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US keeps low profile ahead of Venezuelan election

The United States is keeping a surprisingly low profile ahead of Sunday's presidential election in Venezuela. After calling for "open, fair and transparent elections" in the South American country both before and after the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on March 5, Washington's current silence, as the Venezuelan campaign drew to a close, is worth more than most loud statements.

However, the paradox may not in fact be such. The United States is closely monitoring a process that embodies a major portion of the chances to improve difficult bilateral ties. Given that Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, the ruling-party candidate in Sunday's vote, has made "anti-imperialist" rhetoric one of his trademarks, it seems that Washington has opted not to stoke controversy. Caracas has gone as far as to accuse the United States of somehow infecting Chavez with the cancer that eventually killed him.

Most people in Washington and elsewhere have few doubts that the left-wing populist Maduro will defeat unified opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. "Expectations are that the vice president (Maduro) will win the election of April 14 and things will be business as usual, at least for the time being. Who knows within five years," the chief of the US Southern Command, General John Kelly, told a Congress hearing in late March.

That same day, Venezuela suspended high-level talks between Maduro and US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson launched in late 2012. "We cannot keep wasting time. Mrs Jacobson, when you understand that we are a sovereign country, do call us again," said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua.

That move was followed by the expulsion of two Venezuelan diplomats from the United States in response to a similar gesture by Caracas just a few hours before Chavez's death was announced. Despite all that, Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, thinks there is room for bilateral reconciliation. However, that will need to wait until after the election.

"The (diplomatic) setback can be reversed under more favourable political circumstances, once a new government is installed in Caracas," Shifter told dpa. Maduro's "tough, charged rhetoric" of recent weeks will probably be a problem for some in Washington, particularly in Congress, Shifter admitted. "But most in the State Department and the White House will probably consider the harsh discourse within the context of the electoral campaign, and will be open to working with Maduro should he be elected," the expert said.

In this sense, the true "test" that lies ahead is to see what happens when the campaign ends. "If there is no effort to open channels of communication after the campaign, that would be a troubling sign," Shifter said. Indeed, there is a lot at stake in bilateral relations. Both countries have shared no ambassadors since 2010, but their economic ties remain strong. Oil-rich Venezuela exports to the United States about 1 million barrels of crude per day, and that link has survived 14 years of political storms under Chavez.

"Maduro is interested in maintaining power," Anthony Quainton, former US ambassador to Peru, Nicaragua and other countries, told dpa. "And the economic success of the revolution ultimately depends in a large part on its continued ability to sell oil to the US for the refineries in Louisiana," said Quainton, currently a professor at American University.

In this context, he said, "it's not at all impossible you'd see an effort by the Maduro government to try to somewhat re-establish diplomatic relations," he said. For Quainton, Maduro will persist in his criticism of the United States, but the issue cannot be put in such black and white terms.

"There's always a chance, a real possibility that after the elections Maduro will have some confidence and legitimacy to be still critical of the US but also take the chance for restoring diplomatic relations," he said. "The US and Venezuela don't have to be best friends, but it makes little sense that the two governments barely communicate, and that there is today no ambassadorial presence in Washington or Caracas, in light of the continuing, close commercial ties, through the sale of Venezuelan oil," Quainton said.

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013


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