The Realist Prism: Washington’s Venezuela Dilemma

The Realist Prism: Washington’s Venezuela Dilemma

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.

Calibrating its policy for the transition will be the challenge for Washington. Based on the results of Venezuela’s most recent presidential election and, more importantly, the local elections in December 2012, only a minority of the Venezuelan electorate desires to completely repudiate Chavez's Bolivarian revolution, including his stridently anti-American stance and his hostility to foreign investment in and ownership of the country's natural resources. The opposition candidate who came closest to unseating Chavez, Henrique Capriles, gave "El Commandante" a run for his money precisely by promising to maintain some of the policies -- particularly when it came to social welfare -- implemented by the Chavez government, rather than calling for an all-out repeal of “Chavismo.”

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