Thursday, March 28, 2013

VOXXI: In the post-Chavez era, tensions between Venezuela and the US likely to remain

In the Post-Chavez era, tensions between Venezuela and the US likely to remain
W. Alejandro Sanchez
March 28, 2013
Originally published:

As Venezuela prepares for its upcoming presidential election on April 14, great apprehension remains as to who will succeed late President Hugo Chavez. This will be the first election in the South American nation since 1998 (when Chavez was first elected) without the iconic leader on the ballot. The new government will need immediately to address several concerns, such as the country’s deteriorating economy and the future structure of its foreign policy (i.e. the future of regional organizations like ALBA and PetroCaribe). So far, the polls show that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, handpicked by Chavez in December 2012 to be the “heir” of the Bolivarian Revolution, is likely to be elected.

Vintage Hugo

A trademark of the Chavez presidency was Venezuela’s tense relationship with the US One of the earliest clashes between the two occurred after the April 2002 coup, in which Chavez was toppled from power for two days. The provisional government of Pedro Carmona was eventually forced to resign due to major pro-Chavez protests that returned power to the deposed Bolivarian president. Chavez claimed that the US had orchestrated the coup. In addition, at a 2010 United Nations summit, Venezuela and the US clashed verbally when Chavez called former President George W. Bush “the devil.” These stressed relations also brought about numerous diplomatic incidents; for example, Chavez expelled the US ambassador to Venezuela in September 2008, while Washington expelled the Venezuelan consul general in Miami in January 2012.
When Chavez’s cancer forced him to seek treatment in Cuba last December, Latin American experts began to hypothesize that the emergence of a post-Chavez government would improve the US-Venezuela current relationship. For instance, in November 2012, Maduro held a long discussion with Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs; that meeting was regarded as a tentative restarting of communications between the two governments.

Vintage Maduro?

After the iconic Venezuelan leader’s death, along with the highly anticipated victory of Vice President Maduro on April 14, it appears that US-Venezuelan bilateral affairs will remain strained, since recently there have been a number of clashes between the Obama administration and the post-Chavez government. In particular, Venezuela expelled two US military attachés in mid-March; in retaliation, the US expelled two Venezuelan diplomats. Given events like this one that have frequently occurred between the two governments over the past decade, it is amazing that there are still diplomats left to be expelled in each country.
Moreover, another recent diplomatic incident arose from declarations that Jacobson made to the Spanish daily El Pais. Although Jacobson stated that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski “could be a good president” if he was elected, she also clarified that the US government does not have a favorite for the upcoming elections. Furthermore, she also called for Venezuela to allow international observers to monitor the elections and discussed the lack of press freedom in the country. These statements were not well received by Caracas. Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Elias Jaua Milano declared that his government had “suspended any contact and any communication that had been established with the call of Mrs. Jacobson in the month of November.” He went on to accuse the US of interfering in Venezuelan domestic affairs (namely the presidential election) by supporting the opposition’s Capriles. In a recent televised speech, Milano said that he wanted the Venezuela-US interaction to be based on “mutual respect.” (A video of the Milano’s original statements in Spanish is available by clicking here). Furthermore, adding to this already complicated picture, Maduro recently made a bizarre accusation—the US (namely the CIA and Pentagon) was trying to murder Radonski (who would arguably be more Washington-friendly if elected) in order to blame his death on Maduro.

The aforementioned declarations pose a confusing picture of how policymaking is being reshaped in Caracas in the post-Chavez era. On the one hand, we have Maduro claiming that the CIA and Pentagon are trying to kill Capriles and frame the vice president, while on the other hand Milano says that the State Department’s Jacobson is supporting the opposition figure in the elections. These statements are contradictory (not to say that they are arguably untrue, though, as previously mentioned, Washington would probably prefer a Capriles victory). Nevertheless, it seems clear that the US will remain a “devil”-type figure in the eventual Maduro government, whether justified or not, and will be the center of conspiracy theories coming out of Caracas.
One can only wonder what advice, if any, Minister Jaua Milano gave to Maduro, before the interim head of state made such declarations and decided to expel the American diplomats. If anything, these statements give us a hint of what the Maduro-Milano partnership will be like regarding the reshaping of Venezuela’s foreign policy. Chavez was generally considered to be a one-man show when it came to formulating the country’s external relations, so it will be interesting to see how Maduro will handle things with Jaua Milano regarding foreign affair issues. Like the vice president, Milano was also a man, who Chavez deeply trusted, as he occupied several posts during his lengthy presidency in the ministries of agriculture, economy and was also vice president. He was chosen by Chavez to be the minister of foreign relations in January 2013 while he was in Cuba, which demonstrates the late president’s confidence in him.

Venezuela’s Post-April 2013 Diplomacy

While Chavez was in Cuba, media speculation revolved around a potential struggle for power between Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly. Now, with the road clear for Maduro to be elected in April, concern is focused on what kind of government the vice president will carry out, and whether the country’s foreign affairs will mimic Chavez’s caudillo presidential style or whether some kind of troika will emerge with other Chavez heavyweights. As for US-Venezuela relations in the post-Chavez era, are the recent clashes signs of things to come? It would seem so.

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