Most of the U.S. foreign policy community assumes that relations between the United States and Venezuela can only improve in the aftermath of Hugo Chavez's death. But Washington cannot take anything for granted, and calibrating its policy for the transition will be a challenge. Embracing the opposition could doom it, but doing too little opens the U.S. to criticism it has missed a vital opportunity.

The Realist Prism: Washington’s Venezuela Dilemma

By , , Column

Most of the U.S. foreign policy community assumes that relations between the United States and Venezuela can only improve in the aftermath of Hugo Chavez's death. Exemplifying this optimism, the Obama administration’s initial reaction was to note that as a "new chapter" begins in Venezuela, Washington reaffirms "its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government." The U.S. response was based on the hope that any successor to Chavez will be interested in repairing the breach that opened up between the two nations during the almost 13 years of Chavez's tenure.

But nothing should be taken for granted. When other implacably anti-American leaders have died or passed from the scene, their successors have not automatically sought to improve their relations with Washington -- Iran being a prominent example. Careful attention needs to be paid to separating Chavez's personal animosities toward Washington -- which might not be shared by his successor -- from the incentives embedded in the needs of Venezuela’s ruling system. Depending on who wins the election to finish Chavez's term of office, the next Venezuelan president may not be interested in improving ties with the United States; more likely, Chavez’s successor will have a far different standard as to what constitutes a rapprochement than most American officials. ...

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