Venezuelan Leader’s Taunts Won’t Provoke U.S., Diplomat Says

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
While Russia, China and most of Latin America has congratulated Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for his win, the U.S. and European Union have held back support while seeking a recount to address opposition claims of irregularities. Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. is unlikely to adopt a more confrontational stance toward Venezuela even as President-elect Nicolas Maduro ratchets up his rhetoric in the wake of his narrow victory, the State Department’s top official for Latin America said.

Echoing charges frequently levied by his political mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, Maduro yesterday accused the U.S. of trying to oust him by supporting opposition calls for a recount of ballots in the April 14 election he won by about 270,000 votes. Today, he likened President Barack Obama’s policy towards Venezuela to U.S. support for the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973.

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said such rhetoric has become more commonplace since Maduro took control of Venezuela’s troubled economy following Chavez’s death from cancer last month. While that makes it harder for relations to improve, the U.S. is unlikely to respond in kind, she said.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a marked difference in the way we respond to Maduro versus the way we responded to Chavez,” Jacobson, a career diplomat, said in an interview from the State Department in Washington. “It still doesn’t make sense to get in, you’ll excuse me, a pissing match with Nicolas Maduro any more than it did with Chavez.”

While relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have long been strained -- the two countries have gone without ambassadors since 2010 -- former president George W. Bush in his second term adopted a more conciliatory tone toward Chavez, which Obama continued.

Other Cheek

At the heart of what Jacobson called a “turning of the cheek” approach are strong commercial ties -- Venezuela was the U.S.’s fourth-biggest supplier of oil last year -- and a sense of political realism.

That means that while the U.S. won’t back away from expressing its disappointment with the fairness of the election and the lack of a recount, that shouldn’t lead relations to deteriorate further, she said. While Russia, China and most of Latin America has congratulated Maduro for his win, the U.S. and European Union have held back support while seeking a recount to address opposition claims of irregularities.

“If Friday Maduro is sworn in as president, I don’t think that’s going to change very much from one day to the next our positions,” said Jacobson, who has served as the U.S.’s top diplomat to Latin America since 2011.

‘Rush to Judgment’

Jacobson said the U.S. will continue to believe that the way the election results were handled represent a “rush to judgment” that won’t help Venezuela overcome deep political divisions.

Still, Jacobson said she doesn’t harbor much hope that relations will improve either, even after what she described as Maduro’s favorable response to a U.S. outreach a few months ago.

In November, Jacobson said she called then-Foreign Minister Maduro to discuss how to get relations back on track in a likely post-Chavez government. High-level meetings between the two governments were also held, though they lost momentum as Chavez’s worsening health came to dominate the nation’s affairs, she said.

Then, in the hours before Chavez’s death, Maduro suggested the U.S. may have poisoned the socialist leader. During the month-long campaign he continued to ramp up “exponentially” his anti-American rhetoric, “making it much harder” today to find any common ground, Jacobson said.

Long Harangue

Jacobson’s first encounter with Maduro, at the April 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia, was also marked by confrontation. In a private negotiating session attended by foreign ministers, she said she was subjected to a “long, long harangue” by Maduro, in which he accused the U.S. of imperialism and starving communist Cuba with its half-century trade embargo.

“There were many around that table who were acutely uncomfortable with him yelling -- and he was yelling at this point -- at a woman across the table,” she said. “Closing the doors didn’t seem to make a difference.”

Then, less than two months later, at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Bolivia, the two traded pleasantries while posing side-by-side for a group photo. Maduro said he held no grudges against her or the U.S., according to Jacobson.

“It’s very hard to read these signals,” she said. “Every time we get to the point of actually working on substantive stuff, we end up taking steps backward with accusations of everything from killing Chavez with cancer to coups.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE