The photo-op that could shut up Chávez

Barack Obama doesn't have to become best friends with Hugo Chávez. But he does have to be civil with the Venezuelan leader if he wants the real Summit of the Americas work to get done.

By Joseph S. Tulchin

As Barack Obama heads to the Summit of the Americas beginning April 17 in Trinidad and Tobago, the outlook for U.S.-Latin American relations looks brighter than it has in the last eight years. The U.S. president has already taken on the two issues that were most likely to distract from the summit's real business: Mexico and Cuba. He's visiting Mexico on the way to the summit to reemphasize U.S. cooperation in combating the drug problem. And Obama has relaxed the travel and remittance restrictions imposed by his predecessor on Cuban-Americans who wish to visit family members in Cuba, relieving tension on the second touchy subject.

Still, there's one thorny issue that could spoil the party: U.S.-Venezuelan ire. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said on April 4 that he would like to reset the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship. (Since Fidel Castro, Chávez's mentor, declared his willingness to open a dialogue with the United States over recent weeks, Chávez could do no less.) But what exactly would a reset look like?

At first glance, the U.S.-Venezuela spat amounts to little. Even through the heated rhetorical exchanges (Chávez calling Obama an "ignoramus," Obama saying that Chávez was halting progress in the region), Venezuela has continued to ship oil to the United States and, with a very brief interruption, has been sending heating oil to Bostonians at a subsidized price. Indeed, since candidate Obama made it clear that he would talk to everyone, even the states that George W. Bush defined as the axis of evil, why not talk to Chávez? Yes, Chávez threw out the U.S. ambassador last year, but all he has to do is invite the United States to send another one, right?

If only it were so easy. First, there are U.S. security fears, justified or not. Southern Command, for example, continues to study threats that might come from Iran, Russia, or China as they conduct joint military exercises in the Caribbean basin or even penetrate the Venezuelan armed forces. Second, a few bilateral disputes remain unresolved. Venezuela, for example, wants the United States to turn over Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban-Venezuelan who masterminded the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976. Several U.S. companies allegedly owe back taxes to Caracas and have taken the matter to international courts. Third, the United States is concerned about Venezuelan aid to Colombian rebel groups such as FARC, both on Venezuelan territory and inside Colombia. Finally, the United States worries about Chávez's accelerating authoritarian drift.

But hitting the reset button, distasteful though it may seem, would be a smart move. If Obama doesn't proactively work to defuse tensions, Chávez and his big mouth could be tempted to cause trouble, especially for U.S. allies such as Chile, Colombia, and Brazil. In that respect, he could hamper progress on arguably more important regional issues, such as the economy, Mexico, or Cuba.

Small steps might be the best way to begin. The United States, for example, could promise to turn over all but the Posada case to the Organization of American States to moderate, a gesture that would signal to Latin America that the Obama administration is serious about multilateralism. Reinstating direct U.S. diplomatic representation in Caracas would also open doors, and the ongoing trade in oil and gas could form the cornerstone of productive new ties.

Even a photo op between Obama and Chávez might get the ball rolling. A follow-up conversation between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon and a Venezuelan counterpart would be an added bonus. Obama doesn't have to hit it off with Chávez. He just has to make sure the Venezuelan leader doesn't have an excuse to interrupt the real work of the summit.

Joseph S. Tulchin is senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.