Four years ago, when the first Obama administration was still hopeful about the prospects of resetting relationships with U.S. adversaries in the world, Venezuela was high on the list. "Eight years of isolation has resulted in the kinds of outreach that, I think, both you and I find troubling," then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate in 2009. "Our belief is, if it hasn't worked, why keep it going? Let's see what else might be possible." Things haven't turned out quite as planned, but following the death of Hugo Chávez, the United States may get a new opportunity to improve one of its most frustrating relationships, and find out if a new way of operating might indeed be possible.
Some progress has been made, of course. The Obama administration learned some important lessons from the George W. Bush years. It wisely avoided becoming embroiled in rhetorical tit-for-tats -- a game Chávez played with relish and of which he was the undisputed master. In 2006, for instance, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened Chávez to Adolf Hitler. The Venezuelan president responded in kind at a rally in Caracas, "The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W Bush."
The Obama White House also seemed to accept the fact that, for all his faults and the problems he posed for the United States, Chávez was Venezuela's legitimately elected president. Had there been another attempt to oust him, Obama officials would, one hopes, not have expressed undisguised glee, as the Bush White House did during the brief putsch of 2002.
Seven years after that failed coup attempt, and three months into his presidency, Obama shook hands and bantered a bit with Chávez at a hemispheric summit in Trinidad and Tobago. (Chávez, ever the showman, gave Obama a copy of a book by leftist historian Eduardo Galeano, a gift presumably aimed at enlightening the incoming president about the evils of U.S. imperialism.) True, Obama has eschewed Bush's military adventurism, which touched a deep nerve in Latin America. But a more restrained U.S. foreign policy and a commitment to "engage" with the region as "partners" did little to persuade Chávez that Washington had changed its tutelary ways. "Obama, to me, until now, has been a great disappointment." Chavez told CNN in 2010, comparing the U.S. president to a highly rated baseball pitching prospect who "end up being wild."
Today, three months into Obama's second term, Washington will have to deal with a Venezuela -- a country with the world's largest oil reserves that accounts for roughly 10 percent of U.S. imports today -- without Chávez. No one can match the riveting theater Chávez reliably provided -- his trademark, strident rhetoric and audacious, provocative moves on the regional and global stages, so often targeted at Washington. Still, after 14 years of distancing and mutual suspicions, the U.S.-Venezuela relationship is sure to be very difficult.
Though uncertainty abounds in the country that Chávez so thoroughly dominated for so long, the most likely scenario is that acting President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's designated successor, will win the election scheduled for April 14. He will benefit from an emotional boost from Chavez's death and a demoralized opposition that that was thrown off balance by major defeats in presidential and gubernatorial elections in late 2012. Maduro will preside over a government made up of diverse factions that, absent Chávez's charisma and political shrewdness, will have a hard time staying together -- particularly as the country's already serious economic conditions worsen.