The official, as well as people who have worked with Maduro in Caracas on foreign-policy issues, cautioned that the talks are designed to simply find a channel of communication.
“We want to start small and go from that, diplomacy 101,” the official said. The idea is to then go on to broader talks on issues important to the United States, including oil, drug trafficking and terrorism, and, principally, Venezuela’s ties with the Iranian government — which Washington is working to isolate.
At this stage, with Venezuela convulsed by a constitutional crisis, the talks are delicate.
Last week, Maduro publicly stressed that the contacts with the Americans were not designed to jump-start relations should Chavez die. Maduro said the president had, in fact, authorized the conversations.
“We stressed the need for respect for the revolutionary and democratic process in Venezuela,” he told state television.
The U.S. official said the talks began because diplomats and the White House thought the moment was apt, with President Obama and Chavez having been reelected in the fall. “We were looking at four years, at least, going forward,” the official said.
But moving forward will not be easy.
“I don’t think there are great illusions about having some partnerships or of any quick and dramatic change in the relationship,” said Michael Shifter, a policy analyst in Washington.
Hostility toward Washington
A central ideological pillar of Chavez’s rule over 14 years has been to oppose Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington, which he accuses of trying to destabilize his government.
“I think they really believe it, that we are out there at some level to do them ill,” said Charles Shapiro, president of the Institute of the Americas, a think tank in San Diego.
As ambassador to Venezuela from 2002 to 2004, Shapiro met with Chavez and other high-
ranking officials, including Maduro. But the relationship began to fall apart, with Chavez accusing the United States of supporting a coup that briefly ousted him from power. U.S. officials have long denied the charge.
Shapiro recalled how Maduro made what he called unsubstantiated accusations about CIA activity in Venezuela, without ever approaching the embassy with a complaint. He said that as time went by, the United States became a useful foil for Chavez and most Venezuelan officials withdrew contact.
“A sure way to ruin your career, to become a backbencher, was to become too friendly with the U.S. Embassy,” Shapiro said.
On a practical level, the Venezuelan government stopped cooperating with Washington’s counter-drug operations and for years was accused of assisting guerrillas in neighboring Colombia, the closest U.S. ally in the region. Under Maduro’s watch as foreign minister, Venezuela became friendlier with pariah states such as Syria, Libya and Belarus.
Roger Noriega, who oversaw the George W. Bush administration’s policies in Latin America from 2003 to 2005, said the U.S. diplomatic initiatives could legitimize Maduro.
Noriega said that if Chavez dies, there would be a power struggle between Maduro and the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who is allied with the military and is a power broker among the nouveau riche who benefited from the government’s free-spending ways. Noriega said the United States should wait until the dust settles.
“This is an heir to a guy who’s been unrelentingly hostile to the United States and really doing his bidding,” Noriega said of Maduro. “Did they see that this is a very convoluted, complicated succession, a power struggle within Chavismo, and they’re meeting with one of the protagonists in this power struggle?”
But two former Chavez loyalists who now oppose the government — former congressman Jose Albornoz and Vladimir Villegas, a former deputy foreign minister — said Maduro’s experience as a diplomat and union negotiator would make him a more promising negotiator for the Americans than Cabello.
Albornoz said that although Maduro has a radical edge, he is pragmatic and has a “geopolitical vision.” The former congressman also said that Venezuela’s dire problems require cooperation with the United States and an imaginative approach by diplomats.
“The relations with the United States have to be redefined,” Albornoz said. “I think Nicolas has the possibility of recognizing that.”
Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.