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5 signs Venezuela-US relations are still rocky after Chavez

Nicolas Maduro was once Hugo Chavez’s top foreign diplomat. Now that he’s in charge, some of the vitriol persists.

Maduro chavez 2013 05 01Enlarge
It appears Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro has taken more than a page from Hugo Chavez's book. (Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Washington remains the only major government that has not yet recognized the results of Venezuela’s Apr. 14 vote, which election officials here said showed a razor-thin win by Nicolas Maduro.

For Maduro, it seems, there’s no love lost. “Take your eyes off Venezuela, [US Secretary of State] John Kerry,” he said on state television. “We don’t care about your recognition.”

His mentor Hugo Chavez was famous for hours-long televised verbal thrashings against the US “imperialists,” even as the superpower became chief buyer of Venezuela’s state-owned oil.

Chavez's vitriol climaxed before the United Nations in New York when, a day after a speech by then-President George W. Bush, he said: “The devil came here yesterday. … It smells of sulfur still."

Now, with Maduro in charge, many are watching for the same fiery language.

What the world is seeing may be somewhat confusing: Venezuela’s government has locked up and kicked out alleged American spies on the one hand, and offered conciliatory messages to Washington on the other. After the country's disputed election, officials agreed to a partial vote recount one minute, but lawmakers got in fistfights with the opposition the next.

Perhaps what we’re seeing is a nuanced style that Maduro, a 50-year-old former foreign minister, will employ to carry on the late Comandante’s socialist movement.

Whatever it is, there are signs that Washington and Caracas' relations are in for a rocky road. Here are a few of them.

1. The expulsion: Just hours before Maduro solemnly announced Chavez’s death, the government expelled two US diplomats, accusing them of attempting to destabilize the country. Here he is (in Spanish) making the announcement.

Less than a week later, Washington expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat move. The countries have not had ambassadorial-level links since 2010.

2. The detention: Just last week, authorities detained 35-year-old American filmmaker Tim Tracy, accused of having “training as an intelligence agent,” according to Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez, and fomenting the post-election violence.

"They don't have CIA in custody. They don't have a journalist in custody. They have a kid with a camera," Aengus James, a friend and associate of Tracy's in Hollywood, Calif., told The Associated Press.

It is not the first time a US citizen has been arrested in Venezuela under dubious circumstances.

3. The poison: Upon Chavez’s death in March, Maduro said he would set up a “scientific commission” to investigate the cancer that ultimately killed Chavez. He said “historical enemies” might be culprits in some kind of cancer plot, which many interpreted to mean Washington.

Chavez himself had blamed the US government for spreading cancer, after fellow leftist leader, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, revealed that she was also suffering from the illness. “It’s very difficult to explain, even with the law of probabilities, what has been happening to some of us in Latin America,” Chavez said in December 2011. “Would it be so strange that they’ve invented technology to spread cancer and we won’t know about it for 50 years?”

“Fidel [Castro, of Cuba] always told me,” added Chavez, “‘Chavez be careful! These people have developed technology. You are very careless. Be careful what you eat, what they give you to eat … a little needle and they inject you with I don’t know what.”

On Chavez’s cancer plot, the BBC’s More or Less did the math and the “law of probabilities” was not on Chavez’s side.

4. The coup: Chavez loyalists retain a clear memory of the 2002 attempted coup that ousted Chavez for 48 hours. He repeatedly blamed Washington for backing the revolt. He was outraged, and his anti-American rhetoric grew venomous, exacerbated by the Bush administration’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Documents released two years after the coup show that the United States at least had knowledge of the plot before it took place. But many suspect deeper involvement. In an interview with Colombian newspaper El Tiempo in 2009, former US President Jimmy Carter said: “I think there is no doubt that in 2002 the US had at the very least full knowledge about the coup, and could even have been directly involved.”

A recent US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks shows that the United States, in the years following the coup at least, aimed to destabilize the Chavez regime. It says:

In August of 2004, Ambassador outlined the country team's 5-point strategy to guide embassy activities in Venezuela for the period 2004-2006 (specifically, from the referendum to the 2006 presidential elections).

The strategy's focus is:

1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions,

2) Penetrating Chavez' Political Base,

3) Dividing Chavismo,

4) Protecting Vital US business, and

5) Isolating Chavez internationally.

5. Hablar English: Despite understanding English, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski — who is challenging his election defeat to Maduro — refuses to speak the language on camera. Some analysts suspect that’s because he’s fearful it would remind Venezuelans of the opposition’s close ties to Washington.

Some cohorts, however, have missed Capriles’ cue, to their own detriment. This picture of vocal opposition leader Maria Corina Machado was circulated widely during recent elections.

In that vein, Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, has repeatedly called Capriles the “Prince of New York” (whatch him do so in Spanish here), reminding supporters of the wealth gap between the two politicians and hinting of financing from the United States.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/venezuela/130501/signs-venezuela-us-washington-rocky-relations