations up in the air

There was no love lost between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ administration and the U.S., and as of now Chavez’ successor is following the same playbook. Vice President Nicolás Maduro already expelled two American officials and alleged the U.S. might have had something to do with Chávez cancer.  Today Senior State Department officials said they were “disappointed” by Maduro’s actions and called some of his statements “outrageous”.   As the U.S. reviews next steps, it does plan to send a delegation to Chávez’ memorial service, and officials say they want to find a “space” to work things out.

The U.S. and Venezuela have not had Ambassadors in two years.  Despite this, the U.S. has had a long relationship with Venezuela, explains Shannon O’Neil,  Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“What has been interesting is that for all the rhetorical animosity over the last decade, the oil flows have continued,” says O’Neil.  “For Venezuela, the U.S. is still the most important export market; we’re 40 percent of their exports, and the relationship will continue,” she adds.

Regarding Maduro’s recent comments, University of Illinois Urbana-Champlain political scientist Damaris Canache says this is part of the Venezuelan Vice President’s campaign for the presidency. “Maduro needs to continue keeping his base of support united,” Canache says.  It would be too costly politically for Maduro to engage in improving U.S. relations now.  “That will have to wait until after the elections,” says Canache.

So the question is, how does the U.S. begin to form relations with the new government?  U.S. officials say the most important thing moving forward is that elections, expected in 30 days, are fair and democratic. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said Chávez’ passing has left a political void, “that we hope will be filled peacefully and through a constitutional and democratic process, grounded in the Venezuelan constitution and adhering to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”

But as Venezuela gears up for elections in the next few weeks, the U.S. is better off standing back a bit, according to O’Neil.  “There is not a lot the U.S. can do actively that would not be counterproductive,” she says.  Neighboring countries like Colombia and Brazil, who have a big stake in the stability of Venezuela, could encourage free and fair elections in a way which might be more difficult for the U.S., O’Neil explains.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said the U.S. should keep a “watchful eye” on the security situation in Venezuela. State Department officials, however, said they have no reason to think there are any security threats to American personnel and the mourning in the country has been quiet and peaceful.

Senior State Department officials say they hope they can forge a future relationship with Venezuela on issues such as regional security or counternarcotics.  For now, there is a certain wait-and-see period. While some analysts worry about an entrenched animosity toward the U.S., other experts say there is reason to believe relations could improve – and say the U.S. should seize the opportunity, in Venezuela and in the region.

“In Venezuela there will be a lot of rhetoric about the elections in the next 30 days, but I think long-term there will be an opening,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, a history professor at Pomona College and the author of  “The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela.”      “The bottom line is, this is not the Latin America of the 1990s or even 2005,” says Tinker Salas. “There are new sectors demanding a mutual conversation.”

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