CARACAS Venezuela's government is open to improving troubled ties with Washington and is considering a U.S. proposal for the return of anti-drug agents kicked out of the country eight years ago by President Hugo Chavez, a senior official said.
There has been no word from Chavez since he had cancer surgery in Cuba five weeks ago, so every move the government makes in his absence is being picked over for clues to what the OPEC nation might look like in a post-Chavez era.
Speaking to Telesur, a TV network set up by Chavez to counter Western media influence, Venezuela's ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Roy Chaderton, said U.S.-Venezuela relations were "not hot, not cold. Zero degrees."
But he said there were efforts to find common ground.
"There are things that are being done with a great deal of seriousness and a lot of caution," Chaderton said late on Saturday.
"We are not obliged to have bad ties with governments which have different visions to ours ... I hope pragmatism prevails in this initiative and we reach a fair place of mutual interest."
Officials say Chavez's condition is improving but delicate after the 58-year-old suffered complications from his surgery in Havana on December 11, his fourth operation in just 18 months.
His heir apparent, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, said on Sunday that Chavez was coming out of the complex post-operative period and beginning a "new phase" of his treatment. Maduro said more details would be given in official bulletins.
"We're always optimistic. Sooner rather than later we are going to have the president here with us," the former bus driver and union leader told another Venezuelan TV network.
"His mood remains the same as always ... the spirit of victory, a special wish to see how the fatherland that he has dedicated all his force to, his whole life, continues to grow."
Many Venezuelans suspect, however, that the socialist's 14 years in power - during which his fiery criticism of the United States helped turn him into one of the world's most recognizable and polarizing leaders - may be coming to an end.
In one typically headline-grabbing move, Chavez halted cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2005 after accusing its agents of spying.
Venezuela, which shares a long, largely unpoliced border with Colombia, has become a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine on its way to consumer nations.
Asked about the possible return of DEA agents to Venezuela, Chaderton confirmed it was being discussed. "It is one of the many hopes of the United States and it is a proposal," he said.
"Our government will decide, the competent national authorities, the justice minister, the director of the O.N.A. (anti-drug agency)," he said. "It is a matter which has to be studied by the politicians and the experts."
The government says it has invested heavily in fighting narcotics and points to the extradition to Colombia and the United States of high profile accused druglords as evidence of its efforts. It has also taken part in joint operations.
In September, Venezuelan officers captured a top Colombian trafficker, Daniel "Crazy" Barrera, near the border in a raid that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said was directed from Washington by a Colombian general and included the help of U.S. and British intelligence agencies.
The latest political spat between Washington and Caracas took place as recently as December, when Venezuelan officials were furious after President Barack Obama criticized the ailing Chavez's "authoritarian policies and suppression of dissent."
Venezuela's government called them "despicable comments at such a delicate moment", and said Obama was responsible for a major deterioration in relations.
Spurred on by years of Chavez's tirades about the "Yankee empire", many of his loyal supporters suspect the United States of being behind a wide range of threats to his self-styled revolution - including a coup that briefly toppled him in 2002.
Stressing the need for mutual respect, Chaderton made clear that Venezuela needed no U.S. stamp of approval or card of good conduct.
"We are not going to take part in an improvement of relations at the cost of being 'certified' by those who have no authority to do so," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens and Sandra Maler)