By Russ Dallen & Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro has warned that it will take time to improve relations between Venezuela and the United Status even after the arrival of President Barack Obama at the White House.
Maduro said re-establishment of full diplomatic relations would have to "wait for a while." Although the minister expressed hope this would happen, he didn't indicate how long it could be before the step might be taken.
"We are very optimistic in the sense that between now and April doors will open for the restitution of and constitution of a new type of relations in the continent," Maduro said, alluding to the Summit of the Americas to be held in Trinidad in April which will involve the U.S., and at which U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to attend outline his Latin American policy.
"Our continent has suffered for 100 years the ravages of relations marked by hegemony, and all aspire to relationships of respect, cooperation and rapprochement on the basis of international law," Maduro claimed.
Part of the problem is perceived to be on the home front, namely President Hugo Chávez, although Maduro didn't say as much. During the run-up to and after Obama's election victory, Chávez repeatedly blew hot and cold on Obama, and he's continued to do so.
Even as Obama was waiting to enter the White House, Chávez hailed his victory as a "historic" one that could lead to a "constructive" dialogue. But then he went on to accuse Obama of supporting the Venezuelan opposition.
That in turn gave way to a newly favorable line after Obama was installed. Chávez' applauded Obama's decision to close down the detention center at the United States in Guantamano in Cuba within the next year.
Then, this past Sunday, Chavez said it was up to the US to "unclench its fist" before it would be welcome.
Any idea that resuming diplomatic ties with the Chávez regime will be a priority for the Obama Administration would seem well wide of the mark. A Western diplomat in Caracas, speaking very much off the record, said that Obama didn't intend to let dealing with Chávez absorb his time and attention.
"As I understand it, the message being discreetly sent out of Washington in this direction is that the new president has a country to run, and a country that faces big problems, and that's going to be his top line," the diplomat said.
"He just doesn't see any point in getting tangled up in sterile arguments, and hasn't got the time or inclination anyway," that source continued. "The implication, maybe, is that Chávez should consider doing the same."
Be that as it may, ahead of the diplomat's remarks, the impression that Chávez was quite a way down the "To Do" list in Washington had already gained weight from remarks last week attributed to James Steinberg, a top official at the State Department.
In statements to the Senate, Sternberg signaled that the incoming Administration had been poring over the record. He said Obama's team would focus its dealings with Venezuela on this country not only cutting any links with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but also improving its record on battling drugs trafficking.
Steinberg was quoted as having said the new administration intended to pursue a "clear diplomacy" towards Venezuela, including direct contacts when these served United States interests. And he made it clear that would include cooperating in the war on drugs.
Venezuela, he reportedly said, had become "one of the principle countries of transit of drugs." He claimed Venezuela was increasingly the preferred route for transporting cocaine.
Chávez broke off anti-drugs cooperation with the United States earlier this decade, claiming officials from the Drugs Enforcement Agency had abused the terms of their activities in Venezuela.
At the time, this was seen as yet another step in Chávez' push to put ever greater distance between himself and the administration of ex-President George W. Bush. He ended military collaboration, ordering United States military officers out of Venezuela, bringing Venezuelan officers home from the United States, and turning to Russia and other countries for arms supplies.
Relations took a sharp swerve for the worse in September last year, when Chávez expelled then United States Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy. Washington retaliated in the standard manner by telling Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Álvarez to leave.
The rationale for Chávez' expulsion of Duddy was that Caracas was acting in solidarity with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who'd expelled the United States envoy in La Paz.
As to the the Obama Administration's view of relations with the region as a whole, Steinberg said Washington had for too long "ceded territory to Chávez' game," signaling this wouldn't be the case from now on.
Chávez' actions and his vision of the region didn't serve the interests of his citizens or people in all of Latin America, he added. As to Washington's position, "our relations with Venezuela should be designed to serve out national interests," he was quoted as saying.
US election strategist and long-time Venezuela watcher Michael Rowan -- who has just completed a new book on Venezuela with pollster Douglas Schoen, The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War Against America -- believes that the reason Chavez is delaying relations with the U.S. is what he calls a "politics of distraction" until after the referendum.
"When Venezuelans vote, Chávez wants them thinking about what he calls the Devil, the Evil Empire and its genocidal killers and Nazi warmongers," says Rowan. "This ploy has worked since 2004 and Chávez is hoping that it can work next month if Obama will just play along as the non-responding bad guy like Bush.... To Chávez's misfortune, Obama is not Bush."
Despite the more or less constant tension between Caracas and Washington during the Bush years, Venezuela and the United States continued to depend on each other in oil trade. Last year was no exception: figures from the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce (VenAmCham) show that out of bilateral trade totaling $70 billion in 2008, 40% was accounted for by Venezuelan oil shipments.
VenAmCham President Edward Jardine warned that 2009 would be a difficult year, noting that the driving force behind last year's all-time high in bilateral trade had been Venezuelan oil exports to the United States.
"Hopefully over time we can work out how best to develop relations with the new government of the USA," said Maduro.