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US eyes better ties with Venezuela, post-Chavez

A man walks past a mural of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, on January 11, 2013
A man walks past a mural of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, on January 11, 2013. The Obama administration is looking towards a post-Chavez era hoping to improve relations with Venezuela, but analysts say it remains unclear if any successor to

The Obama administration is looking towards a post-Chavez era hoping to improve relations with Venezuela, but analysts say it remains unclear if any successor to the fiercely anti-American leader will embrace new ties.

Even though the exact state of President Hugo Chavez's health is unknown as he languishes out of sight in a Cuba hospital, it is clear US officials believe he may never return to power in Caracas.

Even before Chavez headed back to Havana on December 10 for his fourth cancer operation, American officials were maneuvering to extend an olive branch to top Venezuelan cabinet officials.

Assistant Secretary for Latin America Roberta Jacobson seized the initiative in late November when she telephoned Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez designated his political heir.

"The prospect of the transition from Chavez to another leader opened up the possibility of resetting the relationship and putting it not necessarily on a friendly course, but on a correct course," expert Cynthia Arnson told AFP.

The first essential step would be to reinstate their ambassadors, said Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Caracas and Washington have been operating embassies in each country without an ambassador since a diplomatic spat in 2010.

Jacobson took the opportunity to discuss issues of joint concern such as combating drug-trafficking, counter-terrorism and energy cooperation.

A man stands next to a mural of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, on January 11, 2013
A man stands next to a mural of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, on January 11, 2013. Venezuela is sitting on major oil reserves and accounts for some 10 percent of US oil imports.

Venezuela is sitting on major oil reserves and accounts for some 10 percent of US oil imports.

"We have for some time made clear that we were willing and open to trying to improve our ties with Venezuela," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters this week.

Washington had already proposed some ideas on how to improve ties step-by-step, she added, refusing to go into specifics.

"If the Venezuelan people want to move forward with us, we think there is a path that's possible. It's just going to take two to tango," she said.

But Chavez, who since assuming power in 1999 has long worked to forge an anti-US alliance among leftist leaders in Latin America, "was not really interested" in boosting ties, Arnson said.

Fellow expert Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of Americas think tank, agreed, and also blamed Chavez's intransigence over the years.

"Washington does not want and has never wanted a bad relationship with Venezuela and Washington has been frustrated by the persistence of the poor relationship with Venezuela," he told AFP.

"It has been looking for some times for ways to improve."

And he cautioned that whoever succeeds Chavez -- whether it be Maduro or national assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello recently re-elected in a closing of the ranks by the ruling United Socialist Party -- there is no guarantee ties will take a turn for the better.

Any new leader would have to show he is steeped in the socialist revolution, and the policies so directly associated with Chavez.

A new president would have to "show to the Venezuelan people that they are true to the Chavez legacy, they will have to show that they are truly 'Chavista' and that is how they will gain political legitimacy," Farnsworth said.

A man wears a T-shirt reading, 'Oh! Ah! Chavez is not leaving' on a street of Caracas, on January 11, 2013
A man wears a T-shirt reading, "Oh! Ah! Chavez is not leaving" on a street of Caracas, on January 11, 2013.

Last week after revealing the phone call with Jacobson, Maduro underlined their divergences, stressing the two countries "have absolutely opposed historical and political points of view (and) huge ideological differences."

And conservatives are anxiously watching the US government's moves.

"If Washington and Caracas were to restore ambassadors at this crucial time, it would crush the hopes of the democratic opposition," said Roger Noriega, who was Jacobson's predecessor under former president George W. Bush.

He argued such a move would "legitimize Maduro and the Chavista succession, and interfere with ongoing US law enforcement investigations against the Venezuelan narcostate."

How the political crisis will play out in Venezuela remains unclear as Maduro prepared to fly back to Cuba on Friday for another Chavez bedside visit.

Chavez's symbolic inauguration went ahead Thursday in the absence of the 58-year-old president after the Supreme Court ruled he could postpone his swearing-in indefinitely.

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