The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez removes one of the United States' foremost geopolitical foes from Latin America, sparking hope among U.S. officials that the ensuing changes could lead to improved relations in the region. But it won't be easy.
The United States and Venezuela have shared a rancorous relationship since Chávez was first elected in 1998. Chávez angered multiple U.S. presidents by establishing ties to regimes in countries like Cuba and Iran that are hostile to the United States, and for fomenting anti-U.S. sentiment in other nations in the Western Hemisphere. And the Chávez regime repeatedly accused the U.S. of plotting to overthrow his rulership, fueling distrust between the two countries.
See Also: 10 Outrageous Quotes by Hugo Chavez
Relations have become so frayed that the U.S. and Venezuela have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Those tensions were evident even on Tuesday, the final day of Chávez's life. Venezuela expelled two U.S. embassy officials from the country on allegations they tried to destabilize the country. Upon their ejection, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro even suggested that U.S. interests were behind the cancer that eventually claimed Chávez's life.
But now that Chávez has passed away, elected officials see an opening to reestablish ties with Venezuela.
"Hugo Chávez ruled Venezuela with an iron hand and his passing has left a political void that we hope will be filled peacefully and through a constitutional and democratic process," Senate Foreign Relation Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. "With free and fair elections, Venezuela can begin to restore its once robust democracy and ensure respect for the human, political and civil rights of its people."
"It is my sincere hope that Venezuela's leaders will seek to rebuild our once strong friendship based on shared democratic and free enterprise principles," added Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The path, however, could be difficult.
Venezuelan officials have said a new election will be called within 30 days. That contest will likely pit Maduro against Henrique Capriles Radonski, an opposition leader who touts free market policies and is perceived as friendlier to the U.S. But it's not clear that Capriles will fare better than he did in October, when he was defeated by Chávez.
The former president sparked a passionate and loyal following among Venezuela's poor and lower-classes that's morphed into a strong social movement, known as chavismo. Maduro, who will lead the country on an interim basis and is considered the front runner, has pledged to continue Chávez's work. But experts are divided on whether chavismo can outlive its charismatic namesake.
Some foreign policy observers believe that, even if Maduro wins, ties could improve between the U.S. and Venezuela.
"I think it is an opportunity for us to step into a new relationship with Venezuela," Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson, who met with Chávez in 2008, said on MSNBC. "The opposition candidate Capriles is pro-U.S. The vice president Maduro is not pro-U.S., but is, I think, going to be more pragmatic than Chávez."
Still, the U.S. will have to work to improve its image and standing in Venezuela following nearly a decade-and-a-half of anti-U.S. sentiment being imbued into the country's government and political culture.