Breakthrough in US Venezuela Relations

David Smilde

Few of us believed the rumors last week that a breakthrough in US-Venezuela relations was in the works. The obstacles seemed too large as the US still had not recognized Nicolas Maduro as the winner of the April 14 election. And Venezuelan officials at all levels had accused the US of multiple conspiracies, including one in which filmmaker Tim Tracy was supposedly financing opposition protesters. Tracy was jailed at the end of April.

But Tuesday’s news of a scheduled meeting between Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua and US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Wednesday morning’s news that Tracy had been released and expelled from Venezuela made clear that something significant could happen.

Indeed it was the highest level meeting between the two countries since Obama and Chávez shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in 2009, and represented an important breakthrough (See AP coverage here and Spanish language coverage here and here). The meeting lasted 40 minutes and ended with a photo op and brief press conference with each leader expressing the desire for improved relations, announcing a working plan to resolve differences, and the desire to reestablish diplomatic relations including the exchange of ambassadors.

The events of the past month and a half have made it hard to remember that rapprochement was in the air shortly before the April elections. The US does not have a big interest in conflict with Venezuela–a major oil supplier and consumer of US goods and services. Conflict with Venezuela does not facilitate relations with regional heavyweights like Brazil and Argentina that value their relationship with Venezuela. It also puts the US in an awkward “friend of my enemy is my friend” position with its main ally in the region, Colombia.

Venezuela has complex interests with respect to the US. On the one hand, denunciations of the US as an imperialist power trying to undermine the Bolivarian government was a key rhetorical tool for Chávez and Maduro appeals to it frequently–something the US generally makes quite easy. However, Venezuela also has an interest in good relations with US as its number one commercial partner in tough economic times.

Furthermore, with a tough political scene at home, international relations are Maduro’s primary source of strength. While polls within Venezuela show a steady decline in Maduro’s popularity versus a steady increase for rival Henrique Capriles, he has been recognized and warmly embraced by all countries in the hemisphere except for the US. Indeed not only did Jaua meet with Kerry yesterday, Maduro softened his approach to tensions with Colombia.