U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic that the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez could improve relations between the two countries, but they aren’t holding their breath.
“One of the things that happens over 14 years in a government like Venezuela is it really did revolve around one man. So while I’m hesitant to say that the change in an individual, or the passing of an individual, completely changes a relationship,” a State Department official told reporters Wednesday, “he played an outsized role in that government and therefore his absence can have outsized implications.”
That said, Venezuela is now facing elections, as mandated by its constitution. “And all of us know electoral campaigns are not times to break new ground on foreign policy,” the official said.
Not to mention that hours before Chávez’s death was announced, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s anointed successor, accused the U.S. of working to destabilize Venezuela and of causing Chávez’s illness in a rambling 90-minute press conference. Two U.S. State Department officials were expelled from Venezuela following the allegations. Chávez died Tuesday of cancer.
The U.S. reserves the right to reciprocity under the Geneva Convention to expel Venezuela’s diplomats, though no such move has been made, the official said.
The State Department made an attempt at mending U.S.-Venezuela relations after Chávez stepped away from office to focus on his health last year. Chávez had often campaigned on anti-U.S. rhetoric, and relations between the two countries have been strained almost since he took office 14 years ago. A senior State Department official spoke with Maduro by phone in November and a couple of follow-up meetings were held. “To be honest, we didn’t get much of a response,” the official said. “We really hadn’t gotten very far and were not sure whether the government of Venezuela wanted to go down that road.”
The official said that State will wait until after the elections to reach out again, though the White House does plan to send an official delegation to the funeral.
“The [coming presidential] campaign itself may raise issues, may be a difficult campaign for many,” the official said. “We will probably continue to hear many difficult things about the U.S. that will not improve this relationship. It’s very hard for us to tell right now if the current government or the next government will either continue or stop the momentum to a better relationship.”