Venezuela after Hugo Chavez: Why US Eyes Upcoming Elections Warily

Article excerpt

The elaborate public funeral Venezuela will hold for President Hugo Chvez Friday will take place with already troubled US- Venezuela relations at a new low point.

The sour relations have US officials downbeat about prospects for a turnaround between the two countries anytime soon. Beyond that, the onset of a turbulent presidential election campaign that is likely to feature the US as an enemy of the deceased leaders vision for Latin America will also feed Latin Americas deep divides, analysts say and could complicate prospects for US relations with the region.

Political heirs of the fiery and anti-US leader made it clear in the hours following the announcement Tuesday of his passing that the forces of chavismo, Mr. Chvezs brand of populist socialism, intend to stoke the flames of anti-American sentiment as a means of rallying Venezuelans left distraught and confused by the presidents demise.

Chvezs hand-picked heir apparent, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, accused imperialist forces a clear reference to the US of infecting Chvez with the disease that took his life. He also announced an investigation into the cause of death that promises to keep the countrys enemies at the forefront of Venezuelans thought as they adjust to life without Chvez and prepare for a new presidential election.

The Venezuelan constitution says a new election must be called within 30 days of the presidents passing, but no date has yet been set.

A Venezuelan election that exacerbates the divide between the forces of chavismo and an opposition that is more favorable to a free market economy, to democratic rule and to the US is likely to extend the countrys political turbulence, regional experts say.

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Perhaps even more worrisome for the US, a political fight in Venezuela along Latin Americas ideological fault lines broadly speaking Chvezs leftist populism versus Brazils model of change through economic growth risks deepening the regions divisions and complicating US interests, some analysts say.

US relations with Venezuela are likely to remain difficult if Chvezs preferred successor [Mr. Maduro] succeeds Chvez, at least in the near term, says Patrick Duddy, a former US ambassador to Venezuela who is now a visiting senior lecturer at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

And turmoil in Venezuela would only harm US goals across the hemisphere, he adds. Political instability and violence in Venezuela would damage US efforts to promote democracy, increase regional cooperation, combat narcotics, and protect its economic interests in the region, Ambassador Duddy says.

US officials who first made contact with Maduro last November (as Chvezs condition worsened) and had been working to launch a dialogue with the government were dismayed by Maduros accusations Tuesday against the US in part because they suggested the man who may very well succeed Chvez was adopting his mentors tactics. …

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