With President Hugo Chavez possibly in his last days, the United States sees the possibility of a long-sought reset in relations with Venezuela.
Chavez recently underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba, and there is wide speculation that the 58-year-old — at the very least — will never again be able to govern. His allies have postponed his inauguration for a new presidential term, originally scheduled for Thursday, prompting a fierce battle with the Venezuelan opposition, which argues such a delay is unconstitutional.
The Obama administration is steering clear of the legal debate. But it is nevertheless looking to the likely end of Chavez’s 14-year rule, during which he championed a Latin America free of American influence and built alliances with U.S. foes across the globe such as Iran and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, destroying anti-drug and counterterrorism ties with Washington along the way.
“Regardless of what happens politically in Venezuela, if the Venezuelan government and if the Venezuelan people want to move forward with us, we think there is a path that’s possible,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday.
Chavez hasn’t spoken publicly in a month, and while American officials don’t know his exact condition, they believe he may be near death or a state of incapacity. Venezuela’s government has kept Chavez’s health a closely-guarded secret.
If either scenario plays out, there is little to suggest Chavez’s followers would seek to roll back his idiosyncratic — and often anti-American — vision of a Bolivarian socialist revolution. Still, the Obama administration is stepping up its outreach to the country’s next likely leaders, convinced it can find some areas of future cooperation with the firebrand populist out of the way.
Despite Chavez’s tirades against the U.S. and what he sees as its attempts to bring down his government, and U.S. criticism of Venezuela’s lax efforts against drug traffickers, the two countries have maintained economic relations. The U.S. gets about 10 percent of its oil from Venezuela and remains the Latin American country’s top purchaser.