On Venezuela, Latin America’s democrats must come out of hiding

In the days and weeks ahead in a post-Chávez Venezuela, there will be political turmoiland, God forbid, violent unrest. However, rather than being consumed by a mafia-style power struggle within chavismo, Venezuelans of good will should begin the hard work of building a national consensus to restore their country’s values, social fabric, political institutions and economic wellbeing. After years spent avoiding confrontations with Chávez, the Obama administration should step up boldly now to help the Venezuelan people recover from a man-made disaster. Chávez’s election in 1998 enjoyed broad support. Most of all, he inspired Venezuela’s poor majority who saw too few benefits from their country’s oil wealth. Massive spending on social programs gave millions of Venezuelans a stake in chavismo. Indeed, he captured the imagination of aggrieved persons throughout Latin America and the developing world by speaking half-truths to power: skewering his country’s political establishment and economic elites and heaping scorn on the United States as “el imperio.” It is important to recognize that Chávez’s grandiose socialist project at home and check-book diplomacy abroad would not have amounted to much if the price of oil had not increased five-fold since his election. And the folly of chavismo is evident in the simple fact that a trillion dollars of oil revenue is exhausted, billions in foreign loans are piling up, oil production is down 30 percent,infrastructure is crumbling, and basic staples are scarce. In short, the only people who think Chávez’s economic model is sustainable were on his payroll. What is particularly tragic is that Venezuelans have been forced to surrender most of their political rights and even their national sovereignty in this bargain. In order to impose his economic vision, Chávez concentrated all political power his hands or under the control of political loyalists. Chavismo commands the electoral council and the judiciary and has disproportionate representation in the national assembly (despite the opposition having won a majority of the votes in 2010elections). And, it is barely safe to walk the streets of Caracas, but dissidents are suppressed systematically by a politicized police force. A fierce defender of “sovereignty,” one of Chávez’s final acts was to surrender the management of his political succession to Cuban outsiders, who must have a leader in Caracas who will continue to provide the bankrupt Castro regime vast quantities of oil and aid. Nicolas Maduro, a Castro loyalist, was Chávez’s vice president and handpickedsuccessor. Maduro quickly claimed the role as “interim president,” despite the fact that article 233 of the constitution says that those duties should be transferred to the president of that National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. If Maduro and his handlers try to hold on to the presidency or pass it to another Havana loyalist, Cabello and nationalists in the army may move to enforce the constitution. Today, Venezuelans live under a de facto (read illegal) government. The dozen regional presidents who gather in Caracas for Chávez’s state funeral will likely be silent on this illegitimate succession. The international community must do better than that if the Venezuelan people are to have any chance of recovering their country and their future. Latin American democrats who have steered clear of Chávez for more than a decade should come out of hiding to advocate free and fair elections in Venezuela. They should join democrats in Venezuela in pressing for simple but profound reforms in the electoral system to forbid favoritism by the state; ensure equal access to the media; eliminate technical traps from the voting process; and guarantee that every vote is secret and all ballots are counted. The international community might also consider sponsoring a “code of conduct” for the campaign as well as truly independent election monitors. President Obama can help save Venezuela, but he cannot leave it to career diplomats who refuse to acknowledge the details or to see the big picture. In recent months, U.S. diplomats opened a pointless dialogue with the Maduro faction, and now they have acquiesced in his powergrab – despite the fact that he recently accused the United States of poisoning Chávez and expelled two U.S. embassy officers. Washington should be promoting a stable, democratic, and prosperous Venezuela – not striking deals with the devil we know. The short-run future of Venezuela is uncertain. However, if democrats in Latin America and the United States are at least as active in supporting their values as Havana is in promoting its interests, Venezuelans may have a chance of recovering their country and their future. Roger F. Noriega is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; he was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the administration of former President George W. Bush.

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