More importantly, the passing of Hugo Chavez represents a chance for the people of Venezuela to turn a difficult page in its history and embark on a brighter future. The Venezuelan people now have the opportunity to usher a peaceful transition from its past that will respect the principles of democracy, rule of law, and freedoms of expression. These principles are vital to the security and prosperity of our hemisphere and Venezuela’s commitment to them can help bridge the divide between our two nations.
A post-Chavez Venezuela presents both a heavy task and tremendous opportunity for the United States. On the one hand, both the U.S. and Venezuela have the opportunity to redefine the terms of their relationship. On the other, the U.S. is tasked to work with a Venezuela that has long blurred the separation of powers, deteriorated the rule of law, and dismantled democratic institutions while systematically working to undermine the influence of the U.S. in the hemisphere. In the short term, the U.S. must commit itself to work with our regional allies in pressing Venezuela for a peaceful transition of power and transparency in the election of its next leader. Free and fair elections are paramount to a constitutional democracy and a necessary step to improved relations between our countries. A first test will be whether or not the interim government in Venezuela will uphold the constitutional requirement to hold elections within the first 30 days after Chavez’s passing.
The people of Venezuela are beset with a future that is unbeknownst them. The prospects for Venezuela’s next leader fares no better. The current field of candidates range from current Vice President and Mr. Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, or opposition candidate and runner up in the 2012 October presidential elections, Henrique Caprilles. Whichever candidate manages to replace Mr. Chavez will be tasked with a heavy undertaking that includes a slowing and inflationary economy, food shortages, rampant crime and violence, a deeply polarized society, pressures to sustain the levels of popular social programs and patronage, and a declining and incapacitated oil sector which accounts for more than 90 percent of the country’s export revenue. The spike in the price of oil was a boon for the firebrand Chavez but a sudden drop in the price of oil will be disastrous.
The U.S. will also have to be ready for the destabilizing economic effect that may result from a potential drying up of financial support Venezuela outpoured to its regional allies, Cuba in particular. Cuba’s economy is almost entirely reliant on Venezuelan support and is beneficiary to nearly 100,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil every day at deeply discounted financial terms. In the same vein, countries like Bolivia, Nicaragua, and many of the Caribbean Basin nations that fall under the rubric of PetroCaribe, Chavez’s program of providing fuel at heavily subsidized prices, stand to lose heavily.
With Chavez’s passing, a major destabilizing force in the region has been silenced. However, just like Peronism in Argentina, the echoes and remnants of Chavismo are likely to endure in the near future. The expulsion of two American military attachés and accusations blasted against the U.S. in Chavez’s death are one indication that this may be the second verse of the same song we have long heard before. A likely scenario is that the current caretakers are simply trying to rally Chavistas against Venezuela’s purported arch nemesis, the U.S. in order to gain momentum and further capture the sympathy vote. Another indication that Chavismo will endure regardless of who is elected is the unstable state of the Venezuelan economy, deeply fractured society, and decrepit state of institutions. Moreover, Mr. Chavez’s successor will have to confront a legislature, Supreme Court, state-run oil company, and upper echelons of the military that remain loyal to Chavez’s ideology. The U.S. should work with our regional allies to insist that the current caretakers of the Venezuelan government respect the constitutionality of holding free and fair elections in accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Hopefully, after a transparent electoral process and a genuine effort to uphold the rule of law, rebuild democratic institutions, combat narco-trafficking and terrorist activities, and respect the freedoms of speech from all sectors of Venezuelan society, our two countries can begin on the track of improving the nature of our relationship. Until then, the new Venezuela that we all hope for will remain the same old Venezuela we have known.
Sires is the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.