Will Chavez and Obama continue to make friendly?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 20, 2009 

CARACAS, Venezuela — Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez unexpectedly rescued U.S.-Venezuelan relations from the deep freezer over the weekend at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.

The two high-profile leaders replaced barbed words with cordial greetings, and Chavez said he wanted to name a new ambassador to the U.S. to replace the one who was expelled last year.

Now each side is waiting for the other to take the next step to put relations on a normal footing, a level not achieved since 2001, during the early days of the Bush administration, analysts said Monday.

U.S. officials want the Chavez government to cooperate with U.S. anti-drug efforts, begin issuing visas for U.S. diplomats to enter Venezuela and halt its buying spree of Russia weapons, analysts said.

Venezuelan officials want continued respect from the Obama administration and a muted response to Chavez's moves against his political opposition.

Unless the cordial contacts reflect a genuine change in the countries' attitudes, however, few analysts expect the warming to last, given U.S. actions that Chavez has deemed hostile and Chavez's history of using the U.S. as a political punching bag.

"Chavez's MO has always been to create conflict with an external power or entity, be it Washington, Colombia or ExxonMobil," said Patrick Esteruelas, who just returned to New York from Venezuela for the Eurasia Group, a risk-analysis firm. "He needs to create a smoke screen to distract people away from the government's own problems and mismanagement, no matter who sits in the White House."

It's in the interest of both leaders to maintain the flow of Venezuelan oil to the United States, however.

Washington and Chavez have had a turbulent history, punctuated by his accusation that the U.S. was killing babies with bombing attacks in Afghanistan in 2001 and his charge that Bush administration officials gave at least tacit support to a 2002 coup that toppled him for three days.

Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador last year in solidarity with Bolivia after President Evo Morales booted out the U.S. ambassador there. The U.S. retaliated by kicking out ambassadors from both countries.

So the first move toward building on the amiable conversations from last weekend is for Venezuela and the U.S. to restore the ambassadors.

In Trinidad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chavez discussed restoring the ambassadors, with Chavez publicly identifying a former foreign minister as his choice to send to Washington.

"As we have stated previously, exchanging ambassadors will help advance U.S. interests," a State Department representative said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy. "It is necessary for improving communications and our bilateral relations."

Obama defended himself from conservatives in the U.S. who said he'd been too friendly with Chavez at the summit.

"I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy," Obama said Sunday at a post-summit news conference. "His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory. There have been instances in which we've seen Venezuela interfere with some of the . . . countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern.

"On the other hand, Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States'. They own CITGO. It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

Fausto Maso, a Caracas-based political columnist, said he thought that Chavez felt obliged to make nice with Obama because the U.S. president had sky-high rankings in Venezuela and elsewhere throughout Latin America as a fresh face who had the same skin color as many Latin Americans.

"Chavez wants good relations with the United States in the short term," Maso said. "But Chavez will seek conflict with the United States again."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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