Hugo Chavez talks with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro during a meeting in Caracas in this file photo from 2006. As Chavez remains in Cuba for medical treatment, the U.S. has made attempts to communicate with the government. (FERNANDO LLANO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

With cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez battling for his life, the Obama administration has embarked on a discreet but concerted weeks-long diplomatic initiative to open channels of communication with his sharply anti-American government.

The effort to break through a years-old deep freeze with one of the world’s top oil suppliers comes as Venezuela plunged deeper into an institutional crisis Wednesday over Chavez’s long absence since undergoing surgery Dec. 11 in Cuba.

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.

Exploratory talks

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.

In November, Roberta S. Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, spoke by phone with Maduro, the senior official said. There also have been meetings in Washington between Kevin Whitaker, a deputy assistant secretary of state, and Roy Chaderton, the Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States, which is based in the city.

“I would characterize it as a handful of conversations that have taken place,” the U.S. official said. The Obama administration, the official added, has in recent weeks “had more echo and better luck” engaging Venezuela than in the past seven years, when the relationship started to splinter badly.

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.