Shadow Government

The struggle for Venezuela’s future

The struggle for Venezuela's future begins now -- and the stakes couldn't be higher. The Obama administration can either stand by and watch the country become a satellite of the Castro regime promoting instability and maintaining dangerous alliances with Iran and other U.S. enemies, or it can try to influence events in a positive direction, meaning a return to constitutionality and a reformed electoral system that allows the Venezuelan people to freely and fairly determine their future.

It will not be easy, given the amount of bad actors and levels of acrimony, polarization, and socioeconomic chaos that Hugo Chávez has left in his wake. Yet it presents an extraordinary opportunity to pull Venezuela back into the peaceful community of regional nations, after more than a decade of Chavez's trouble-making that has set back regional prospects for stability and economic development.

What we know right now is that Chávez's successors evidently have decided to continue with their unconstitutional rule. Since the pliant supreme court waived the constitutional provision that the ailing Chávez had to be sworn-in last January for his next term, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, has been Venezuela's de facto ruler. And, last night, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua announced that Maduro would continue as "interim" president.

Yet, according to the constitution, in the absence of a duly sworn-in president, power should be transferred to the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who is supposed to call new elections.

It is well known, moreover, that Maduro and Cabello don't always see eye to eye. Maduro leads a faction of civilian ideologues seen as loyal to Cuba; Cabello, a former military colleague of Chávez, is not seen as trustworthy by the Castro regime, which sees the loss of Venezuelan oil subsidies as an existential threat. But Cabello maintains the active loyalty of important sectors in the Venezuelan armed forces.

The Venezuelan opposition continues to insist that the constitution (which is of Chávez's own writing) be followed and have drawn up a list of simple electoral reforms that would level the playing field and better allow the Venezuelan people to chart their own future free of chavista and foreign interference.

The United States cannot be an idle bystander in these crucial moments. First off, it cannot allow itself to be cowed by noisy Chávez supporters to allow events to simply unfold. It needs to stand on principle on behalf of an orderly transition consistent with the Venezuelan constitution. That means power being transferred to Cabello -- hardly an angel himself -- and the calling of new elections.

And, this time, not Chávez-style elections -- with the vast expenditure of state resources, intimidation, and control of media -- but elections fully consistent with international standards, as the opposition is calling for.

The next few days and weeks stand as a critical period during which the United States must reclaim its traditional leadership role in the Americas on behalf of democratic and free market development. This is not a role that can be out-sourced to Brazil, the Organization of American States, or anyone else. 

The administration must work urgently to rally hemispheric support for a constitutional transition in Venezuela under free and fair elections. It must go to Chávez's friends in Russia and China and tell them in explicit terms that subsidizing continuing subversion of the constitution in Venezuela is unacceptable. And it must make clear publicly that any Venezuelan officials seen to be doing so will be held accountable. 

Otherwise, a failure to lead means the certain continuation of a lawless government in cahoots with Cuba, Iran, and drug traffickers to the detriment of peace and regional security.


Shadow Government

China steps up on North Korea? Time to find out

Wayward ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman may think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a friend for life, but apparently Beijing does not. It looks like the U.N. Security Council will unanimously pass a resolution on Thursday that will impose Chapter Seven/Article 41 sanctions (measures short of armed force) on North Korea in response to Pyongyang's last nuclear test. I must confess that I did not expect this, but apparently even Beijing has a limit to its tolerance of North Korean provocations.

Chinese MFA officials say that the North Koreans crossed the line this time by testing their last nuke after "unprecedented" pressure from Beijing not to embarrass Xi Jinping on the eve of his assumption of power at the National People's Congress. Senior Chinese officials are telling their South Korean counterparts that Xi Jinping has ordered an overall review of North Korea policy, and even Japanese officials are pleasantly surprised that Pyongyang has provided an excuse for strategic cooperation between Tokyo and Beijing in the midst of a tense Sino-Japanese stand-off over the Senkaku Islands.

This could fizzle, of course. China undertook a similar policy "review" after the North's 2009 test, but within a year it was doubling trade with Pyongyang and ignoring the North's attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan. The North is also adept at distracting the Chinese with alternating threats and promises of new diplomatic engagement. Pyongyang has already threatened to "nullify" the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War if the UNSC passes a sanctions resolution -- the kind of sabre rattling that has made Chinese knees knock together in the past. There are also expectations in the region that Pyongyang will offer to negotiate a peace agreement, which could induce huge sighs of relief in Beijing.

The point is not to wait and see, however. Implementation by Beijing has always been the Achilles heel of past UNSC resolutions on North Korea. Rather than pat itself on the back and use the international community's outrage as leverage to get the North back to the table (a mistake made after the 2006 and 2009 sanctions), the Obama administration should keep at China to implement the new sanctions in terms of specific actions to interdict North Korean proliferation activities and close illicit bank accounts and North Korean trading company offices in China (of which there are still visible examples).