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U.S. open to 'more constructive relationship' with Venezuela

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • White House interested in policies that promote democratic principles
  • Source says expulsion of two U.S. military aides "not a sign of strength"
  • Obama administration wants elections to be "free and fair and credible," source says
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died after a long fight with cancer

Washington (CNN) -- The United States is open to a "more constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government" following the death of Hugo Chavez on Tuesday and the expulsion of two military attaches.

However, the action against the United States is "not a sign of strength," according to a senior Obama administration official, describing the move as an internal political ploy to stir nationalistic fervor.

The official said Venezuela's vice president, Nicolas Maduro, "is not charismatic" and is trying to sustain the Chavez legacy and win an election by advancing "conspiracy theories."

Chavez died of cancer, Maduro said.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that the United States "reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship" with Venezuela's government.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets actor Sean Penn after a meeting at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on March 5, 2011. Penn thanked Chavez for the support given by the Venezuelan government to his nongovernmental organization, which benefits victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets actor Sean Penn after a meeting at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on March 5, 2011. Penn thanked Chavez for the support given by the Venezuelan government to his nongovernmental organization, which benefits victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Chavez's famous friends
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Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office. Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office.
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Hugo Chavez's 2009 interview with CNN

"As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights," the statement said.

Maduro assumes the interim presidency and elections will be held in 30 days, Venezuela's foreign minister, Elias Jaua, said during an interview aired on state-run broadcaster VTV.

The Obama administration wants the election to be "free and fair and credible," according to the administration official.

Hugo Chavez's death draws sympathy, anger

Maduro made no mention of running for election in his public comments on Tuesday.

But he is widely expected to be the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's candidate and is considered the frontrunner by Latin American experts.

The United States will stay out of the election. And the administration official said it remains open to restoring diplomatic relations with an ambassador regardless of the winner.

However, given what occurred on Tuesday regarding charges by Venezuela against two U.S. Embassy attaches, the official said "we need to see more than we saw today."

The Americans were accused of plotting to destabilize the country, which the State Department dismissed.

The administration official believes, however, it is "counterproductive to be at odds" with the Venezuelan government.

Another administration official said expulsion of the U.S. military aides was a sign the Venezuelan leadership is feeling "uncertain, unsure and weak," and that a more constructive relationship with the United States was "really up to the Venezuelans if they want that."

But senior American officials don't expect the relationship to change dramatically in the short term primarily because Chavez's system still exists.

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The United States, these officials say, will want to see a break with that and movement toward a democratic process.

The officials believe that Chavez adherents led by Maduro will want to maintain the same approach, but could be more pragmatic and less confrontational.

However, there are strong anti-Venezuelan views on Capitol Hill and it would be difficult to confirm an ambassador. That could change if there is cooperation on issues like counter-narcotics or counter-terrorism, the officials said.

The Obama administration is expected to try and get Venezuela to impose sanctions on Iran, which the country has repeatedly violated, they added.

Latin American experts believe Chavez's death could change the dynamic in the region, not only between the United States and Venezuela, but also among Latin American countries.

Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Chavez ruled "with an iron hand" and his death has left a "political void that we hope will be filled peacefully."

"With free and fair elections, Venezuela can begin to restore its once robust democracy and ensure respect for the human, political and civil rights of its people," the New Jersey Democrat said.

Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called Chavez a "destabilizing force in Latin America" and an obstacle to progress.

"I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in U.S.-Venezuelan relations," the Michigan Republican said.

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CNN's Jim Acosta and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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