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In a post-Chavez era, how can the U.S. rebuild Latin American ties?

Question submitted by Joel Cerda, from University of Maryland, July 1, 2013

Answered by: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies

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Hugo Chávez ruled Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013. It is tempting to assume that ties between the United States and Latin America broke during the Chávez era, and that they must now be repaired. The reality, however, is more complex: despite the heated rhetoric coming from Washington and Caracas during Chávez's presidency, bilateral trade quadrupled from $16 billion in 1998 to $64 billion in 2008.

A view of Latin America as a whole reveals similar complexities. Although Chávez's rhetoric was certainly adversarial, it was not necessarily revolutionary: if one reduces the temperature of his statements, one sees a leader calling for socially inclusive growth, broad and popular democracy, and independence from Washington. It might be politically incorrect to say so, but these principles suffuse the statements of many Latin American leaders, including U.S. allies, and are far from incompatible with U.S. regional policy.

The question, then, is not so much how to repair relationships that were never quite as broken as they seemed, but rather to identify what kind of relationships the United States should develop with specific Latin American countries. Undoubtedly, Chávez's passing has created an opportunity—one which Secretary of State John Kerry and his Venezuelan counterpart Elías Jaua seized with their meeting in early June. What is most important now is for the United States to use this short-term opening to prepare long-term diplomatic investments in Latin America. Venezuela has shown signs of moderation—as Jaua's outreach to Kerry, and Maduro's visit to the Vatican, demonstrate—upon which the United States can, and should, build a long-term strategy.