By Elise Labott
Ever since he called former President George W. Bush "the devil" in a speech to the United Nations, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been America's boogeyman to the South. Will his death brings the promise of a diplomatic thaw between United States and Venezuela?
In announcing Chavez's death on Tuesday, his anointed heir, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, accused the United States of a conspiracy to kill Chavez and expelled two American military members working in the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.
After categorically denying the charges, the White House issued a curt, three-line statement about Chavez's death, stripped of any condolences for the leader many Venezuelans revered but with whom Washington's relations were icy at best.
While President Barack Obama signaled support for the Venezuelan people and called for a "constructive relationship" with the government, the statement said the United States "remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights."
Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's top official for the region, later offered condolences and said the United States "stands ready to support Venezuela" during this difficult moment in its history.
Republican lawmakers were far more confrontational. U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he hoped Chavez's death "provides an opportunity for a new chapter in U.S.-Venezuelan relations," while Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Chavez "a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear."
"His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America," Royce said in a statement. "Good riddance to this dictator."
The United States viewed Chavez's leftist revolution as a destabilizing force and an obstacle to progress in the region, accusing him of eroding democracy in the country and denouncing his alliance with some of Washington's main enemies, including Cuba and Iran.
For his part, Chavez accused Washington of pursuing imperialist policies. The two countries have been operating without ambassadors in each country since a diplomatic spat in 2010, and the tit-for-tat expelling of ambassadors over charges of spying has continued ever since.
Washington had been planning for Chavez's death. In late November, when it was already known that Chavez was gravely ill, Jacobson called Maduro, and U.S. officials say Washington has proposed a roadmap on how the two nations could improve ties.
There is no shortage of issues of mutual interest for the U.S. and Venezuela on which the countries could cooperate.
The Obama administration wants to renew cooperation on counternarcotics and combating terrorism, both of which were once-productive efforts that no longer exist. Washington would also like to restart cooperation on economic issues, particularly on energy, given that Venezuela is a major oil-producing nation that remains a major supplier to the United States.
But in the words of one senior official, the outreach to Caracas has been a "rocky road." Talks have been short on substance and never left U.S. officials with the feeling Venezuela was interested in mending fences.
Maduro's first news conference, a good portion of which was devoted to railing against the United States, was not very encouraging. As he prepares to stand in upcoming elections to replace Chavez, Maduro's anti-American rhetoric is dismissed in the United States as political jockeying to shore up his political base.
This tried-and-true method of using America as straw man worked for Chavez, which is why U.S. officials acknowledge that the campaign season not be the best time to break new ground or expect tangible progress. Officials say they will continue to speak out in favor of a more productive relationship between the two countries, but the ball, officials say, is firmly in Venezuela's court.
"The opportunities are not there yet for the U.S. to engage" says Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "For the next month or so, Maduro has to show he is even more Chavez than Chavez was. That means he is going to be more anti-American, more anti-capitalist, more anti-systemic. As far as a rapprochement, I don't see it coming anytime soon."
How Venezuela conducts those elections will be a major test. For years Washington had accused Chavez and his supporters of abusing the electoral system by intimidating opposition and controlling the media during his 14-year rule. Now, the United States has made clear it expects a free and fair election in accordance with Venezuela's Constitution and charters.
While Venezuela's relationship with the United States revolved around Chavez, it is unlikely his death will dramatically affect ties in the near term. If, as expected, Maduro wins the presidency, the new boss will likely be the same as the old one.
"Chavez's supporters and their Chavismo ideological movement were dealt a blow with the death of their charismatic leader, but his ministers have been preparing for this transition, and the challenge to all sides will be measured in weeks and months, not days" said Dan Restrepo, who served as an adviser to Obama at the National Security Council during his first term.
With crime at an all-time high, continued drug-trafficking and a faltering oil sector, Meacham says the new Venezuelan government will be looking inward for the foreseeable future.
"The U.S. doesn't want to be in a situation where it is viewed at all as getting involved in domestic affairs of Venezuela," he says. "If Maduro wins, he will be trying to keep the focus on domestic issues, and that could put the resolve of Chavismo to the test. And that could mean the hardest days between the U.S. and Venezuela is not behind us, but ahead of us."
While the ability for the United States to shape a post-Chavez Venezuela may be limited, U.S. officials hope Chavez's death presents some political space for the political opposition, which until now has had problems uniting. The challenge for Washington is to try and seize the opening to engage with Venezuela's current leaders while trying to develop the opposition and help usher in new era of Venezuelan politics that doesn't revolve around one man.
Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs under former President George W. Bush, says the United States should not engage Venezuela until its leaders demonstrate they will respect the constitution and implement democratic reforms.
"We should defend the right of Venezuelans to struggle democratically to reclaim control of their country and its future," Noriega wrote in a blog for the American Enterprise Institute.
A key indicator of how the U.S. will proceed will be who is sent to Chavez's funeral, which is likely to be full of left-leaning, anti-American leaders. In the absence of an ambassador, sending a low-level embassy official suggests the United States is still looking to the past, while sending a senior delegation from Washington could signal an opening for Venezuela to seize.