- By Josh Rogin
A State Department official on Wednesday expressed the U.S. government’s condolences and sympathy to the family and supporters of dead Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
A statement from President Barack Obama issued Tuesday urged Venezuela’s government to choose Chávez’s successor through democratic means and held out hope for improved U.S.-Venezuela relations, but notably didn’t say anything about Obama’s personal feeling about the passing of Chávez.
"At this challenging time of President Hugo Chávez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights," Obama said in the statement.
In a conference call Wednesday, a senior State Department official clarified that the United States did want to express condolences to Chávez’s family and express its sympathy, although apparently not from the president directly.
"We express our sympathies to his family and to the Venezuelan people," the official said. "Frankly, the way I was raised, when somebody dies you always express condolences… There’s a family involved here, we sympathize with that."
Some congressional Republicans openly celebrated Chávez’s death, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA).
"Hugo Chávez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator," Royce said in a statement.
Former President Jimmy Carter immediately expressed condolences in a statement, and one Democratic congressman, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), praised Chávez in a tweet that was later condemned by the Republican National Committee.
"Hugo Chávez was a leader that understood the needs of the poor. He was committed to empowering the powerless. R.I.P. Mr. President," Serrano tweeted. In a subsequent statement, Serrano praised Chávez for providing heating oil to his constituents in the Bronx.
The State Department official suggested that the lukewarm Tuesday statement from the president was related to the fact that Vice President Nicolás Maduro gave a 90-minute press conference Tuesday accusing foreign enemies, of having conspired to undermine Chávez’s health.
"There’s no doubt that Commandante Chávez’s health came under attack by the enemy," Maduro said in an address to the nation just before Chávez’s death was announced. "The old enemies of our fatherland looked for a way to harm his health."
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell issued a statement late Tuesday calling Maduro’s claims "fallacious" and "absurd." The State Department official said Wednesday that the speech was "part of an election campaign."
Venezuelan Defense Minister Adm. Diego Molero tweeted late Thursday that the military would support Maduro’s candidacy against likely opponent Henrique Capriles. The State Department official said that was not appropriate.
"If government entities guarantee free and fair elections, that’s one thing, but if they act on behalf of individual candidates, that would probably cause us some concern," the official said.
Venezuela has also expelled two U.S. military personnel attached to the U.S. diplomatic mission there, U.S. military attaché David Delmonaco and an as-yet-unnamed U.S. Air Force attaché. The State Department is now considering reciprocal actions, the official said, although no decisions have been made.
The State Department official said the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela did not open Wednesday and some people who showed up for passport services were turned away. However, cooperation with the security services there was "excellent" and there was no reason to think U.S. officials were in any danger.
"We have no concern about our own security at this point," the official said.
The official said there could be a path forward for cooperating with Venezuela on areas of mutual interest, such as counternarcotics and counterterrorism, but that based on the initial signs coming out of the Venezuela, the short-term outlook for improved U.S.-Venezuelan relations is not good, especially as a new presidential campaign begins.
"It’s very hard to know right now whether the current government as they preside over elections or the government that comes out of those elections will in fact want to accelerate, continue, or stop the momentum towards a better relationship," the official said. "I don’t see things changing much in the short term."
There’s no word on whether the United States will send an official delegation to Chávez’s funeral on Friday.