The April 19 inauguration of Nicolás Maduro, vice president of Venezuela under the recently deceased Hugo Chávez, has the world debating whether or not the self-proclaimed "son of Chávez" could lead to improved relations with the United States.
However, the question isn't as relevant as we are making it out to be. The U.S. and Venezuela have for years managed to cooperate economically, despite all the heated political rhetoric you read about in the media, and they'll likely continue to do so.
Before we tackle the future of diplomatic relations, allow me to offer a brief history of the tumultuous relationship shared by Venezuela and the U.S. in the past 14 years. Let's begin with the nasty break-up that occurred when Hugo Chávez assumed office in 1999. Prior to Chávez, the U.S. and Venezuela enjoyed a rather blissful diplomatic and economic relationship, complemented by the shared ambition to curb illegal drug production and distribution. This strong relationship between the two countries existed under the government of conservative neoliberal Rafael Caldera (President of Venezuela 1969-1974; 1994-1999).
In 1999 things began to go downhill, and were hardly helped by the controversy over the Bush administration’s support for the failed coup attempt against Chávez. In 2005 the two countries stopped working together to fight illegal drugs. Then, in 2006, there was Chávez's infamous speech to the United Nations in which he referred to George W. Bush as the devil. In 2008 Venezuela broke off diplomatic ties with the U.S. altogether out of solidarity with its ally Bolivia, but President Obama managed to patch things up to an extent in June 2009. Ties between the two countries have been strained (to the extent that neither country had an ambassador in the other’s capital since June 2010), until now, when the opportunity for an improved relationship has accompanied a new leader to the table. It is worth nothing that throughout diplomatic problems OPEC member Venezuela never stopped supplying oil, its biggest export, to the U.S., its biggest customer.
Optimists cringed as Maduro employed a strong anti-American sentiment in his campaign to be Chávez. To be fair, it would have been hard to try and embody the spirit of Chávez without aggressively opposing the United States. Maduro even went so far as to suggest that the CIA was responsible for the cancer that killed Chávez on March 5.
Albeit unsurprisingly, none of Maduro's rhetoric looked particularly promising. However, just before securing the election, Maduro contacted the former governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, who was in Caracas on behalf of the Organization of American States. Maduro said, according to an interview with Richardson, that "we want to improve the relationship with the U.S., regularize the relationship." Apparently the U.S. did not respond favorably to this, and subsequently supported a recount of the close election that declared Maduro the winner. Maduro hardly found this amusing in the aftermath of the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election, and referred to the actions of the U.S. as "brutal" and "vulgar."
However, during a live television address on Tuesday, Maduro seemed to offer a conciliatory message. "We want to have the best ties with all the world's governments, and the U.S. government, but on the basis of respect. There can be no threats." He also named Calixto Ortega the new charge d'affaires in Washington, doing so in hope of opening up a dialogue with the U.S. in the absence of an ambassador.
Maduro proceeded to proclaim that Venezuela "[hopes] one day to have respectful relations with the United States, a dialogue between equals, state-to-state."
These are, without question, steps in the right direction. They are not, however, reason to assume that diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Venezuela will get their happy ever after. Ultimately, if the 14 years of Chávez proved anything about relations between the two nations, they proved that their economic co-dependent relationship is not dependent on having a stable diplomatic relationship or any diplomatic relationship at all. Keeping that in mind, while both sides would prefer amicable diplomatic relations, they are not a matter of life or death. Their trade relationship is intact, and that is their priority.