Praise by the U.S. State Department for Sunday's referendum in Venezuela suggests that President Barack Obama is hoping to ease long-strained relations with President Hugo Chávez, according to regional experts here.
While State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid Tuesday noted that Washington had received "troubling reports of intimidation," he added that, "for the most part, this was a process that was fully consistent with [the] democratic process."
Asked whether Washington approved of the poll's results – which changes the country's constitution to enable Chávez to run for a third term in 2012 – Duguid said the question "was a matter for the Venezuelan people."
Washington's reaction marked a distinct change in tone from the consistently hostile rhetoric of the administration of President George W. Bush, which had welcomed a coup attempt against Chávez in 2002, and follows a remarkably conciliatory statement by the populist leader on the eve of the referendum, which Chávez won with a solid 54 percent of the vote.
Only last month, Chávez had denounced Obama – even comparing his "stench" to Bush – for publicly admonishing Caracas for its alleged support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency. On Saturday, however, he said he was ready to engage in direct talks with the new U.S. president in order to restore better ties.
"Any day is propitious for talking with President Barack Obama," he told foreign reporters, suggesting that they could even get together before the next Summit of the Americas which is to be held in Trinidad Apr. 17.
While a pre-summit meeting is highly unlikely, according to experts here, the back-and-forth of the past several days suggests that both leaders are open to a more positive – if still somewhat restrained – relationship.
"I don't think the Obama administration is going to rush for rapprochement with Chávez because that would boost his political standing," said Michael Shifter, an Andean specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) here.
"But I do think they'll be cordial, discreet, and try to press the reset button to see how relations can be made more constructive. Certainly not a hard line, but also not warm abrazos, either,'' he added.
That there is room for improvement in bilateral ties is certainly clear. Under Bush, relations deteriorated badly, particularly after the 2002 military coup attempt which, according to Chávez, was actively supported by the U.S., a charge Washington has denied.
Among other actions, Chávez cut all military-to-military ties with the United States and ended Venezuelan cooperation with U.S. counter-drug efforts. At the same time, he cultivated close ties with U.S. adversaries, notably Iran and, more recently, Russia, with which he has concluded a series of major arms-sales agreements.
For much of Bush's tenure, his principal Latin America aides, assistant secretaries of state for western hemisphere affairs Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, were relentless in their attacks on Chávez, particularly his close relationship with former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
While their successor, Thomas Shannon, toned down the rhetoric considerably after he took over the Latin America portfolio at the end of 2005, ties continued to worsen, although the economic relationship – particularly Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S. – never appeared to be seriously threatened.
Last September, Chávez expelled the U.S. ambassador from Caracas "in solidarity with" Bolivian President Evo Morales who had expelled Washington's ambassador in La Paz after accusing him of encouraging secessionist forces there. Washington responded by expelling Venezuela's ambassador here.
Obama, who rarely mentioned Chávez during the presidential campaign, has yet to identify who will occupy the most important Latin America posts in his administration, although Georgetown Prof. Arturo Valenzuela, who served on the National Security Council (NSC) staff under Bill Clinton, is considered the front-runner for assistant secretary. Shannon, however, has reportedly been asked to stay on through the Trinidad Summit.
At the National Security Council, the two leading candidates reportedly include Daniel Restrepo, the director of the Americas Project at the Center for American Progress (CAP) think tank who is considered close to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, and Fulton Armstrong, a veteran Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst who reportedly clashed with the far-right Reich and then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton about Cuba.
Obama's failure so far to make these appointments is one reason why any concrete moves toward détente with Venezuela is likely to take some time. "Given the lack of a team in place for hemispheric affairs at State or the NSC, I suspect they will be mainly in listening mode, even at the Summit," said John Walsh, an Andes expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
But Walsh said he, too, detects a "new tone and as more constructive attitude" in Obama's approach to both Venezuela and Latin America. "It's what people have been hoping to see," he said, adding that he expected Chávez to reciprocate.
"With oil revenues likely to continue in steep decline, mending fences would be a good thing to do from Venezuela's perspective," he said. Moreover, "if Obama wants to talk, as he said he would during the campaign, I don't see that Chávez would get much mileage out of spurning him."
Most analysts here agree, although they add that rapprochement will not be easy. "Obama has a much different personal profile and... history, so it will be much more difficult (for Chávez) to paint Obama as a Yankee imperialist the way he could with George Bush," noted Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "But Chávez will always need some sort of opposition, and the United States makes an easy foil for him."
Shannon headed a much-noted study by a high-powered CFR task force on U.S.-Latin America policy last year, which called for any new administration to cease efforts to isolate Chávez and instead engage him primarily in a regional, as opposed to a bilateral, context.
A subsequent study published just after Obama's election by an inter-American commission headed by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former U.S. U.N. Amb. Thomas Pickering urged the new administration to adopt a "calibrated, non-confrontational approach in its relations with Venezuela... based on mutual respect and non-intervention in each other's internal affairs and those of neighboring countries."
The study was sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a major recruiting ground for top officials in the new administration.
Shifter told IPS he thought Obama's first priority in dealing with Chávez should be to return each country's ambassadors back into their respective posts and then seek to identify areas in which they could rebuild cooperation.
"Chávez has said he needs until 2012 to tackle the whole crime question in Venezuela, and a lot of crime there has a drug connection, so restoring cooperation on the drug issue could help rebuild some confidence," he said. "But getting the ambassadors back would be the first thing."
(Inter Press Service)