Hugo Chávez Death: Fixing the U.S.-Venezuela Relationship Won't Be Easy

Diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Venezuela have fallen to pieces.

March 6, 2013— -- 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.

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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.

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"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.

Dan Restrepo, a former senior Latin American affairs advisor in the Obama administration, told Univision that Maduro's decision to expel U.S. embassy officials on the day of Chávez's death "doesn't bode particularly well that the current Venezuelan government is particularly interested in a different relationship with the United States."

"Now you're going to have a different political dynamic in Venezuela. The system without Chávez is going to be different. Nobody knows exactly how different and what direction that's going to go," he added. "There is a change coming and it could take a bunch of different forms."

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, said that it's in Maduro's political self-interest to maintain Venezuela's current tack against the United States.

"My strong belief is that Maduro is going to keep relations with the U.S. in the deep freeze because he has to establish his own legitimacy," he said in an interview with ABC/Univision. "He doesn't have his own base of support. He's got to keep tensions high with the United States." Tried and true tactic."

In a statement, President Barack Obama said his administration would seek to build a "constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government" moving forward, adding that the U.S. supports policies that "promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights."

That's a long road, given how deep the divide runs. Venezuela has some of the richest oil and natural gas reserves in the world and Chavez spread that wealth to many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean enabling him to curry influence. For example, in 2001 the Chávez government helped bail out Argentina, a regional power, from a financial crisis, a move that helped him gain popularity there. He has also built ties with left-wing governments Bolivia and Ecuador and helped financially backstop the Castro government in Cuba.

During his presidency, Chávez earned the scorn of U.S. officials for cracking down on his political opposition and hostile media outlets. He also had a knack for spinning conspiracy theories against the American government. For example, in 2002 he accused the U.S. of being involved in a failed coup attempt.

Chávez also made overtures to Cuba's Fidel Castro and to Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who lead governments that are also hostile toward the United States. A Univision documentary that aired last year revealed that a Venezuelan consulate official in Miami was involved in plotting cyber attacks on the U.S. that allegedly involved agents from Iran and Cuba.

The U.S. government expelled the Venezuelan official, Livia Acosta Noguera, from the country and Venezuela eventually shuttered its Miami consulate.

But on a key economic front, Venezuela's government has taken a pragmatic approach to the United States. The South American nation remains one of the top contributors to the U.S.'s oil imports, ranking in the top four last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Oil is their political weapon, but with the U.S., they never used it," Richardson said.

Eric Farnsworth added that the Venezuelan people have not traditionally been anti-American throughout their history and it may be possible for a leader to eventually bridge the gap between the two nations.

And it is uncertain whether Venezuela can sustain its efforts to enrich its neighbors with its oil wealth. The country has a gaping budget deficit, which was exacerbated by the millions of dollars in foreign aid doled out by Chávez. That has done damage to the nation's domestic economy.

But regardless of what happens next, any healing process will will take time.

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"This isn't going to change one day to the next, you're going to build out a constructive relationship piece by piece starting with small things if you have a willing partner in Venezuela," said Restrepo.