U.S. isn’t starting from scratch with Venezuela
March 7th, 2013
10:38 AM ET

U.S. isn’t starting from scratch with Venezuela

By Patrick Duddy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Patrick Duddy, a visiting senior lecturer at Duke University, was the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007-10. The views expressed are his own.

Venezuela’s constitution mandates an election be held within 30 days to pick a successor to Hugo Chavez, but the implications of Chavez’s death for Venezuela and the region will not be clear for some time.

Chavez was a polarizing figure, revered by his supporters and reviled by his critics. It is undeniable that he changed Venezuela, whatever one's views of his leadership. Many of the poor there and elsewhere considered him their champion and will mourn his passing.

But many in the country saw Chavez very differently. His critics felt his effort to change Venezuela’s political culture significantly weakened the country’s democratic institutions. What happens next in Venezuela will, therefore, be followed closely throughout the region and the world, as people wait to see if Chavez's political agenda will survive the man himself.

In his last public act, Chavez called on the country to support Vice President Nicolas Maduro if he, Chavez, were not able to continue to govern. Maduro will likely enjoy a significant advantage over any opposition candidate. Nevertheless, virtually all Venezuelans agree that Chavez will be a hard act to follow, whether Maduro is elected or not.

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That is because Chavez dominated Venezuelan politics as few politicians have in the last 100 years. He won re-election last October by a comfortable margin despite persistent high inflation, stagnant oil production, deteriorating infrastructure, periodic scarcities of basic food items and alarming levels of criminal violence.

The attraction of Chavez's message outside of Venezuela, however, faded somewhat in recent years in part due to the country's economic problems.  Many in the hemisphere now find the Brazilian experience of recent years to be a more compelling story of economic success.

Chavez's first election in 1998 was one of the initial signs of the populist wave that would eventually sweep left-leaning leaders into office in much of South America. And his use of the country's oil wealth to support friends and build alliances gave him, for a time, real weight in the hemisphere.

Cuba's economy, for instance, has managed to stay afloat in recent years in no small measure because Venezuela supplied as much as 100,000 barrels of oil a day to the island at deeply discounted rates. Cuba was able to pay for much of the oil through barter arrangements for technical assistance, doctors and other kinds of advisors.

Many of the smaller economies of the Caribbean also benefited from Chavez's PetroCaribe program, which made highly concessionary financing for oil purchases available at a time when record-high world oil prices threatened to cripple their vulnerable, resource-poor economies. Even though most of Chavez's PetroCaribe clients had no intention of embracing what Chavez called "21st Century Socialism," they appreciated the help. Moreover, Chavez's provocative rejection of neoliberalism and his advocacy for the poor resonated within the marginalized sectors of their own populations.

Chavez was also, of course, a harsh and unrelenting critic of the United States. He made rolling back the influence of the United States in Latin America and around the world a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Relations with the United States are likely to remain difficult if Maduro succeeds Chavez, at least in the near term. Maduro’s expulsion of two members of the U.S. embassy in Caracas on the day of Chavez’s death made this clear.

This does not mean, however, that the two countries will have to rebuild the bilateral relationship from scratch when they are finally ready to put things back together. Venezuela and the U.S. continue to have a robust trade relationship. Despite his antipathy toward the U.S., Chavez never stopped selling us oil – and we never stopped buying. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans continue to visit the U.S. every year. Many American companies are still active in Venezuela, and baseball is a shared passion, with Venezuelan players prominent throughout the Major Leagues.

Furthermore, many in the hemisphere – even if not Chavez's closest allies – will tacitly support some sort of rapprochement.

Ultimately, the two sides will have plenty to work with when they are ready to sit down. But there will also be years of tension and acrimony to overcome.

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Topics: United States • Venezuela

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. moises nadal

    Chavez accused the US of using a secret weapon causing him cancer and to have given other Latin American leaders cancer. Sometime in the past he took back what he had said. The BBC interviewed doctors and other experts on the issue of whether. The experts said cancer is a sickness of the old, etc, and that the rate of cancer among Latin leaders was the same as for the rest of the world or was going that way. "Would it be strange if they had developed the technology to induce cancer and nobody knew about it?" Mr. Chavez said when interviewed about a month ago. Although health experts denied the possibility of developing such a weapon, we cannot and must not forget that it is these very experts who developed the hydrogen and atomic bombs; they also gave us chemical weapons and some of the most brilliant of the bunch suggested this or that kind of offensive weapon throughout history. That knowledge of the human genome, of the brain, of the bio-electric-chemico-systems of the human body will and have given these military scientists knowledge that other non-military-connected individuals is not to be taking lightly. MK-Ultra, LRAD, etc., secret disease experiments carried out in Guatemala in the 1940s, are just some of the highlights to how governments develop and experiment on people all the time; even when things seem to be quiet. The experts should have said, “Although hard to do, it is possible that governments may try to develop cancer-causing weapons; but we do not know that for sure.” But these experts know they depend on governments for funds and for their own livelihood. So it is better to be quiet and not so free.

    March 7, 2013 at 11:59 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    With Chavez's blessing, Maduro had recently showed signs of wanting to improve relations with the US: In November, low-level talks had been conducted between his administration and the assistant secretary of State for Latin America. A new administration might welcome the opportunity to put some distance between itself and the authoritarian rule of Chavez. The chance that tensions be eased with the US appears quite realistic,

    March 7, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  3. bush you are a donkey....hah ha

    the national song should be (( BUSH YOU ARE A DONKEY ..MMMMM, BUSH YOU ARER STUPID LALALAA
    the doneky is smarter than you and he have a btter tush. mmmm ...FK YOU REPUBLICANS

    March 8, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Reply

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