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DIPLOMACY

US, Venezuela are reportedly seeking post-Chávez thaw

Roberta S. Jacobson, the top US State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs, held a long telephone conversation with Venezuela's Vice-President and Chávez-designated heir Nicolás Maduro

Washington expects greater cooperation in counter-narcotics (Photo: EFE)
EL UNIVERSAL
Tuesday January 01, 2013  06:29 PM
While Venezuela's announcement that President Hugo Chávez's bout with cancer has taken a turn for the worse is making big headlines, there is another development in the Venezuelan drama that has gone almost unnoticed: high-level US-Venezuelan talks preparing for a post-Chávez future may have already started, according to US officials.

Roberta S. Jacobson, the top US State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs, held a long telephone conversation with Venezuela's Vice-President and Chávez-designated heir Nicolás Maduro on November 21, where the two discussed, among other things, the possibility of restoring ambassadors, the sources said.

The talks, which were encouraged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, started with a US diplomatic approach to Maduro's office asking whether the vice-president would take a call from Jacobson, the sources added. The answer was positive, and the telephone conversation took place shortly thereafter.

Asked whether she had talked with Maduro, Jacobson replied, "Yes. We are always interested in having a more productive relationship with Venezuela, starting with counternarcotics, and in order to have a more productive relationship you have to talk to people."

Details of the talks come as reports from Havana, where Chávez recently underwent a fourth surgery for cancer, indicate that he is experiencing a slow recovery. Maduro said Sunday that Chávez suffered "new complications" from a respiratory infection and his condition was delicate.

The behind-the-scenes talks were originally reported in a December 12 column by Venezuela's daily El Universal columnist Nelson Bocaranda, and in a December 14 article by former US ambassador Roger Noriega, a conservative Republican, in the online magazine of the American Enterprise Institute.

Noriega referred to the Jacobson-Maduro telephone conversation toward the end of his article, and lambasted US "career diplomats" for allegedly "legitimizing a narco-authoritarian regime" in Venezuela.

In addition, Noriega reported that Jacobson's deputy Kevin Whitaker had subsequently had a conversation in Washington with senior Venezuelan diplomat Roy Chaderton. US officials confirm that this conversation took place.

In his article, Noriega urged the US Congress to intervene to stop the talks, claiming that "an unconditional rapprochement may undercut efforts to indict senior (Venezuelan) officials for their drug crimes." Suggesting that Washington should not recognize Chávez's successor "until he promises to adopt democratic reforms," Noriega added that "career diplomats may get their wish of normalizing relations with Caracas, even if it confers legitimacy on a dangerous, undemocratic regime in Venezuela."

According to US officials, during the Jacobson-Maduro talks in which both sides expressed hopes for a speedy recovery of Chávez the Venezuelan vice-president offered to exchange ambassadors on occasion of the beginning of President Barack Obama's second term. Jacobson, in turn, is said to have proposed a step-by-step approach to improve bilateral relations, starting with greater cooperation in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and energy issues.

Under the three-step US proposal, the first test to restore bilateral relations would be Venezuela's acceptance of a visit by the top DEA regional supervisor based in Colombia, to map a plan of greater cooperation on anti-narcotic issues. While there are anti-narcotics officials at the US Embassy in Caracas, such a visit would give bilateral talks greater diplomatic weight, officials say.

According to the sources, both sides may have powerful reasons to seek a thaw as they prepare for the possibility of a post-Chávez era.

US officials would like Venezuela to allow greater cooperation on drugs, terrorism and energy, regardless of who is in power, to stop the country from becoming "a drug-traffickers' paradise."

Maduro, in turn, may be buying time to consolidate his leadership at home. "A hard-liner who is very close to Cuba's dictatorship, Maduro may have talked to Jacobson to send a message within the polarized Chavista movement that he's in charge, before any internal power struggle in Venezuela breaks out in the open," the sources added.
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