June 11, 2013

NICOLÁS MADURO, the former bus driver chosen by Hugo Chávez to lead Venezuela after his death, has been struggling to consolidate his position since being declared the victor in a questionable presidential election in April. With the economy stalling, inflation spiking and shortages spreading, the new president appears at a loss about how to respond, other than to blame domestic and foreign enemies. Nor has he been able to overcome a serious split in the Chavista movement between his own, Cuba-backed clique and another based in the military.

Perhaps most alarming for Mr. Maduro, an energized opposition has refused to accept the election outcome; its capable leader, Henrique Capriles, has been gaining sympathy around the region. The president of neighboring Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, met with Mr. Capriles on May 29, prompting paroxysms of rage from Mr. Maduro and his aides. Other Latin American governments, while avoiding a confrontation with Caracas, have made it clear they regard the new leader’s legitimacy as questionable; the regional group Unasur called for an audit of the election results.

One government, however, has chosen to toss Mr. Maduro a lifeline: the United States. Last week Secretary of State John F. Kerry took time to meet Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on the sidelines of an Organization of American States meeting, then announced that the Obama administration would like to “find a new way forward” with the Maduro administration and “quickly move to the appointment of ambassadors.” Mr. Kerry even thanked Mr. Maduro for “taking steps toward this encounter” — words that the state-run media trumpeted.

What did Mr. Maduro do to earn this assistance from Mr. Kerry? Since Mr. Chávez’s death in March, the Venezuelan leader has repeatedly used the United States as a foil. He expelled two U.S. military attaches posted at the embassy in Caracas, claiming that they were trying to destabilize the country; he claimed the CIA was provoking violence in order to justify an invasion; and he called President Obama “the big boss of the devils.” A U.S. filmmaker, Timothy Tracy, was arrested and charged with plotting against the government — a ludicrous allegation that was backed with no evidence. Though Mr. Tracy was put on a plane to Miami on the day of the Kerry-Jaua encounter, Mr. Kerry agreed to the meeting before that gesture.

There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with diplomatic meetings or even in dispatching an ambassador to a country such as Venezuela. The State Department has also been meeting with senior opposition leaders and has yet to say it recognizes the presidential election results. But Mr. Kerry’s words amounted to a precious endorsement for Mr. Maduro — and the Obama administration appears bent on cultivating him regardless of his actions. Perhaps the increasingly desperate new leader has secretly promised concessions to Washington on matters such as drug trafficking. But with senior government and military officials involved in the transhipment of cocaine to the United States and Europe, he is unlikely to deliver.

In short, this looks like a reset for the sake of reset, launched without regard for good timing or the cause of Venezuelan democracy.