U.S. seeks better relations with Venezuela, but says they may not come soon

The Obama administration is treading carefully in response to the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, extending an olive branch while warning there may not be any early improvement in relations between the two countries.

Chavez played “an outsized role in that government and therefore his absence” could have “outsized implications,” a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

The official said the administration was anxious to begin “step-by-step” talks about issues of “mutual interest,” including antidrug efforts, counterterrorism and commercial relations.

But the upcoming political campaign to elect Chavez’s replacement may not be the best time to initiate a new dialogue, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the State Department at a briefing for reporters.

“We will no doubt continue to hear things about the United States that will not help,” the official said. “It’s very hard for us to know right now whether the current government,” or the one that emerges from the election, “will in fact accelerate or continue or stop the momentum toward a better relationship.”

Just hours before announcing the Venezuelan leader’s death from cancer Tuesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela had ordered the expulsion of two military attaches at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, accusing them of trying to provoke dissension in the Venezuelan military.

Maduro also appeared to blame Chavez’s illness on the United States, saying that “the old enemies of our fatherland looked for a way to harm his health.”

The United States and Venezuela were barely on speaking terms during Chavez’s 14 years in office as Chavez accused Washington of a heavy-handed approach to the hemisphere and forged friendships with Cuba, Iran and others that the United States views as troublesome.

The administration has denied the Venezuelan charges against the military officials and called the expulsions “outrageous.” The State Department official said the administration was still reviewing whether to respond in kind, adding that “we’re not ruling anything out at this point.”

A statement issued by President Obama on Chavez’s death did not include the usual condolences, but described a “challenging time” in Venezuela and reaffirmed U.S. “support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”

Subsequent State Department communications “made clear that we expressed our sympathies to his family and to the Venezuelan people,” the State Department official said. “But it’s obviously been a pretty complicated relationship.”

Although Chavez was reelected in October, his illness prevented him from being sworn in for a new term in January, and he recommended Maduro as his successor in one of his last statements to the nation. The official said the administration was “hopeful that [new] elections will go forward” according to the Venezuelan constitution “in the coming days and months.”

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.

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