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Obama needs to put brakes on overtures to Chavismo

Obama needs to put brakes on overtures to Chavismo

Even as Venezuela plunges into a constitutional crisis over Hugo Chávez’s missed inauguration yesterday, State Department officials evidently think its still an ideal time to continue pressing for a normalization of diplomatic relations with the Venezuelan government, whoever that may be.

Ever since my colleague, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, disclosed last month (and at Foreign Policy here) that high-ranking department officials had begun discrete talks about exchanging ambassadors with Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro and Venezuelan Organization of American States Ambassador Roy Chaderton in November, department officials have begun to speak openly (here and here) about the effort and have shown no indication that recent events in Venezuela have dampened their enthusiasm.

Indeed, they have even doubled down on it and are now presenting their overtures as a way to get ahead of the post-Chávez curve, given the increasing likelihood that the firebrand populist will never return to power. That way, in the words of the Washington Post, they "can engage Caracas on a variety of concerns the State Department has had about the Venezuelan government’s policies."

One wonders then what the rationale was in November for seeking to normalize relations, since Chávez was his usual bombastic self and showed no signs of the severity of his illness. (He soon decamped to Cuba for his reported fourth surgery for cancer and hasn’t been seen or heard from since December 8th.)

In any case, the idea of unconditionally restoring diplomatic ties with the Chávez government in November is troubling enough; today, it is simply inexplicable.

As has been widely reported, Chávez missed his inauguration this week, which means, according to the Venezuelan constitution, that his current presidential term has ended. Since he was not sworn in for his new term, power is then turned over to the elected head of the National Assembly. However, the Chávez-packed Supreme Court ruled that he is still president and that his inauguration can be postponed indefinitely. That means the nominal head of government in Venezuela is Chávez’s hand-picked vice president and heir, the unelected Nicolas Maduro.

But Venezuela’s democratic opposition is protesting this usurpation of the constitutional process and maintaining that the head of government is the head of the legislature, Diosdado Cabello, another Chávez crony. Yet complicating matters further is that both Maduro and Cabello head different factions within Chavismo that will likely vie for power once Chávez is gone.

Is this really the most appealing scenario to attempt to restore diplomatic relations with a country that has been so radicalized, de-institutionalized, and polarized under more than a decade of Hugo Chávez? One thinks not.

No one doubts the administration’s concern with Venezuela’s alliances with international rogues like Iran and Syria, its complicity with narco-trafficking through its territory, and its unhelpful stance on Colombia’s war against narco-terrorism, but to expect any diplomatic progress on those issues while Venezuelans aren’t even sure who will be in power when they wake up in the morning is simply folly.

The administration would do better to immediately suspend overtures to Venezuelan officials, allow the uncertain transition process to play out, and support the opposition’s calls for an open, transparent, and constitutional resolution to the crisis — as well as a clean and transparent election when Chávez succumbs to cancer. Moreover, the department will soon have a new Secretary of State, presumably John Kerry. By the time he and his team are in the building the more likely it will be that they have a better understanding of who is in charge in Venezuela, and whether the environment is more inviting to attempt to make real progress with Chávez’s successors on those issues that are important to U.S. security.