With record inflation and skyrocketing crime rates, Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro's best bet to win the country's coming elections will be to campaign on late President Hugo Chavez's memory, and to raise tensions with Washington.

He has already started.

On Tuesday, just before announcing Chavez's cancer-related death, Maduro - the Venezuelan government's candidate for elections expected within the next 30 days - suggested that the United States had "inoculated" Chavez's with the cancer.

At the same time, he expelled two U.S. diplomats from Venezuela. Maduro was in full campaign mode when he made those claims, U.S. officials say. The vice president, a former bus driver and union leader who was designated by Chavez as his political heir, needs to cast himself as a hard-line "anti-imperialist" leader both to keep the Chavista movement united, and to rally Venezuelans behind him against an imaginary U.S. threat, they say.

The Obama administration has turned the other cheek on the accusations. It has categorically denied them, and called the charge "absurd."

Interestingly, Maduro and the U.S. State Department's top official in charge of Latin American affairs, Roberta Jacobson, had discussed improving bilateral relations during a telephone conversation as recently as late last year.

In a Nov. 21 telephone call initiated by Jacobson, Maduro had suggested restoring the two countries' ambassadors. Jacobson, in turn, had proposed a step-by-step approach to upgrade relations, starting with counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism cooperation measures, the U.S. official said at the time.

On Wednesday, I asked Jacobson why she thinks Maduro made his claim earlier this week that the U.S. government had "inoculated" Chavez with cancer.

"We find it really unfortunate that at a time when we were, and are, seeking a more productive relationship with Venezuela, they use this kind of rhetoric publicly and expel two of our officials," Jacobson said. "It's disappointing. But we remain interested in having a productive relationship with Venezuela."

Jacobson didn't want to speculate on Maduro's motives, but other well-placed Venezuela watchers in Washington see it is as an obvious electoral ploy.

Maduro does not have Chavez's charisma, and does not have a record to run on. And with Venezuela's inflation and crime rates reaching record highs, his best hope to win the election is capitalizing on Chavez's popularity, and showing that he is as tough on the Gringos as Chavez was, they say.

"The harder days in U.S.-Venezuelan relations are not behind us, but ahead of us," says Carl Meacham, Americas program director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and until recently a senior analyst with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Maduro is shoring up political support within Chavismo," Meacham added. "His charges against the United States and his expulsion of the two U.S. diplomats were his way of telling his followers, "I'm like Chavez." We can expect his rhetoric to get worse in coming weeks."

I agree that Maduro is likely to raise his "anti-imperialist" rhetoric during the campaign, but I wouldn't be surprised if he resumes his amicable dialogue with the Obama administration afterward should he win the elections, as now seems likely.

Right now, Maduro is following Chavez's script of provoking confrontations and inventing domestic and foreign conspiracies, so as to present himself as the protector of the fatherland and cast his political rivals as alleged U.S. stooges. It's a script that Chavez followed for the past 14 years, and that worked well for him.

But Maduro is pretty much managed by remote control from Cuba - which has depended on Chavez's petro dollars to keep the island's economy afloat - and the Cuban regime's top priorities will be helping Maduro consolidate power at home and maintaining stability in Venezuela.

Cuba will probably tell Maduro, "You have a divided Chavismo, growing economic problems and a serious crime epidemic on the streets. The last thing you need now is it to open a new front by stirring up trouble with Washington."

So Cuba will be among the most interested in preventing a larger U.S.-Venezuelan confrontation. But before getting better, U.S.-Venezuelan ties are likely to get worse.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Email him at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.


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