Rule of law should lead transition in Venezuela

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It is time for the people of Venezuela to take a long, hard look at the current state of their country and what their flagging economy portends for their future. The truth is, President Chavez grossly mismanaged vast Venezuelan resources, using over a trillion dollars in oil assets for political purposes, rather than for the long- term benefit of the Venezuelan people. Under his leadership, daily production of the state-owned and managed oil company fell by nearly a million barrels a day. Meanwhile, Venezuela is experiencing record inflation, a devalued currency, widespread poverty and pervasive scarcity and shortages of basic goods.

As Venezuelans contemplate their post-Chavez future, the U.S. and her neighbors in the region, should encourage them to seize this opportunity nonviolently, but with resolve to ensure peaceful, free, fair and transparent elections. It is my hope that Venezuela will welcome legitimate international election observers, while giving the opposition equal access to the media.

Another critical element that the Venezuelans must embrace is the rule of law. First and foremost, the Venezuelan leadership should abide by their Constitution during these unstable times. According to Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, “if the president of the Republic becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election shall be held within 30 days. Pending the election and inauguration, the president of the National Assembly shall take charge of the presidency of the Republic.” It is disappointing that Vice President Nicolas Maduro appears to have taken control of the government pending the elections, blatantly ignoring the Constitution as rewritten by Chavez himself two years into his presidency. The rule of law is vital to ensuring a peaceful and transparent transition of power, and the Venezuelan people and the international community need to be reassured by those who wish to lead that they will uphold democratic values and respect the Venezuelan Constitution.

Just before the announcement of Chavez’s death, the acting government of Venezuela expelled two U.S. attaches posted to our embassy in Caracas, immediately after holding a press conference blaming the U.S. for President Chavez’s illness. The State Department should reciprocate this unwarranted and provocative action. Furthermore, I urge the administration to delay restoring relations at the ambassadorial level until the government of Venezuela demonstrates a firm commitment to cooperating in the fight against drug-trafficking and terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

As we look to the future, we must reflect on the past. It has been reported that Chavez took inspiration from other leftist, and military based regimes including General Manuel Noriega’s Panama. Perhaps the Venezuelans should once again look to their hemispheric neighbor for inspiration. Since breaking free from the self-destructive Noriega regime, Panama has embraced democracy and market reforms. After much upheaval, the Panamanians have built one of the fastest growing economies in the region, and have substantially increased the Panamanian standard of living. Foreign direct investment is up and unemployment is down to 4.4 percent. Panama is now enjoying a flourishing free trade agreement with the United States.

Venezuela can once again embrace the democratic values cherished by so many in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela is blessed with vast natural resources and rich cultural heritage, and I am hopeful that free market reforms and restoration of the rule of law will lead the way to peace and prosperity for the people of Venezuela. They have a real opportunity to be one of the most exciting economies in the Western Hemisphere, but that can only be realized when they hold free, fair and open elections, embrace market reforms, confront narco-trafficking and corruption, and adhere to the rule of law.

It is my hope that the Venezuelan people will draw from the successful examples of their fellow Western Hemisphere neighbors in Panama and Colombia to find a new path, one that leads to prosperity. It is up to them.

Salmon is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

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