Hugo Chavez's death could very well result in an uncertain and unstable succession battle that will define Venezuela's future for better or worse. With that country one of the world's largest exporters of crude oil and the fourth-largest supplier of crude oil and petroleum products to the United States, the Obama administration needs to get active in helping to shape events in a positive direction.
It will not be easy, given the levels of acrimony and polarization that Mr. Chavez leaves in his wake. Still, it presents an extraordinary opportunity to pull Venezuela back into the peaceful community of regional nations, after more than a decade of Mr. Chavez's troublemaking that has set back regional prospects for stability and economic development.
It may be that the late Venezuelan leader had an emotional connection with the country's poor and marginalized, but the reality is that he is leaving behind an impending socioeconomic meltdown, a faltering oil sector, complicity with drug trafficking and terrorism, rampant street crime and a legacy of corrupt institutions and rigged elections.
Because Mr. Chavez was never sworn in this past January for his next term in office after his return from Cuba where he was receiving medical treatment, the Venezuelan Constitution mandates that power should be transferred to the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who must call new elections.
Yet that is not what has happened. The Venezuelan foreign minister announced Tuesday that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez's anointed successor, would be interim president and call new elections -- even though he has no constitutional standing to do so.
How that sits with Mr. Cabello remains to be seen, but it is well-known that Mr. Cabello and Mr. Maduro do not always see eye to eye, especially regarding the heavy Cuban presence in micromanaging Venezuelan affairs of state.
To date, Mr. Chavez's outsized presence has been able to control the disparate factions within his chavismo movement. Today, though, all bets are off. Mr. Maduro's faction of civilian ideologues is seen as loyal to Cuba; Mr. Cabello, a former military colleague of Mr. Chavez, however, is not seen as trustworthy by the Castro regime, which sees the loss of Venezuelan oil subsidies as an existential threat. Still, Mr. Cabello maintains the active loyalty of important sectors in the Venezuelan armed forces.
Tensions within the chavista movement were made evident even before the announcement of Mr. Chavez's death on Tuesday, when Mr. Maduro went on Venezuelan television to order the expulsion of two members of the U.S. military group operating out of the U.S. Embassy who he said were meeting with Venezuelan military officials and promoting destabilization.
Mr. Maduro's maneuver was likely a clumsy attempt to generate popular suspicion about the loyalty of the army so that his Cuban advisers can begin to take reprisals against military officers who are blocking Havana's ultimate succession plan of replacing Mr. Chavez (and Mr. Cabello) with Mr. Maduro. By challenging the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, Mr. Maduro and Havana may be starting a fight they cannot win.
The United States cannot be an idle bystander in these developments. Nor should it allow itself to be cowed by angry Chavez supporters to allow events to simply unfold. The Obama administration needs to stand on principle on behalf of an orderly transition consistent with the Venezuelan Constitution. This means power should be transferred to the head of the National Assembly, Mr. Cabello -- hardly an angel in himself -- and calling new elections.
This time, they must not be Chavez-style elections -- with the vast expenditure of state resources, intimidation and control of media -- but elections fully consistent with international standards. Already, anticipating the end of Mr. Chavez's fight with cancer, Venezuela's democratic opposition drew up a list of simple electoral reforms that would level the playing field and better allow the Venezuelan people to chart their own future, free of chavista and foreign interference. These reforms need to be implemented before a new election takes place.
The next few days and weeks stand as a signal moment for the United States to re-seize its traditional leadership role in the Americas on behalf of democratic and free-market development. An abdication of that leadership would mean the continuation of a lawless Venezuelan government in cahoots with Cuba, Iran and drug traffickers to the detriment of all decent people in the region.
Roger F. Noriega, former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Jose R. Cardenas, former acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration, is an associate with Vision Americas.