Argument

Venezuelan Roulette

With Hugo Chávez's health uncertain, narcogenerals and Cuban-backed ideologues are vying for influence in Venezuela.

With cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez clinging to life in a Havana hospital, an intense struggle for power is under way in Caracas, pitting Cuban-backed ideologues against narcogenerals. Venezuela's inept democratic opposition has no strategy for defending its interests, while career U.S. diplomats are stumbling toward legitimizing an authoritarian narcostate without getting anything in return. The future of Venezuela is hanging in the balance.

Two factions have now emerged within Chavismo. The first is led by Nicolás Maduro, who served for six years as Venezuela's foreign minister and heads a clique of ideologues loyal to Havana. In October, Chávez named Maduro as vice president and called upon his followers to support him in the snap elections that would take place if the president dies.

But even with the ailing president's blessing, Maduro will face competition. Diosdado Cabello, a military veteran and long-time collaborator of Chávez's who has fallen out of favor with the core Chavistas in recent years, is president of the National Assembly and Maduro's biggest potential rival in a post-Chavez power struggle. Cabello and a group of senior military officers implicated by U.S. authorities in narcotrafficking will never risk losing power and impunity. Moreover, Cabello has a personal grudge against the Castro brothers for the role they played in forcing him out of Chávez's inner circle 8 years ago, when his corrupt fortune gave him an independent source of power. The generals pushed Cabello back into leadership posts early last year to protect their interests as Chávez's health failed, and they are not ready to defer to Maduro and his civilian cadre.

Which faction will end up in the driver's seat depends on whether Chávez is able to take the oath of office for a new term on Jan. 10. If he does, Maduro will be designated vice president, positioning him to succeed Chávez and win a special election to fulfill his six-year term. On the other hand, if Chávez is not able to take the oath of office, the presidency will pass to the head of the National Assembly, Cabello, until a successor is elected. Clearly, the latter scenario will give Cabello the upper hand. So, Maduro is now arguing that Chávez is president and can initiate a new term by taking the oath at the Venezuelan embassy in Havana or whenever he returns to Venezuela. Either scenario would impair the legitimacy of a successor regime.

The Cubans are working feverishly to ensure Maduro's succession to preserve their multibillion-dollar windfall of oil and aid from Caracas. But they are not alone among foreign powers with an interest in preserving Chavismo after Chávez. China has pumped about $25 billion in loans that must be repaid in the coming years. Russia has sold $9 billion in arms and eager to capture lucrative oil and gas deals. Iran exploits Venezuelan territory as a platform for evading international sanctions and projecting a deadly Hezbollah and Quds Force presence near U.S. shores.

In addition, narcotraffickers have embraced the Venezuelan state a willing partner in their dangerous activities. According to sources familiar with ongoing investigations, U.S. officials have fresh, compelling information implicating Chávez, Cabello, his former minister of defense, his army chief, his newly appointed deputy Minister of Interior, and dozens of other senior military officials in cocaine smuggling and money laundering. These Venezuelan officials help transport tons of cocaine to Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, the United States, West Africa, and Europe.

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.

RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

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