Post-Chávez crisis an opportunity for Venezuela

Reuters

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pray in a chapel outside the Caracas military hospital in Caracas March 5, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • With more audacious leadership among Venezuela’s democrats, Chávez’s legacy might be buried with him.

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  • Americans need to know that a struggle is underway in Venezuela that could replace an anti-US narcostate with an ally.

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  • For the sake of Venezuela and its people, this is the time for good people to do what they know is right.

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Alas, Hugo Chávez will not live long enough to atone for his abuse of millions of Venezuelans nor to correct the corrupt and destructive policies that have wrecked the country he leaves behind. Moreover, although his cronies and their Cuban handlers are maneuvering to hold on to power, a Chavista succession is neither stable nor sustainable. With more audacious leadership among Venezuela’s democrats and intelligent solidarity from abroad, Chávez’s legacy might be buried with him.

The foundations of Chavismo are being shaken by an impending socioeconomic meltdown, a faltering oil sector, bitter in-fighting in his own movement, complicity with drug-trafficking and terrorism, rampant street crime, the inept performance by Chávez’s anointed successor, and growing popular rejection of Cuban interference, corrupt institutions, and rigged elections. Beset by these challenges and with Chávez no longer at the top of the ballot, the regime will use every advantage to engineer a victory in a special election to choose a new president.

A currency devaluation last month was too little and too late to break the fall of a Venezuelan economy that has been decimated by gross mismanagement, staggering corruption, and policies that were meant to strangle the independent private sector. The Chavista economic team is scrambling to stabilize the economy in advance of the election, but its incompetence is evident as it ratchets up restrictions that will stifle production and commerce. Inflation, food shortages, power outages, and crumbling infrastructure are taking a terrible toll on the quality of life of all Venezuelans.

Unlike in the past, Venezuela will not be saved by a windfall of oil revenues, because production is greatly diminished and oversubscribed. Contrary to official numbers, actual production is 2.4 million barrels per day, far below a peak of 3.3 million before Chávez. And sweetheart deals with China, Russia, and Iran as well as giveaways to Cuba and other client states in the Caribbean and Central America are bleeding Venezuela dry. Although China loaned about $28 billion to Chávez in the last 18 months, Beijing has closed its checkbook because of the questionable legality of the interim regime and the simple fact that Venezuela has no crude oil left to sell. As a result of this mess, there are reports that Venezuela is actually importing gasoline to satisfy domestic demand. In short, Chávez politicized the state-run oil company and treated its revenue as his petty cash fund – now the company is ruined and the till is empty.

Several months ago, it seemed logical that rival factions within Chavismo – a civilian group loyal to Havana and a military cadre implicated in narcotrafficking – would close ranks behind Vice President Nicolas Maduro as a figurehead. However, since taking center stage after Chávez disappeared three months ago, Maduro has failed to convince even his supporters that he can wage a winning presidential campaign to succeed Chávez. Maduro’s lackluster performance has led narcogenerals to conclude that their leader, National Assembly president and military veteran Diosdado Cabello, is more capable of holding on to power.

According to Venezuelan sources, Cabello’s alleged links to drug trafficking have alienated some professional officers who are wary of being targeted by U.S. law enforcement. Moreover, many Venezuelan military officers are uneasy about a constitutionally dubious succession that is being micromanaged by Cuba. Consequently, some have begun to court alternative leaders in their ranks who will reject Havana’s interference as well as criminality. So, Chavismo and its control of the military may be disintegrating.

State governor Henrique Capriles Radonski is behaving as the de facto leader of the opposition, based on the fact that he was the unity candidate who waged an unsuccessful campaign against Chávez last year. However, with so much riding on snap elections and some disappointed by Capriles’s accommodating style, independent actors are seizing the initiative. Key democratic members of Venezuela’s congress are demanding simple but significant reforms in the rigged electoral system, and throngs of university students have been rallying against corruption and Cuban interference. Capriles can demonstrate his leadership by refusing to play by the corrupt rules imposed by a criminal regime.

Americans need to know that a struggle is underway right now in Venezuela that could replace an anti-U.S. narcostate with a friendly, democratic, and prosperous ally. Remarkably, in the midst of this tumultuous power struggle, the State Department’s first instinct was to open talks with the corrupt and hostile Chávez regime to normalize relations – a move that would legitimize a criminal regime, undermine Venezuelan democrats, and hobble ongoing law enforcement investigations.

For the sake of Venezuela and its people, this is the time for good people to do what they know is right – urgently, intelligently, and boldly.

Roger F. Noriega held senior positions in the State Department in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005 and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His firm, Vision Americas, represents U.S. and foreign clients.

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