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U.S. Sees Better Ties With Venezuela Regardless of Chavez Fate

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Dec. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela will improve over the next year irrespective of who leads the South American country as President Hugo Chavez battles cancer, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said.

“A year from now we will have a better relationship with Venezuela regardless of who is in power,” said Jacobson, who oversees Western Hemisphere issues at the State Department, in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York today. “The economic model that has been implemented by President Chavez is running its course.”

The comments were made as Chavez, 58, undergoes an operation today in Cuba to treat a recurring cancer, his fourth surgery since June 2011. Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro his successor on Dec. 9, two months after winning re-election in a campaign in which he told voters he was “cancer free.”

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been strained since Chavez, who has built alliances with anti-U.S. governments in Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua, took power in 1999. The former paratrooper blamed the U.S. for backing a failed 2002 coup against his government and in a 2006 speech at the United Nations called President George W. Bush “the devil.”

Frosty political ties haven’t stopped the U.S. from buying about 1 million barrels of oil per day from Venezuela in September, making it the country’s biggest client for crude. With limited refining capacity, Venezuela imported 196,000 barrels a day of petroleum products, including gasoline, from the U.S. the same month.

Cuban Detention

In Cuba, the detention of U.S. citizen Alan Gross “makes everything else much harder,” Jacobson said. Gross, 63, was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cuba when he was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, and charged with “actions against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state.”

Gross said he was in Cuba as part of a contract his company had with USAID to establish wireless networks and Internet connections for Cuban Jewish communities. He has maintained his innocence while serving a 15-year sentence.

“It’s an unjustified sentence,” said Jacobson, who has served as the coordinator for Cuban Affairs at the State Department. “It’s really important that he be home, home before his 90-year-old mother with cancer dies. Nobody should be in prison for 15 years for bringing information into another country.”

The U.S. will continue to work with Cuba on issues of “mutual importance,” Jacobson added.

To contact the reporters on this story: Veronica Navarro Espinosa in New York at vespinosa@bloomberg.net; Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net