Obama Must Stand Up for Democracy in Post-Chavez Venezuela

After Hugo Chavez's death, the Obama administration must stand with the people of Venezuela by publicly defending democratic principles.

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Patrick Christy is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Venezuela's upcoming election to replace the late Hugo Chavez gives the country an important opportunity to break away from over a decade's worth of strongman rule—and move towards better governance, improved internal security and stability, a stronger and more vibrant economy, and a truly constructive role in regional and global affairs. It's critical that the United States do what it can to encourage Venezuela to seize that opportunity.

For over a decade, Chavez led ideologically-driven efforts to erode U.S. standing in Latin America and around the globe. The populist leader expanded Venezuela's ties with rogue states such as Cuba and Iran, aided and protected terrorist organizations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and actively undermined the rule of law in Venezuela and throughout the Americas. In the Western Hemisphere alone, Chavez used record petrol prices to prop up anti-American socialist leaders, most notably in Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Chavez leaves behind a broken economy, a deeply divided nation and a dysfunctional government, all of which will take years—if not decades—to overcome. Venezuela is plagued with double-digit inflation, mounting budget deficits and rising levels of violence. While the OPEC nation maintains one of the world's largest geological oil reserves, crude exports—which account for roughly 45 percent of federal budget revenues—have declined by nearly half since 1999. The United States imports roughly one million barrels from Venezuela per day.

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Chavez's protégé Nicolas Maduro, the former vice president who's now acting as Venezuela's interim president, is running to succeed the late strongman, but it's not preordained that he'll win. It remains to be seen the extent to which he can properly unite prior to the election the many competing populist factions that benefited under Chavez for so many years. What is clear is that he will drape himself in the political ideology of chavismo in the run up to April 14 elections, and use—and quite possibly abuse—government institutions and petrodollars in attempt to woo the country's voters.

What's perverse is how the Obama administration's move to "reset" relations with Maduro is doing more to legitimize him as the rightful heir to Venezuela's presidency than to resuscitate relations between the two governments. The move showed itself to be even more naive after Maduro accused the United States of plotting to poison Chavez shortly after the strongman's death.

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Washington must realize that a strategy of engagement alone will not ensure a renewed and improved partnership with Caracas. Failure to realize this will not only undermine whatever influence America has in the months ahead, but also send a troubling signal to Venezuela's increasingly united political opposition. The Obama administration should instead pursue a more principled policy towards a post-Chavez Venezuela. In particular, it should:

Pressure Caracas to implement key election reforms. Venezuela's opposition faces formidable obstacles. Interim President Maduro will use the government's near-monopoly control of public airwaves, its established networks of political patronage and last-minute public spending programs to bolster his populist agenda.

Washington should stress publicly and privately that any attempts to suppress or intimidate the opposition runs contrary to Venezuela's constitution and the principles defined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was adopted by Venezuela in 2001. To this point, José Cárdenas, a former USAID acting assistant administrator for Latin America, writes,

The Venezuelan opposition continues to insist that the constitution (which is of Chavez'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.

Demand free, fair and verifiable elections. Although Venezuela announced that a special election to replace Chavez will be held next month, it is important to remember that elections alone do not make a democracy. Indeed, Chavez long embraced the rhetoric of democracy as he, in reality, consolidated executive power, undermined Venezuela's previously democratic political system and altered the outcomes of election through corruption, fraud and intimidation.

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The Obama administration should make clear that free and fair elections, properly monitored by respected international election observers, are essential to Venezuela's future standing in the hemisphere and the world. Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry should work with regional partners—including (but not limited to) Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Mexico—to firmly encourage Maduro's interim government. A unified regional voice would send a powerful signal to Chavez's cronies in Caracas and longtime enablers in China, Iran and Russia.

Condition future diplomatic and economic relations. Corruption and criminality were widespread under the Chavez regime, as high-level government and military officials benefited from close ties to corrupt businesses and international drug traffickers. Yet to date, the Obama administration has done little to hold Venezuela's leaders accountable.

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Washington should make clear that full diplomatic relations with the United States will be contingent upon Venezuela ending ties to international terrorist groups and rogue regimes like Iran. If Venezuela takes meaningful steps to end these ties and ensure future elections, the United States should work with Caracas and the private sector to reform Venezuela's energy industry and identify key development projects and reforms to improve the country's economic future.

The United States can play an important role in shaping Venezuela's post-Chavez future. But to do so, the Obama administration will need to stand with the people of Venezuela by publicly defending democratic principles and the impartial rule of law in Latin America.