CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shook hands and chatted briefly Saturday in a rare cordial encounter amid a diplomatic dispute that has left Venezuela and the United States without ambassadors in each other’s capitals.
The handshake came as leaders were milling about at the inauguration of new Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. It was unclear what Chavez and Clinton discussed.
Chavez later described the interaction as a pleasant one, though he did not give much detail.
“We greeted each other,” he told reporters at the Brasilia airport. “She had a very spontaneous smile and I greeted her with the same effusiveness.”
In the past week, their governments have shown firmly entrenched stances as the United States revoked the Venezuelan ambassador’s visa in response to Chavez’s refusal to accept the chosen U.S. envoy.
“They thought we were going to back down. Anything negative that happens will be the responsibility of the United States,” veteran Venezuelan diplomat Roy Chaderton told the Caracas-based television channel Telesur on Thursday. Chaderton, a close Chavez ally and former foreign minister, said the Venezuelan government was considering its next steps.
Chavez has skipped opportunities to respond during the past few days, saying nothing about the U.S. government’s decision to revoke the visa of Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez. President Barack Obama’s administration took that step in response to Chavez’s rejection of Larry Palmer, who has been awaiting Senate confirmation.
It was unclear what concrete effects those actions could have on relations, or to what extent the encounter between Chavez and Clinton could help ease the tensions. Clinton did not respond to questions as she walked into a cocktail reception for Rousseff.
Diplomats from the two countries have long had reduced contacts due to antagonism fed both by Chavez’s condemnations of the U.S. and by State Department criticisms of deteriorating democracy in Venezuela.
“Much of the cooperation between the United States and Venezuela in recent years has involved lower-level and lower-profile individuals and agencies than the ambassadors, so the immediate fallout will be limited,” said Shannon O’Neil, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. She said she expects the tensions to persist.
“Demonizing the United States remains too important a political foil for Chavez,” O’Neil said.