The Kerry-Jaua Meeting: Resetting U.S.-Venezuela Relations?

  • Jun 21, 2013

    On June 5, Secretary of State John Kerry raised eyebrows when he met with his Venezuelan counterpart, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua. Both were in Guatemala to attend the recent General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). The pair’s meeting was the first high-level public meeting between the two countries since U.S. president Barack Obama and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez shook hands and had a brief exchange at the fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009.

    The Venezuelan government requested the meeting, which lasted 40 minutes and was followed by the announcement that the governments would embark on high-level talks aimed at improving bilateral relations. Of particular note, both sides expressed hope that the reciprocal appointment of ambassadors would take place in short order; Chávez expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 and the United States retaliated in kind.

    All of this is complicated by the outcome of the Venezuelan presidential election on April 14. The official results have named Nicolás Maduro the winner, having beaten opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a slim 1.5 percentage points—though the opposition continues to contest both the results and the audit.

    While much of the region moved quickly to recognize Maduro as the victor, the United States has yet to formally recognize the outcome and is waiting for the results of an audit that is satisfactory to all parties.

    So, given these developments, should the United States be resetting its relationship with Venezuela?

    Q1: Where do U.S.-Venezuelan relations stand?

    A1: Despite many fits and starts to advance relations in recent years, genuine improvements in the relationship have been hard to come by. Various U.S. government agencies hold sanctions against elements of the Venezuelan government, including on state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) for trading with Iran; on a former Iran-Venezuela Bank (IVB) for handling money transfers with a Chinese bank on behalf of the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI); and on the state-owned Venezuelan Military Industry Company after it traded with Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), over the past five years, has also designated more than half a dozen Venezuelan government officials for acting for, or on behalf of, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), designated a narco-terrorist organization by the U.S. agency. And, let’s not forget that the reason there are no ambassadors in Caracas or D.C. was Chávez’s refusal in 2010 to accept Obama’s nominee for the post in Venezuela.

    Similarly, Venezuela severed ties with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 2005. On the day Chávez’s death was announced, Maduro, as caretaker, expelled two U.S. air force attachés based in the Caracas embassy, accusing them of espionage. The United States retaliated in kind. The Maduro government also arrested U.S. filmmaker Tim Tracy for allegedly instigating postelection violence, though many pointed out he was simply in Venezuela to film a documentary on politics in the country. (Tracy was released without further explanation the same morning Kerry and Jaua met.) Suggestions by members of the Venezuelan government that the United States may have given Chávez the cancer that caused his death have certainly not helped relations either, neither have repeated accusations targeted at former officials and U.S. military and intelligence involvement in countless evidence-free plots.

    Given the complex reality of the bilateral relationship, it looks like both sides have a long road ahead of them if they seek to enact positive changes.

    Q2: Does the Venezuelan government want good relations?

    A2: Despite recent discussions with the United States, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Earlier this year, the Venezuelan government suspended talks between the U.S. State Department and Venezuelan Foreign Ministry that had begun in late 2012, citing alleged U.S. meddling in Venezuela’s April election. The Maduro government has also largely followed the Chávez playbook, constantly accusing the United States of assassination plots, spying, and economic and political sabotage. While the Kerry-Jaua meeting may have made for nice headlines, it’s difficult to imagine that the Venezuelan government will not play the anti-U.S. card again, if needed.

    This week, Calixto Ortega—appointed to handle matters with the United States—will meet with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to continue discussions and establish a new set of concrete goals to guide the relationship forward.

    These good-faith gestures made by the Venezuelan government are neither new nor unheard of. Despite recent efforts, U.S. policymakers should temper any positive expectations, as a core basis of Chavismo is its anti-U.S. ideology. It’s of course difficult to improve relations with a government that consistently defines itself as vehemently against your foreign policy agenda. This suggests that Venezuela may be looking to reestablish a purely economic relationship—one that will eliminate U.S. sanctions.

    Still, even if certain positive steps are taken, history suggests that the Venezuelan government could quickly scuttle progress made, likely with the goal of Maduro shoring up support within his own ranks.

    Q3: Should the United States pursue exchanging ambassadors?

    A3: If the United States continues on this road, both countries will seek to appoint ambassadors as a step in normalizing relations.

    Last week, the Washington Post published an editorial that suggested recent U.S. overtures to Venezuela are something of a lifeline, thrown while the Venezuelan government is struggling to maintain its legitimacy and when its neighbors, although having recognized the Maduro government, have recognized the need for an impartial audit of the election results.

    Many believe it more appropriate for the United States to prioritize delicate issues such as human rights violations and antidrug policies before being willing to consider reinstating ambassadors.

    Appointing ambassadors would certainly signal a real intention from both countries to forge a positive relationship. Having a U.S. ambassador in countries that have similar conditions to those of Venezuela is not something to be opposed across the board. In many situations, having a U.S. ambassador in a nondemocratic country serves as a symbol to advance our most cherished beliefs. It also serves as proof of the U.S. government’s willingness to keep lines of communication open. But the timing of this appointment would imply that the Unites States would deny the opposition’s claims of a fraudulent election, as well as the urgency of the audit of the election results. This also comes at a time when Venezuela is more divided than ever, politically and economically. So rather than serve as an example of a pragmatic posture, this maneuver would be viewed by a critical mass of a very motivated Venezuelan opposition as U.S. government support for the Maduro government.

    Conclusion: In short, relations between the United States and Venezuela have a rocky track record that recent headlines cannot obscure. And while there are undoubtedly members of the Venezuelan government who want to improve relations, it’s difficult to see their argument winning over the more hardline Chavistas in the government, who would likely see any steps to building ties as betraying the cause.

    Venezuela has time and again proven to be unwilling to work with the United States, making it difficult for the United States to gauge any real intentions of change. In order to move ahead and legitimize this new relationship, the United States must make a decision regarding Maduro’s legitimacy: does the United States recognize Maduro’s election sans a proper audit?

    Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Pamela Pamelá, intern scholar with the Americas Program at CSIS, provided research assistance.

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