CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could hardly contain his enthusiasm as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and four Russian warships began historic visits to the Caribbean nation last week.
"In less than 10 years, Venezuela and Russia have done what was not done in the previous 200," Chavez said. "The time has come for the definitive encounter between the Russian motherland and the Latin American motherland."
Even as warships from the two nations began joint naval maneuvers on Monday, however, Russian officials seemed to be bent on keeping that encounter distant enough that it wouldn't antagonize the U.S., Chavez's nemesis.
Of four Latin American countries he visited last week, Medvedev spent the least time in Venezuela. While there, he stayed away from political topics, talking mostly about deepening business ties between Russia and Venezuela.
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Russian naval commanders canceled a news conference with the Venezuelan high command, and they denied Chavez a visit to Russia's grandest warship, Peter the Great, ostensibly because of "choppy waters."
"Chavez saw the trip as a way to forge a strategic alliance with Russia," said Elsa Cardozo, an international relations professor at the Metropolitan University in Caracas. "But the Russian president seemed to treat it like it was a visit to any of the other countries. His focus was more business than strategic."
Medvedev's visit to Venezuela was the first by a Russian president, and Russian warships hadn't visited the Caribbean since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago.
Maria Teresa Romero, an international relations professor at Venezuela's Central University, said Chavez saw the dual visits as a chance to send his own diplomatic message.
"Chavez wanted to transmit that he remains a powerful foe of the United States," Romero said. "He wanted to say, 'I'm not alone. I have powerful friends.'"
Medvedev had goals of his own. Unhappy that the U.S. sent ships into the Black Sea after Russia's war with Georgia and angry over the continued U.S. push for an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe, Medvedev "wanted to respond to U.S. encroachment," said Frank Mora, a professor of national security studies at the National Defense University in Washington.
However, he also didn't want to ruin his chances of improving relations with the U.S. as the Bush administration departs and the Obama era begins.
"Medvedev was also careful not to allow Chavez to suck him into his anti-imperialist rhetoric," Mora said.
When Chavez accused the U.S. of organizing a failed military coup against him in 2002 and detailed what he called "an imposed economic and political dictatorship" by the U.S. against Venezuela during the 20th Century, Medvedev sat silent.
When he spoke, Medvedev referred vaguely to the need to create a "multipolar world."
The next day, bodyguards for the two presidents scuffled after their bosses boarded a Russian destroyer.
Even Chavez's presentation of the country's Simon Bolivar award was contentious. A Moscow newspaper, Moskovskiy Komsomolyets, reported on Friday that Russian officials had asked their Venezuelan counterparts to dispense with the presentation. They didn't want U.S. officials to think that Russia was trying to "liberate" Venezuela.
Chavez surprised Medvedev by giving him the medal anyway, the paper reported, in an ostentatious ceremony.
"The president of Russia could not refuse, that would create a public scandal," the newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources.
Venezuelan government officials on Monday denied this account.
(Renato Perez of The Miami Herald contributed to this article.)
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