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.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images