By Brian Winter
(Reuters) - Increasingly "bizarre" accusations by acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have cast doubt on whether Washington will be able to improve ties with his government if he wins an election next month, a senior U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.
Maduro has repeatedly lashed out at Washington since former President Hugo Chavez died on March 5, accusing the United States of secretly causing Chavez's cancer and plotting to kill his rival in the April 14 presidential election.
Anti-U.S. rhetoric was used frequently, and often effectively, by Chavez to rally domestic support during his 14-year socialist rule. So some observers have regarded Maduro's allegations as a relatively harmless tactic as he tries to prove he is Chavez's natural heir ahead of the election.
But the severity of the accusations, plus Foreign Minister Elias Jaua's declaration on Wednesday that Venezuela was suspending informal talks with Washington, have made President Barack Obama's administration wonder if their hopes for a relative warming of ties are misplaced, the senior official said.
"Some of the recent false allegations are bizarre and unhelpful, similar with efforts in the past to draw us into an unnecessary debate," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We're not interested in getting involved."
"We're aware of the electoral environment, but this is kind of above the norm," the official said. "It calls into question whether we're dealing with rational actors."
Some in the U.S. government have hoped for a detente that could allow for greater Venezuelan cooperation on drug trafficking, terrorism, trade and other key issues. U.S. companies such as Chevron Corp. that do business in Venezuela and could be aided by a warming in ties.
"We have a genuine desire to have a functional relationship with Venezuelan authorities," the official said.
The latest downturn in ties came after Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. State Department's lead official on Latin America, said in a newspaper interview that "Venezuelans deserve open, fair and transparent elections."
"With Jacobson's latest comments ... we have realized that it doesn't make sense to continue wasting our time," Jaua said during a ceremony this week.
The U.S. official said the Obama administration "will continue to promote human rights and democracy" in Venezuela, in line with regional diplomatic accords.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)