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US-Venezuela ties might warm post-Chavez

Venezuelan vice president Nicolas Maduro, right, unveils a portrait of President Hugo Chavez during a march commemorating the 21st anniversary of a failed coup d'etat led by Chavez, February 5, 2013, in Caracas. Chavez, the fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela, crusaded against U.S. influence and championed a leftist revival across Latin America, died Tuesday, March 5, 2013, at age 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer.

WASHINGTON — Even though the U.S. Embassy’s military attache was expelled from Venezuela shortly before the death of President Hugo Chavez was announced Tuesday, the country could still be headed for a change that would have infuriated the fiery populist: better relations with the United States.

For 14 years, Chavez sought to build a role as a regional leader by flamboyantly defying what he called the “Yankee empire.” He cultivated ties with Iran, a leading U.S. adversary, and assembled a bloc of left-leaning Latin American countries to challenge Washington’s political and economic dominance in the Western Hemisphere.

Though Chavez’s immediate successors probably won’t jettison his socialist domestic policy, those in position to take over don’t appear to have the same hunger for regional leadership or the skill to take on such a role, say current and former U.S. officials and other analysts. That could make the relationship with Washington less rancorous, if not exactly warm.

“Chavez had a map in his mind of how he wanted to pursue his revolutionary project around the world,” said Stephen Johnson, a top Pentagon policymaker on Latin America during the George W. Bush administration. “It’s hard to imagine that his successor is going to have the same determination or self-confidence in those areas.”

On Tuesday, the first indication of the future was not particularly comforting. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s vice president and designated heir, announced on national TV that American military attache David Delmonaco must leave the country within 24 hours for “proposing destabilizing plans” to members of Venezuela’s armed forces. Maduro also implied that the U.S. was at fault for Chavez’s illness and said he would set up a scientific commission to investigate. Later, a U.S. Air Force assistant attache was also expelled.

But over time, analysts say, Maduro’s track record has not reflected the same fiery approach as that of Chavez.

Though Maduro, as foreign minister, worked to separate Venezuela further from the United States, building stronger ties with Cuba, Russia and China, he doesn’t have Chavez’s forceful personality, analysts say.

He echoes Chavez’s hard-line views about U.S. influence worldwide as well as other key points of Venezuela’s foreign policy, but U.S. officials see him as a deal maker rather than an antagonist, and some have even praised his affability. Apparently with Chavez’s blessing, Maduro recently showed signs of wanting to explore what might be gained by better relations with the United States: In November, he began talks with Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for Latin America.

That contact, which has continued between lower-level officials, reinforces analysts’ view that Chavez’s battle with cancer left Maduro and other top officials trying to assess whether they would be better off neutralizing what they perceive as a threat from the United States.

“Chavez was the revolution, and without him they’re probably feeling pretty vulnerable,” said a diplomat from the region who asked to remain unidentified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Their main concern is going to be, how do we hang on to power?”

Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly and another contender for the presidency, has shown little sign that he aspires to an international role as Chavez did. There is also a chance — probably a small one — that the post-Chavez jockeying could lead to the ascent of the opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a regional governor who is considered a moderate and might try to improve ties with Washington.

The next leader’s chief preoccupation will be trying to resuscitate Venezuela’s economy, which is straining under huge debt, surging inflation, food shortages and a collapse of the oil industry, the country’s most important revenue source.

A de-emphasis of the regime’s international agenda would be a setback for the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, known by its Spanish acronym ALBA, a bloc of eight left-leaning Latin American and Caribbean countries that Chavez sought to lead as an alternative to trade efforts led by the United States, and which he helped prop up with billions of petrodollars. In addition to Venezuela, the members are Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

U.S. officials acknowledge that relations with Venezuela are at a low point, especially since each country rejected the other’s ambassador in 2010.

Chavez and President Barack Obama famously were photographed shaking hands and smiling broadly in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 at the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 34 democratically elected leaders in the hemisphere.

“We have for some time made it clear that we were willing and open to trying to improve our ties with Venezuela,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a news briefing in January.

The United States is most eager for cooperation with Venezuela on three issues: the fight against drug trafficking, an end to Venezuela’s ties to Iran and Islamic militant groups, and the release of billions of dollars in assets seized from U.S. corporations such as Exxon Mobil and Hilton Hotels.

Venezuela has become a major drug hub since Chavez took power, and is considered by analysts to be the source of as much as a quarter of the cocaine reaching the United States.

And though Venezuela has recently cooperated in a few ways on drug-related issues — such as the extradition to Colombia of several drug kingpins — significant cooperation remains unlikely. Some high-level Venezuelan officials are suspected of making millions on the trade.

The U.S. Treasury Department has blacklisted seven current and former Venezuelan officials, including former Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva, because of suspected ties to drug-dealing Colombian insurgents. The allegations arose in 2008 after Colombian authorities found a computer hard drive used by a guerrilla leader.

Though some senior Venezuelan officials are concerned that drug corruption is weakening the government, “people in very important positions in government are getting rich, so if change comes, it’s probably going to be very, very gradual,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

A new administration might welcome the opportunity to put some distance between itself and the authoritarianism of Chavez’s rule. But any new leader would resist ceding much power, analysts said.

U.S. officials have made it clear they’re not about to take any action, such as returning the U.S. ambassador, unless Venezuela also makes concessions.

“It’s going to take two to tango,” Nuland said. “It’s going to take action on the Venezuelan side.”

It may be difficult for the Obama administration to move toward better relations with Venezuela without a major step from Caracas, partly because it would open the administration to attacks from congressional Republicans. They consider the White House too soft on the regime.

An important wild card in future U.S.-Venezuela relations is whether the new leaders will continue Chavez’s strong political and economic ties with Cuba, which shares Caracas’ anti-American stance. Cuba receives 60 percent of its energy in the form of heavily subsidized Venezuelan oil.

Maduro described the ties between the two countries in January as “the most profound brotherhood.”

Yet whoever takes over may decide that with Venezuela’s oil industry collapsing and its economy in a downward spiral, it’s simply too expensive to continue offering cheap oil to Havana, rather than selling it on the open market.

“Without Chavez,” Shifter said, “the Cubans may find it very hard to keep that going.”

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(Los Angeles Times staff writer Richter reported from Washington and special correspondent Kraul from Caracas.)

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