The stakes are quite high for U.S. political, security and energy interests as well as for stability in the region. In November, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson held a long telephone conversation with Maduro to discuss normalizing relations with the Chávez regime. Following through would be a mistake.
If Washington and Caracas were to restore ambassadors at this crucial time, it would crush the hopes of the democratic opposition, legitimize Maduro and the Chavista succession, and interfere with ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations against the Venezuelan narcostate. The only explanation for the timing of such an ill-conceived initiative is that career diplomats are rushing to act before Congress can second-guess their actions -- particularly in the context of confirmation hearings of secretary of state designate John Kerry.
Bipartisan leaders in Congress are paying closer attention to the dangerous developments in Venezuela than are the foreign policy agencies in the executive branch. It is vital that they weigh in urgently to ensure that U.S. diplomats make vital law enforcement, security, and human rights concerns a condition of rapprochement with Caracas.
Remarkably, Venezuela's own democratic opposition is virtually invisible in this process -- barely observers in Caracas and nonexistent in Washington and other foreign capitals. Ironically, while they have shied away for years from being associated with the United States, Maduro is eagerly accepting the State Department's advances. The putative opposition leaders could capture some relevance if they were to reject Cuban interventionism and demand that the regime come clean about Chávez's condition. They also should prepare a list of practical demands -- meaningful political, security, economic, and electoral reforms -- just in case one of the Chavista factions offers to share power in a bid for legitimacy. When elections are held, it is not certain that the opposition will agree on a unity candidate -- particularly because many believe that their last standard-bearer, Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski, was too quick to concede his November 2012 defeat.
It will surprise no one if the Chavista factions set aside their differences to sustain their hold on power. However, as long as U.S. diplomats do not give away the store, it will be a tenuous hold by a criminal regime. Once Chávez's legacy -- a narcoterrorist state allied with terrorists -- is exposed, decent Venezuelans may have a chance to recover and rebuild their country.