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. 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 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. “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 that the post-Chavez jockeying could lead to the ascent of the opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a governor who is considered a moderate and might try to improve ties with Washington.