WASHINGTON — 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 Moammar 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.
"It is just going to take two to tango," Nuland told reporters. "It's going to take action on the Venezuelan side as well as our willingness in order to improve relations."
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.
Roberta Jacobson, the top American diplomat for Latin America, spoke by telephone with Vice President Nicolas Maduro in November and discussed ways of improving ties on such issues as fighting drug cartels to terrorism. Chavez hand-picked Maduro to run for president if he is unable any longer to govern.
U.S. diplomat Kevin Whitaker also has been in regular contact with Roy Chaderton, Venezuela's ambassador to the Organization of American States in Washington.
Washington's goal is a pragmatic relationship with Chavez's successors, even as the two countries will likely have much to continue disagreeing over.
The approach is somewhat akin to the one President Barack Obama adopted with Russia after taking office four years ago, hoping to eliminate the distrust that built up during George W. Bush's presidency by re-establishing cooperation on issues such as Afghanistan and nuclear non-proliferation, while acknowledging that Moscow and Washington won't necessarily agree on democracy and the rule of law. The "reset" in ties with the Kremlin has stalled amid sharp U.S.-Russian disputes over missile defense plans and Syria's civil war, but the administration still fiercely defends its merits.
With Venezuela, the U.S. is hoping to start with stronger counter-narcotics coordination, a challenge given that the Venezuelan government includes officials subject to U.S. drug "kingpin" sanctions. Other American priorities include energy cooperation and stronger enforcement of sanctions against Iran. The U.S. also fears Iranian efforts to use Venezuela as a base for terrorist or other activity in the Western Hemisphere against American interests.
Maduro and other insiders in Chavez's government also seek rapprochement, but want to start with the first exchange of ambassadors between the two countries since 2010. The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has been without a top envoy since Chavez rejected Obama's nominee and accused him of making disrespectful remarks about Venezuela's government. That led Washington to revoke the visa of Venezuela's ambassador.
Speaking last week, Maduro stressed that the U.S. and Venezuela have "great ideological and political differences." But he held out the possibility of normalized relations based on mutual respect.
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.