But American officials have been preparing for a post-Chavez scenario, one in which they can engage Caracas on a variety of concerns the State Department has had about the Venezuelan government’s policies. They include the close alliance Venezuela has built with Iran, extensive narco-trafficking through Venezuelan territory and prickly economic issues important to U.S. companies, such as their inability to repatriate earnings from here because of currency controls.
“Regardless of what happens politically in Venezuela, if the Venezuelan government and if the Venezuelan people want to move forward with us, we think there is a path that’s possible,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. “It is just going to take two to tango.”
Nuland spoke with reporters soon after Venezuela plunged deeper into an institutional crisis over Chavez’s absence. The 58-year-old leftist firebrand, who has not been seen publicly in a month, has been so hobbled by his illness that the government announced he would not attend his inauguration Thursday for a fourth term.
Opponents say that his latest six-year term ends Thursday and that if he does not appear for his swearing-in, the head of the National Assembly must assume leadership on an interim basis.
But Wednesday, the Supreme Court in Venezuela ruled that the inauguration could be postponed and that Chavez actively remains head of state, even though his health status is a mystery.
“We have determined that there is not even a temporary absence,” the court’s president, Luisa Estella Morales, told reporters. She said the court also did not see any “merits” in appointing a medical board to determine the state of Chavez’s health, as his opponents have demanded in recent days.
In the event that he dies or becomes too incapacitated to recover, Chavez has said that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a confidant of the president and a former union leader, should be the successor.
Maduro is considered an ideologue close to Cuba’s Communist leadership and in lock step with Chavez’s long-standing policy of distancing Venezuela from the United States, which had been a close ally until his presidency began in 1999. As foreign minister, a position he still holds, Maduro has led Chavez’s campaign to forge closer ties with U.S. adversaries such as Iran.
But Maduro is also seen as a negotiator, and the Americans have begun their exploratory talks in part by seeking him out, said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the talks with Venezuela.