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Washington's diplomatic tiptoe with Caracas

Washington's diplomatic tiptoe with Caracas
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With Venezuela in line for a new leader, the United States is looking to improve ties with a minimum of disruption. President Hugo Chavez has been the most outspoken anti-US leader in Latin America. Washington hopes calmer voices will prevail in Caracas. Experts in the US capital tells us what may be in store.

Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, said: “This is a very polarised country and there is a lot of mistrust, a lot of rancour, and if Chavez dies, there just could be a lot of struggling and jockeying for power on all sides and there may not be a lot of order. In that case, the armed forces probably have to play a very important role.”

Promoting political stability in the fourth-largest supplier of US oil imports is high on Washington’s agenda.

Improving a pragmatic relationship would ideally mean stronger counter-narcotics coordination and energy cooperation, but also more pluralism in Venezuela.

Eric Olson, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said: “There is engagement and intense interest in what goes on there and overall a desire to remain engaged and to see that Venezuela’s democratic transition be preserved and built upon.”

Underlying this remark is the nature of leadership in Venezuela; Chavez taught the people to resent the US, even while he did major business with it.

Shifter said: “The oil is still flowing from Venezuela to the United States. Venezuela needs it to sustain its economy. Under Chavez the Venezuelan economy has been very dependent on oil, as it was before, and the United States is the main consumer, the main market, even though they have tried to diversify. It is just that everything is set up to favour the United States.”

Chavez championed a Latin America free of US influence and built alliances with US enemies. Yet neither of these sides to the extrovert leader benefited Venezuela’s economic efficiency – and they made it difficult for US administrations to talk to Caracas.

Olson said: “[There was] a lot of harsh rhetoric from Chavez against the United States, and the US has been critical of some aspects of the Chavez government, obviously. So it has been somewhat cold, but underneath that is always a desire on the part of the United States to have communication with Venezuela, to establish normal sort of relations.”

The US and Venezuela were close allies before Chavez led his country. There may be an opportunity to redevelop better relations now.

Our correspondent in Washington, Stefan Grobe, said: “The Obama administration is already planning for the post-Chavez era, although the State Department has been very careful not to show it. On top of the wish list is an exchange of ambassadors. That would give the embassy behind me a real meaning.”

The countries do not have ambassadors accredited to one another.