PORT-OF-SPAIN, TRINIDAD (AP) - Hugo Chavez said Saturday that he is restoring Venezuela’s ambassador in Washington, voicing hopes for a “new era” in relations after exchanging greetings with U.S. President Barack Obama at a regional summit.
Venezuela’s socialist president told reporters at the Summit of the Americas that he will propose Roy Chaderton, his current ambassador to the Organization of American States, as the country’s new representative in a move toward improving strained ties with Washington.
The announcement crowns a week in which Obama rejected two centuries of U.S. “heavy-handedness” toward Latin America and raised hopes for a rapprochement with Cuba, with which it severed ties 48 years ago. Venezuela under Chavez has become a close ally of Cuba.
Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, in September in solidarity with leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales, who ordered out the top U.S. diplomat in his country for allegedly helping the opposition incite violence.
Washington reciprocated by kicking out both nations’ ambassadors.
Chavez’s decision on U.S. relations came after a day of interaction with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other diplomats at a hemispheric summit in the twin-island Caribbean republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
The State Department said Chavez had approached Clinton during summit sessions Saturday, and the two discussed returning ambassadors to their posts in Caracas and Washington.
“This is a positive development that will help advance U.S. interests, and the State Department will now work to further this shared goal,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
Chavez had stormy relations with the previous U.S. administration and once likened President George W. Bush to the devil. He has warmed to the new American president at this weekend’s summit, though Obama had been critical of him for his alleged harboring of and offering finance to Colombian rebels.
On Saturday, Chavez gave Obama a book about foreign exploitation of Latin America and repeated in English during a luncheon speech what he told the U.S. president at their first meeting the night before: “I want to be your friend.” Obama exchanged handshakes and pats on the back with the Venezuelan leader.
Chavez said he’d instructed his foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, to begin the process of making Chaderton his new U.S. ambassador.
“He’s my candidate,” said Chavez. “We have to wait for the United States to give the appropriate acceptance.”
At the 34-nation summit’s inauguration on Friday, Obama won repeated applause with his promise to be an equal partner in the region and expressed his desire for a “new beginning” with Cuba, which has been suspended from the OAS for 47 years.
The Americas director of the Carter Center, Jennifer McCoy, called Chavez’s announcement “surprising, but a very positive outcome of the summit.”
She said Chavez may have realized he had little choice but to try to improve ties with the United States given Obama’s overwhelming popularity in Latin America and elsewhere.
“He can still criticize U.S. policy,” McCoy said, “but it is much more difficult to criticize Obama the man.”
Associated Press Writer Alan Clendenning contributed to this report.