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The US gets its response the wrong way round

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Latin America unites easily in times like this and the outpouring for Hugo Chávez, who gave the region back its pride, is deeply genuine. Still, this is not always understood in the US. The first official statement from the White House, emphasising “a new chapter” and reiterating the US commitment to a “constructive working relationship” based on “policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights” arguably struck the wrong tone in the immediate hours after Chávez’s passing on 5 March.

The administration subsequently seemed to double back, with the US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, the next day expressing “condolences to the family and friends of president Chávez”. Acknowledging that for Venezuela this is a “difficult moment in its history”, she went on to offer official US support, as “an old friend of the Venezuelan people”, for new elections and for “Venezuela’s aspirations for peace, security and prosperity”. Arguably, that should have been the first response, with any emphasis about the need for a proper constitutional response to the president’s passing left until later.

The state department also tacitly signalled that the US is unlikely to react to Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s expulsion of two US embassy officials that he accused of efforts to destabilise the country just hours before Chávez’s death was announced on 5 March. An emotional Maduro also accused the US of ‘injecting’ Chávez with his fatal cancer, a comment that made instant world headlines, only to be followed up hours later by the news of the president’s death. Maduro’s comments were all the more hard hitting in the context of the US outreach to Maduro last year (when he was still foreign minister) in a bid to restore diplomatic relations and exchange new ambassadors, an outreach confirmed by Jacobson late last year after it was leaked to the press.

Although it has not been officially confirmed, the US government may send a delegation to Chávez’s funeral in a gesture intended to signal the Barack Obama administration’s interest in a more “functional” working relationship with Venezuela, according to a report in the daily El Nacional. Any US delegation could find itself in rather interesting company – with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among the potential attendees.

For additional news or analysis on Latin America, please go to: Latin News