ANTICIPATING THE death of Hugo Chavez, the Obama administration began reaching out months ago to his designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, in the hope of bettering U.S.-Venezuelan relations. On Tuesday, that strategy absorbed a body blow: Hours before revealing that Mr. Chavez had died of cancer, Mr. Maduro tried to blame the United States for his illness, and he expelled two U.S. military attaches on charges of “proposing destabilizing plans” to the armed forces.
So much for the “reset” with Caracas. The ludicrous and crude propaganda launched by Mr. Maduro was a sign that Mr. Chavez’s successors will be more thuggish and less politically adept than he was — and, if anything, more inclined to scapegoat the United States and Venezuela’s democratic opposition for the horrendous problems the caudillo leaves behind.
Those troubles, it should be clear, are staggering, even more so when it is considered that Venezuela, a country of less than 30 million people, collected more than $1 trillion in oil revenue during Mr. Chavez’s 14 years of increasingly autocratic rule. Its inflation is among the highest in the world, power outages are routine and consumers are plagued with shortages of basic goods. The murder rate has more than tripled, making Caracas a more dangerous city than Baghdad. Official corruption is rampant, as is drug trafficking: Seven present or former officials have been designated as narcotics kingpins by the U.S. Treasury.
Perhaps most dangerous of all for the motley crew that inherits this legacy, Venezuelans have been grossly and cynically deceived. Mr. Chavez assured them he was healthy when he campaigned for reelection last year, even though he surely knew his illness was terminal. As recently as this month, polls showed that the regime’s propaganda had led a majority of Venezuelans to believe that he would soon resume his duties. The government can no more explain Mr. Chavez’s seemingly sudden demise than it can deliver on the extravagant promises he made in his last months, including a mass giveaway of apartments and appliances.
It’s little wonder the United States is being blamed. Since his youth, Mr. Maduro has been a client of the Castro regime in Cuba, which depends on Venezuela for 60 percent of its energy. The Venezuelan transition has been orchestrated from Havana, where Mr. Chavez was secluded from December until two weeks ago; anti-American hysteria is the Castros’ oldest wheeze.
The only mystery here is why the Obama administration is focusing its diplomacy on courting Mr. Maduro and his cronies. Venezuela’s constitution says a new presidential election must take place within 30 days, and Mr. Maduro will face a challenge from opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who has twice defeated Chavez lieutenants in gubernatorial elections, most recently in December. Nor is it clear that Mr. Chavez’s followers will unite behind Cuba’s favorite; the Venezuelan military and politicians close to it are said to be resistant to Havana’s tutelage.
A sensible U.S. policy in these circumstances would start with insistence on a fair, democratic vote to determine Mr. Chavez’s successor and with the defense of peaceful political actors, such as the Venezuelan students whose protest campground was attacked and burned in the hours after Mr. Chavez’s death. Further wooing of Mr. Maduro should wait until he survives the scrum in his own party, wins a free vote and demonstrates that he is more than a Castro puppet.