- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mourning supporters of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez packed streets across the nation on Wednesday, as speculation surged through the U.S. foreign policy community on the extent to which the death of the populist leader might bring a thaw to long-strained relations between Washington and Caracas.

While conservatives in Washington continued to quietly toast the passing of a divisive leader who gained global notoriety for railing angrily and often against the United States, the Obama administration said a U.S. delegation was likely to join presidents from across the region in attending Mr. Chavez’s funeral Friday.

Mr. Chavez died Tuesday of cancer at 58.

At the State Department, officials appeared eager to allay concerns that Mr. Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, had moved to take control of the nation’s interim presidency. Mr. Maduro is expected to announce a time frame within 30 days for when a new presidential election will be held — as stipulated by Venezuela’s constitution.

Analysts generally agree that Mr. Maduro, 50, a former bus driver and union activist, has the best chance of winning the election.

Apparently hoping to preserve the chance of a new relationship with Caracas, two senior State Department officials downplayed the significance of accusations made by Mr. Maduro — just hours before Mr. Chavez died — that Washington was attempting to destabilize Venezuela and that the U.S. had some unspecified role in giving Mr. Chavez the cancer that caused his death.

Mr. Maduro’s claims, the officials said, were likely part of the Venezuelan vice president’s rhetorical attempts to position himself as the nation’s new leader.

“I think yesterday was part of an election campaign and therefore not directly related” to the potential for a thaw in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, said one senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with reporters.

The other senior official suggested that Mr. Maduro was picking up on a tradition long employed by Mr. Chavez of using the U.S. “as a strawman that could be attacked” in order to stir up his base of supporters at home.

Venezuelan state television reported Tuesday that Adm. Diego Molero, the defense minister, had pledged military support for Mr. Maduro’s presidential candidacy against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Rodonski — despite a constitutional mandate that the armed forces play a nonpartisan role.

“No matter what the ultimate interpretation is of the constitution, it is a dangerous signal that the military would be saying anything about an election at this point,” said Eric Farnsworth, who heads the Washington office of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society think tank.

Mr. Farnsworth cautioned against too eagerly embracing the notion that Mr. Chavez’s passing will open the gateway to improved relations with the U.S.

Mr. Maduro “has to build popular support and the most effective way to do that in the short term is to maintain high tensions with the United States,” he said.

On Wednesday in Caracas, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans carried Mr. Chavez’s coffin through the streets to a funeral Mass also attended by the leaders of Chavez-allied governments in Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay. An hours-long public viewing continued into the evening.

Many of Mr. Chavez’s supporters suggested that his popularity at home was rooted in something far deeper than his antipathy toward Washington.

“He was like a father to us. He taught us how to love our country, our culture and our sovereignty,” Madeleine Gutierrez, 29, an architect, told reporters in Caracas as tears streamed down her cheeks.

Praise for Mr. Chavez also poured in from political leaders in some anti-U.S. corners of the world, including the leaders of the Palestinian Fatah Party and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Still, a senior State Department official said the situation has been “very quiet and very peaceful” since Tuesday. “We have no indication right now that there is any threat to our personnel or Americans in Venezuela.”

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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