Venezuela and the US Signal Openness, but Mutual Criticism Continues

Timothy Gill

Over the past few weeks, US and Venezuelan government officials have voiced openness to normalizing relations. However, the US State Department’s reaction to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States’ (CELAC) final declaration at their recent summit has resulted in a critical response from the Venezuelan government, illustrating how complicated restoring their relationship will be. 

Since September 2008, Venezuela and the US have not had official diplomatic relations.  Attempts to repair relations in June broke down when Samantha Power characterized Venezuela as a “repressive regime” during her Senate confirmation hearings to become US ambassador the United Nations (UN). 

The CELAC held a two-day summit in Havana, Cuba, on January 28-29 that included government leaders from 33 Latin American and Caribbeans nations included in the CELAC as well as observers from several international organizations, including José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, and Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN. The summit ended with Cuban President Raúl Castro reading a 16-page declaration that described the region as a “zone of peace” and covered issues ranging from the eradication of poverty and hunger to criticism of the US economic embargo against Cuba and its inclusion of Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In response to the declaration, a US State Department spokesman speaking under anonymity referred to the organization’s final declaration as “particularly inexplicable” and stated that the US is “disappointed that the CELAC, in its final declaration, betrayed the region’s outspoken commitment to democratic principles, as it endorsed the single-party system in Cuba.”

On Cuban television, President Nicolás Maduro responded to the US, stating that the "bitterness in the declaration of the State Department, who insolently tells a continent that we are" traitors,“ they should swallow their statement, because Latin America will continue its course in peace, with tranquility, and in diversity and a unified way.”

On February 3, in an interview with Últimas Noticias, Elías Jaua, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, stated that the Venezuelan government is still willing to resume the dialogue with the US government. However, he said that the US must provide a “minimum of guarantees,” including that “it cease the financing and assistance for opposition groups … and not interfere in the internal affairs of Venezuela.”

These events come just over a week after President Maduro and US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki signaled their desire to restore their relationship.

On January 15, President Maduro delivered the annual Memoria y Cuenta message to the nation before the National Assembly (AN). In his speech, President Maduro stated that Venezuela “would like to have fluid relations with the US based on mutual respect.” However, he said that the US must “understand, once and for all, that thanks to Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela is now a truly independent and sovereign country.”

On January 17, in response to President Maduro’s comments, US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki stated that as “[Secretary of State John Kerry] has repeatedly stated, the United States believes that both of our countries would be well-served by a functional and productive relationship on areas of mutual interest, including those affecting citizen security such as counternarcotics and counterterrorism, and the commercial relationship, including energy.”

These gestures come at an important juncture for both the Venezuelan and US governments.

In Venezuela, pervasive violence and the internationally publicized murder of Monica Spear have pressed President Maduro into publicly shaking hands with Henrique Capriles and conducting talks with prominent opposition members concerning the violence. The Venezuelan government is also facing several economic problems, including high inflation rates, a decline in foreign reserves, and shortages of basic consumer goods.

Some believe the situation is so severe that there could be “a violent popular reaction.” On January 23, Harold Trinkunas, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, sent President Obama a memorandum, suggesting that the US government begin talks with Brazil and other hemispheric allies of the Venezuelan government in case the country break down into political violence.

In the US, the government has struggled with its international reputation and suffered several diplomatic rows since Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s extensive electronic espionage, which have included monitoring the cellular phones, e-mail accounts, and computers of several international leaders.

Although officials from the two countries have not scheduled any diplomatic meetings in order to formally restore relations, these remarks are the first signs of a potentially renewed effort.

In September 2008, President Chávez expelled US ambassador Patrick Duddy from Venezuela and recalled Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Álvarez from the US. These moves were initiated in an expression of solidarity with the Bolivian government, which had also recently expelled their US ambassador for allegedly encouraging anti-government protests in opposition states. Since this time, neither Bolivia nor Venezuela has reinstalled ambassadors.

With the election of President Barack Obama, relations between the two countries were expected to improve. In August 2010, the Obama Administration nominated Larry Palmer to become US ambassador to Venezuela. In a meeting with US State Department officials, Palmer emphasized, among other issues, low morale within the Venezuelan military due to political appointments and Venezuelan government support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In response, President Chávez rejected Palmer’s appointment, saying that the Venezuelan government would ask him to leave the moment he arrived.

In June 2013, despite the US government’s failure to recognize President Maduro and the legitimacy of the April presidential elections, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua met for 40 minutes during the General Assembly of the Organization of the American States (OAS) in Guatemala where the two leaders expressed desire to normalize their relationship and establish an exchange of ambassadors.

In July 2013, efforts to restore relations broke down, however, when the US government nominated Samantha Power as US ambassador to the UN. During her Senate confirmation hearing, Power stated that she would stand up against “repressive regimes” and challenge “the crackdown on civil society being carried out in countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia and Venezuela.” In response, President Maduro stated that unless the US government selected another individual for the position, Venezuela would not work to restore the relationship. Power was confirmed by the Senate in an 87-10 vote on August 1.

In October 2013, the Venezuelan government expelled three US diplomats for allegedly conspiring to destabilize the country with opposition groups. The US government expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in response.