While Venezuela’s announcement that President Hugo Chávez’s bout with cancer has taken a turn for the worse is making big headlines, there is another development in the Venezuelan drama that has gone almost unnoticed: high-level U.S.-Venezuelan talks preparing for a post-Chávez future may have already started.
Well-placed U.S. officials tell me that Roberta S. Jacobson, the top U.S. State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs, held a long telephone conversation with Venezuela’s Vice President and Chávez-designated heir Nicolas Maduro on Nov. 21, where the two discussed, among other things, the possibility of restoring ambassadors.
The talks, which were encouraged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, started with a U.S. diplomatic approach to Maduro’s office asking whether the vice president would take a call from Jacobson, the sources say. The answer was positive, and the telephone conversation took place shortly thereafter.
Asked whether she had talked with Maduro, Jacobson told me, “Yes. We are always interested in having a more productive relationship with Venezuela, starting with counternarcotics, and in order to have a more productive relationship you have to talk to people.”
Details of the talks come as reports from Havana, where Chávez recently underwent a fourth surgery for cancer, indicate that he’s experiencing a slow recovery. Maduro said Sunday that Chávez suffered “new complications” from a respiratory infection and his condition was delicate.
The behind-the-scenes talks were originally reported in a Dec. 12 column by Venezuela’s daily El Universal columnist Nelson Bocaranda, and in a Dec. 14 article by former U.S. ambassador Roger Noriega, a conservative Republican, in the online magazine of the American Enterprise Institute.
Noriega referred to the Jacobson-Maduro telephone conversation toward the end of his article, and lambasted U.S. “career diplomats” for allegedly “legitimizing a narco-authoritarian regime” in Venezuela.
In addition, Noriega reported that Jacobson’s deputy Kevin Whitaker had subsequently had a conversation in Washington with senior Venezuelan diplomat Roy Chaderton. U.S. officials confirm that this conversation took place.
In his article, Noriega urged the U.S. Congress to intervene to stop the talks, claiming that “an unconditional rapprochement may undercut efforts to indict senior (Venezuelan) officials for their drug crimes.” Suggesting that Washington should not recognize Chávez’s successor “until he promises to adopt democratic reforms,” Noriega added that “career diplomats may get their wish of normalizing relations with Caracas, even if it confers legitimacy on a dangerous, undemocratic regime in Venezuela.”
According to U.S. officials, during the Jacobson-Maduro talks — in which both sides expressed hopes for a speedy recovery of Chávez — the Venezuelan vice president offered to exchange ambassadors on occasion of the beginning of President Barack Obama’s second term. Jacobson, in turn, is said to have proposed a step-by-step approach to improve bilateral relations, starting with greater cooperation in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and energy issues.