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Mark Dubowitz, executive director for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, describes the U.S.-Venezuela relationship as one of “antagonistic co-dependence.”

“We’re absolutely certain that Venezuela is in a deep economic relationship with Iran and that they’re helping Iran circumvent sanctions, but we’re also dependent on Venezuela for their crude oil and, as a result, we’ve allowed them a free pass,” Mr. Dubowitz said.

Since the past several U.S. presidents from both sides of the aisle have done little to confront such circumstances, it remains to be seen how Venezuela might make its way into the upcoming foreign policy debates between President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Mr. Sabatini said the Romney camp may attempt to “make it look like the Obama administration has put U.S. security interests at risk by not being hard enough on Chavez, or by not keeping enough focus on Iran’s activities in the hemisphere.”

Questions, meanwhile, often swirl through Washington’s foreign policy establishment over the extent to which Mr. Chavez seeks to militarize the socialist revolution that he has created in Venezuela.

During the course of the presidential campaign, he circulated a platform document titled “Proposal From the Fatherland’s Candidate, Commander Hugo Chavez.”

While much of it consists of fresh calls for grass-roots political participation among the nation’s rural and urban populations, Mr. Sabatini said the document also advocates a significant expansion of executive control over the Venezuelan military.

“Right now, you still have a Venezuelan national guard, army and air force all with distinct flavors of higher-ups tied to Chavez’s party in different ways. What he wants to do, according to his campaign platform, is erase that,” he said.

Others say such portrayals of Mr. Chavez show how grossly most analysts in the U.S. have come to misinterpret the Venezuelan president’s vision.

“If you read the stuff in the press here in the U.S., you’ll get the impression that Chavez is somehow trying to become dictatorial by trying to control the military,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, a think tank in Washington.

“But I think what he’s doing is really something that a democratic president ought to do,” said Mr. Weisbrot, who noted that members of the Venezuelan military carried out a failed 2002 coup attempt against Mr. Chavez.