EDITORIAL: Turning the page on Chavez

Diplomatic attention required for healthy relations

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The future of Venezuela’s anti-American revolution is as opaque as the medical condition of President Hugo Chavez, who lies gravely ill in a Cuban hospital. The possibility of new leadership may present the United States with a chance to freshen its sour relations with Caracas. However, American diplomacy has been hobbled by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s own health problems. Her return to Foggy Bottom could put the United States back in the game.

Mr. Chavez was to take the oath of office for a new six-year term on Thursday, but that plan is now in doubt. The 58-year-old strongman is fighting a severe respiratory infection following cancer surgery, throwing Venezuelans into confusion over leadership protocols should the president fail to appear for his inauguration.

The Venezuelan Constitution calls for a new election within 30 days if the president dies or is “permanently incapacitated,” but varying interpretations of the document could lead to a power struggle between two loyal Chavistas. The president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, should serve as interim leader until a new president is elected, according to Chavez opponents. However, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez’s handpicked successor, announced Friday that if the ailing leader is unable to attend his inauguration, the nation’s supreme court could swear him in at a later date. If this option comes to pass, Mr. Maduro would maintain his advantage as likely successor.

Mr. Chavez was elected in 1998 based on populist appeal, but he has governed as a textbook socialist, consolidating federal power through nationalization of key industries and cracking down on media organizations and political rivals. He has enjoyed thumbing his nose at Uncle Sam, adopting an anti-American cant and pursuing relations with U.S. adversaries in the region and beyond. Most troubling has been his alliance of convenience with Iran through their shared hatred of the United States. Joint investments in energy and transportation projects have led to an agreement to place Iranian missiles in Venezuela capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

If the Chavez era ends, whoever assumes leadership could alter Venezuela’s course, providing an opening for rapprochement with Washington. Mrs. Clinton may have set a record for visiting more countries than any previous secretary of state, but during her four years as top diplomat, she made little headway with the entrenched U.S. antagonist in Caracas. Now that she has returned to work after her own health problems, Mrs. Clinton must manage the U.S. response to turmoil in Venezuela.

At the same time, she needs to remove obstacles she has inadvertently left in front of her chosen successor, Sen. John Kerry. Congressional Republicans insist Mrs. Clinton testify about her role in the administration’s response to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that ended in the killings of four Americans before Mr. Kerry’s confirmation is considered.

The air needs to be cleared sooner rather than later. As Mr. Chavez’s health deteriorates, the opportunities and perils for the nation’s interest in South America will change rapidly. The next secretary of state will need to be ready to act.

The Washington Times

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