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Viewpoint: New Era for US-Venezuela Relations?

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
March 6, 2013


The death of Hugo Chávez leaves much uncertainty in Venezuela. But Shannon O'Neil says stronger ties with the United States may be on the horizon.

After 14 years in power, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez lost his long and secretive battle with cancer.

Many now wonder about his domestic and international legacy. For the US, one of the important questions is whether his bilateral foreign policy approach will continue without him.

The US-Venezuela relationship has been characterised over the past decade by public spats and outlandish statements, but it was not always so hostile.

When Chávez was elected in 1998, interactions between the two countries were cordial; Chávez even travelled to Washington to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

But the relations soon headed downhill.

'Smell of sulphur'

In 2002 Chávez accused the US of supporting the coup that briefly ousted him from power, as US officials were quick to welcome the transition. In 2005 bilateral counter-narcotics operations ended.

Since then American spokespersons have criticised Venezuelan officials for their involvement in the drug trade, skewering the country in annual drug reports and freezing the assets of at least seven current or former Venezuelan officials.

The bad blood was immortalised in Chávez's 2006 United Nations speech when he theatrically referred to then-President George Bush as the devil, commenting on the distinct smell of sulphur that remained at the podium.

In 2010, Chávez declared then-Ambassador Patrick Duddy persona non grata, marking the last time that the US had an ambassadorial presence in Venezuela (but not the last time the two countries have expelled diplomatic personnel).

With Chávez's death, some have hoped for a change in the US-Venezuela relationship. But just because Chávez is gone it doesn't mean the tensions in bilateral relations will ease.

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