CARDENAS: State Department picked a bad time to cozy up to Venezuela

Factions on the rise as ailing Chavez misses swearing-in

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More than a decade’s worth of Hugo Chavez gutting his country’s democratic institutions and centralizing power in his person has led to the present turmoil in Venezuela, where just who is the country’s constitutional leader is no longer clear. According to the Venezuelan constitution, Jan. 10 was the day Mr. Chavez was to be sworn in for his fourth presidential following his re-election last October. However, he remains sequestered somewhere in a Cuban hospital recovering from reportedly his fourth cancer surgery and hasn’t been seen or heard from since Dec. 8.

Again, according to the Venezuelan constitution, if the president-elect is unable to take the oath of office by Jan. 10, then power is to be transferred to the next-in-line in succession, the president of the National Assembly, currently former military man Diosdado Cabello. Yet, this week, the Chavez-packed Supreme Court decided that his swearing-in could be postponed “indefinitely,” meaning that — with Chavez nowhere in sight and his medical condition unknown — Venezuela’s nominal leader is Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez anointed as his successor last month before disappearing. The Venezuelan opposition, however, is demanding that the government follow the constitution.

As if that is not complicated enough, it turns out that both Mr. Maduro and Mr. Cabello head disparate factions within chavismo that could come to loggerheads when it is finally announced that Mr. Chavez succumbs to his cancer. Mr. Maduro is also favored by the Cubans and chavismo’s most ardent ideological adherents. Mr. Cabello, a wily survivor, represents the military and, more importantly, is seen as the protector of high-ranking Venezuelan military officials that have been designated as drug traffickers by the United States or are under current investigation.

It is into this morass that the U.S. State Department has currently waded with a full-blown attempt to “reset” U.S.-Venezuelan relations, which are in tatters due to Mr. Chavez’s relentless hostility. Last month, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, disclosed the news in Washington that high-ranking department officials had begun discrete talks with Mr. Maduro and Venezuelan OAS Ambassador Roy Chaderton in November, with the simplistic purpose of restoring ambassadors in both capitals following the re-elections of both President Obama and Mr. Chavez.

The idea of restoring diplomatic ties with the Chavez government without getting anything in return is troubling enough. It is difficult to imagine why we would seek “normal” relations with a government that openly supports rogue nations like Iran and Syria, has turned Venezuela into a prime crossroads of drug trafficking in the Americas, protects Colombian terrorists, and runs roughshod over democracy at home.

There is an institutional crisis running amok in Venezuela, and State Department officials continue to tout their desire to rebuild ties.

Who stands to benefit from such a move? To say the situation remains fluid is a titanic understatement. We don’t know Mr. Chavez’s condition or whether he is ever coming back. The democratic opposition is questioning the constitutionality of the process. We have no assurance about what will happen upon Mr. Chavez’s death. Moreover, the United States would be inserting itself in a power struggle between Mr. Maduro and Mr. Cabello.

Does this really sound like a propitious moment to pursue normalizing relations?

Someone in the administration may have thought it was a good idea last November to reach out to Mr. Chavez (that’s disturbing enough); but given the drastic turn of events, pressing forward on this initiative borders on reckless. Are we going to recognize a new chavista government in Venezuela before securing any concessions? Or are we planning to exchange ambassadors and then hope for the best? Does it matter to us whether the next elections are no fairer or more transparent than the last?

The administration would do better to immediately pull back this initiative, allow the uncertain transition process to play out, and support the opposition’s calls for an open, transparent and constitutional resolution to the crisis. Moreover, this would allow the next secretary of state, presumably John Kerry, and his team to have a better understanding of who is in charge and, if the new team so chooses, leverage U.S. policy to get the counter-narcotics and pro-democracy commitments from Mr. Chavez’s successors.

Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.

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