U.S. and Venezuela to restore expelled ambassadors

MARACAY, Venezuela (Reuters) - The United States and Venezuela will soon reinstate ambassadors expelled in a diplomatic spat last year, a sign of warmer relations between President Hugo Chavez and what he calls the U.S. “empire.”

Patrick Duddy speaks to the media after a private meeting in Caracas May 20, 2008. REUTERS/Susana Gonzalez/Files

Leftist Chavez has toned down his strident criticism of U.S. foreign policy since Barack Obama took office in January, partly because the U.S. president is popular in Latin America in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush.

Obama, in turn, has pledged to engage with countries considered problematic by the United States.

Venezuela, one of the United States’ top crude oil suppliers, said its envoy would be back in Washington this week. A source at the U.S. State Department said Ambassador Patrick Duddy will return to Caracas, but did not say when.

“We have a very clear position regarding this subject and we are prepared to move forward,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said in a statement confirming the return of the ambassadors.

Chavez and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had agreed in April they would work to reinstate the envoys.

Along with his close friend Fidel Castro of Cuba and other Latin American leaders, Chavez often says he respects Obama. The Venezuelan joked earlier this month that Obama was more left-wing than he was for effectively nationalizing General Motors -- a reference to the large stake the U.S. government now owns as part of auto giant’s bankruptcy.

The announcement about the envoys came as leaders from Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, who are all critical of the U.S. influence in Latin America, gathered in Venezuela for a summit of an alternative trade alliance started by Chavez.

Despite the warmer tone and a handshake with Obama at a summit of countries in the Americas in April, Chavez is still committed to countering Washington’s global influence and recently accused U.S. spies of plotting to kill him without Obama’s knowledge.

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Chavez expelled the U.S. envoy to Caracas in September and Washington responded by kicking out Venezuela’s ambassador in a dispute involving charges by Venezuelan ally Bolivia that Washington was meddling in its internal affairs.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that since Clinton and Chavez spoke during the Summit of Americas “both our governments have worked toward the goal of returning ambassadors to our respective capitals,” adding “We are currently taking the necessary measures to accomplish this goal.”

Venezuela’s ambassador, Bernardo Alvarez, is expected to return to Washington on Friday, a source at the Foreign Ministry said.

Bolivia and the United States are still without their respective envoys, but U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon visited La Paz last month as the two countries tried to patch up relations.

The United States will also send an ambassador to Syria for the first time in four years, a State Department official said on Wednesday, in a further sign of Obama’s commitment to engaging with long-time foes.[nN24195241]

Republican critics of Obama, a Democrat, have questioned how effective Obama’s engagement strategy will be.

Obama has also sought to engage Iran, but political turmoil there after disputed elections and a clampdown on street protests by authorities have dimmed immediate prospects for U.S. dialogue with Tehran.[nN24504892]

The easing of relations with Venezuela has hit some bumps. Chavez has bristled at some comments by Obama and in March called him an “ignoramus.”

Chavez, whose main foreign policy aim has long been to reduce U.S. global influence, has recently been criticized by foes for stifling opposition in the OPEC nation. He is on an offensive against opponents, including an anti-government television station he has threatened to close down.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Writing by Frank Jack Daniel, Editing by Frances Kerry