Venezuela-U.S. Relations Could Thaw After Chavez

Audie Cornish talks to Patrick Duddy, the last U.S. Ambassador to serve in Venezuela. He's currently a visiting senior lecturer at Duke University's Center for International Studies.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We turn now to the last U.S. ambassador stationed in Venezuela. Patrick Duddy represented the U.S. first under the Bush administration then later under the Obama administration. He was once expelled from Caracas. Ambassador Duddy is now a visiting senior lecturer at Duke University's Center for International Studies. When we spoke today, I asked him what it was like for him to be an ambassador to Venezuela under Chavez.

PATRICK DUDDY: It was certainly the most challenging diplomatic assignment I had, and it always seemed to me puzzling that we were not able to make more progress. You know, it's not just that we have a trade relationship. Venezuela has a huge problem as a drug transit zone, and yet they have backed away from multilateral cooperation, specifically with the United States. We don't think that's in their interest.

Still in all, certainly from our point of view, when we looked at those areas where our interests touched, we thought there was more than enough material to have a productive relationship, and we haven't really had one for some time.

CORNISH: Is there a moment from your time in Venezuela when you were dealing with Chavez or his administration that really brought home to you what this relationship was, how complicated it was?

DUDDY: Certainly one of the more complicated and difficult periods for me was immediately following a brief public conversation I had with President Chavez on July 5 in 2008 when he, at one point, publicly raised the possibility of renewing cooperation with the United States in the area of counternarcotics. And then when, through formal channels, we attempted to follow up, we were rebuffed.

And to some degree, I suppose that capture is something we've seen over time on a number of occasions, and that is there - from time to time, there will be an apparent thawing of the relationship but then a withdrawal from that.

CORNISH: Is it possible, with the death of Hugo Chavez, that a thaw or shift can happen, given the politics on the U.S. side? There are a number of congressional Republicans who thought this administration is too soft on Venezuela, on that regime. And is there room to maneuver there?

DUDDY: Well, it's at least worth noting that when the two sides are ready to sit down, we will not be starting from scratch. You know, despite his antipathy toward the United States, Chavez never stopped selling us oil, and despite our difficulties, we never stopped buying. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans continue to visit the United States every year. Baseball is a shared passion. And while these areas of confluence don't necessarily directly inform diplomatic discussions, they do establish a base over which the two governments may eventually be able to hold conversations.

CORNISH: But when you look at, say, Vice President Maduro, is this a leader that could more or less change things? Is there an opening there?

DUDDY: Vice President Maduro is a very loyal Chavista, and was clearly a partner in the development of Chavez's very pointedly anti-American foreign policy in recent years. So it's a little early to predict how things will develop. But it would, I think, be a mistake to suppose that he - now acting President Maduro is a less-than-loyal Chavista.

CORNISH: Ambassador Patrick Duddy, thank you so much for speaking with me.

DUDDY: Well, thank you very much for having me on the program.

CORNISH: Patrick Duddy was the last U.S. ambassador posted in Caracas. We were talking about the U.S. relationship with Venezuela in light of the death of Hugo Chavez.

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