CARACAS (Reuters) - With the passing of the Bush era, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will lose his favorite enemy and sparring partner. But clashes with the United States will persist even with Barack Obama in the White House.
Ties between the superpower and one of its biggest oil suppliers have deteriorated for years and are at a low after Chavez — in an expletive-laced speech — expelled the U.S. ambassador in September and Washington followed suit.
In the short term, tensions should ease as Chavez has pledged to return an ambassador once Obama assumes the U.S. presidency in January and George W. Bush, in the Venezuelan’s words, “creeps out the back door” of the White House.
But the thaw may not last long.
With strong ties to Cuba, Iran and Russia, Venezuela’s socialist leader bases much of his political message on countering U.S. hegemony.
U.S. officials initially hailed a short 2002 coup against Chavez and he says the CIA was involved in the putsch.
Since then, he has inflated the threat of U.S. plots against him to shore up popularity at home, and he never tired of lambasting Bush for his “imperial” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or calling him the devil, a donkey and a drunkard.
Regardless of who governs in Washington, the deterioration in relations could persist as potential flashpoints over oil, drugs, nuclear power and terrorism remain.
“We hope he tunes into the frequency of the world and convinces the U.S. hawks it is impossible to dominate the planet,” Chavez said of Obama this week.
But the man who calls ex-Cuban leader Fidel Castro his mentor warned supporters: “Let’s not kid ourselves too much.”
After Obama takes office, ties can be expected to improve as the influence fades of Washington hardliners who lobbied for sanctions against Venezuela in clashes with Chavez over everything from oil prices to democracy.
Chavez, himself of mixed African and indigenous descent, says he wants better ties and would accept an offer of “respectful” talks from Obama, who he calls “the black man.”
But his friendship with U.S. adversaries and his professed aim to develop nuclear energy for civilian use will be hard for American officials to ignore.
Chavez is a keen ally of a resurgent Moscow looking to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere. In a few weeks, Russian warships will evoke the Cold War by powering into the Caribbean for joint exercises with Venezuela.
Chavez also lobbies hard for OPEC to push up oil prices, highlighting his clash of interests with Americans. Democrats and Republicans alike say he does too little to stop drug-trafficking and question his ties to Colombian rebels.
Obama, welcomed by many Latin Americans, may try to use the goodwill he has with leaders in the region to counter anti-American feelings that Chavez has successfully channeled.
“The U.S. will gain credibility with other countries who are worried about the confrontational antics of leaders such as Chavez,” said Arturo Valenzuela, an external adviser to the Obama campaign and a former aide to President Bill Clinton.
“There will be a far greater ability for the U.S. to say ‘Let’s work together’ to push back Chavez’s interventionism and bullying tactics. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism will lose ground.”
Such attempts would create new tensions with Chavez. They are also unlikely to prosper because, although many leaders disagree with Chavez’s style, the spirit of Latin American cooperation free from U.S. pressure is valued in the region.
The Bush administration labeled him an autocrat.
Chavez even rewrote Venezuela’s military doctrine to focus on an “asymmetric” war with America. With Obama, it will be harder to convince supporters a U.S. attack is imminent.
“Bush was Chavez’s best campaign manager,” said retired Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a Chavez political party leader.
Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in Caracas and Anthony Boadle in Washington, Editing by Saul Hudson and David Storey