updated 6/25/2009 9:32:02 PM ET 2009-06-26T01:32:02

The United States said Thursday it is sending its ambassador back to Venezuela more than nine months after he was expelled by President Hugo Chavez, creating an opening for a less hostile relationship even though many disagreements remain.

The pending return of ambassadors to Washington and Caracas indicates both sides are testing the waters and aiming to re-establish channels of communication after Chavez and President Barack Obama had a warm first encounter at a summit in April.

Venezuela said Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez will return to work in Washington on Friday, while the U.S. State Department said veteran diplomat Patrick Duddy will be back in Caracas within days.

"The Venezuelan government and the United States have different visions of the world, different visions of how to manage the economy, differences in international relations — and we don't think those differences are going to disappear with this re-establishment of full diplomatic relations," said John Caulfield, charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy.

"But in spite of those differences, we're going to keep working on the things we can work on," Caulfield told reporters, saying Duddy hopes to have regular contact with Venezuelan officials to help improve relations and discuss issues that affect both countries.

Will arrive in Caracas next week
Duddy is to arrive in Caracas next week, in time to host a U.S. Independence Day celebration where Venezuelan officials are among the invitees, Caulfield said.

The two governments announced on Wednesday that they would restore their ambassadors — a plan Chavez discussed with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at April's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Chavez expelled Duddy and withdrew his own envoy in September, saying it was in solidarity with Bolivia after its president, Evo Morales, ordered out the U.S. ambassador and accused him of helping the opposition incite violence. The administration of former President George W. Bush denied the accusation and reacted by expelling the envoys of Venezuela and Bolivia.

Chavez and Obama have both expressed hope for improving relations, though Chavez has also kept denouncing U.S. "imperialism" and accusing the CIA of plotting against him and allies in Iran and elsewhere.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the governments agreed to restore ambassadors by rescinding the "persona non grata" declarations under which they were expelled — a process much quicker than would be required to appoint and confirm a new U.S. envoy.

"This important step will help advance U.S. interests by improving bilateral communication and enhancing our outreach to the Venezuelan people," Kelly said.

Chavez's relationship with Washington grew increasingly hostile and strained during the Bush administration, hindering regular diplomatic contacts. Yet trade has thrived, and the United States remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil.

Cautious approach toward Venezuela
The Obama administration is likely to take a cautious approach toward Venezuela, in part due to the controversy Chavez stirs with his fiery rhetoric, his frequent nationalizations of companies and his close ties with countries including Cuba, Iran, Syria and Russia.

It remains unclear whether the Obama administration will raise strong criticisms about the state of Venezuelan democracy or Chavez's accumulation of power in recent years — frequent targets of critics in the Bush administration.

But both governments will have plenty to debate in international affairs alone: They will likely continue to be at odds on U.S. policies toward Cuba, Israel and the Middle East, and also on how to counter the global financial crisis.

Chavez has made clear he intends to keep rallying allied leaders in Latin America and beyond to shed U.S. influence and move toward a "multi-polar" world.

One area for possible progress between the governments is in counter-drug efforts. The Bush administration long labeled Chavez's government uncooperative, noting that Venezuela has become a key conduit for Colombian cocaine.

Yet both sides recently have expressed willingness to cooperate in anti-drug efforts. Such cooperation has been scaled back since 2005, when Chavez accused U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents of spying.

Caulfield didn't mention the drugs issue but did say having ambassadors once again will "offer the opportunity for dialogue, in spite of the differences."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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