Chavez death unlikely to improve U.S.-Venezuela relations

The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose dictatorial rule included frequent slams of the United States, likely won’t result in any immediate improvement in relations between our two nations.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the almost certain successor to Chavez when elections are called within a month and conducted, gave a clear indication that he plans to continue with the “Evil United States” approach that Chavez used to consolidate supporters who were willing to be shortchanged by their government because they shared a dislike for the U.S.

In one of the more ridiculous statements ever made by a political leader, Maduro charged that “imperialist” enemies — read: the United States — had taken Chavez away from his people by surreptitiously infecting Chavez with the cancer that killed him Tuesday at age 58. Quite an extraordinary medical opinion from a politician in a corrupt government whose expertise lies in being a union leader and a bus driver. And it’s a continuation of Chavez’s ludicrous rants and warnings that only he stood between Venezuelans and certain invasion from the U.S. aggressors to the north.

But it seems inevitable that Maduro will now be in charge of the system that Chavez created ostensibly to “take care” of rank-and-file Venezuelans, but which served primarily as a means for him to consolidate power in a presidency that is dictatorial, not democratic.

There seems to be a question as to whether the election for president — a race Chavez won last fall for a new six-year term — will be conducted within the next 30 days or whether the election will just be called for in that time period. For Maduro, the quicker the election, the better.

As president, Maduro controls Venezuela and its vast oil resources, which means he controls the money. The opposition party is on its heels after Chavez handily defeated its candidate, Henrique Capriles, in October, and Capriles will likely be Maduro’s challenger in the coming election. Chavez is popular in Venezuela and his death will only serve to motivate his supporters to get behind Maduro, the man Chavez selected to bear his “Chavista” standard.

The stars seem to be aligned for a continuation of Chavez’s policies in the person of Maduro, who is following his mentor’s footsteps as he attempted to copy Chavez’s flamboyant style.

Substance would be better. Chavez showered the poor in his nation with oil-financed projects and created a father-child relationship with them, prompting Venezuelans to blame problems not on him, but the United States. While he focused on his socialist ideology, he ignored real problems that those in his nation faced on a daily basis — power outages, inflated currency, food shortages and high rates of violent crime. With the wealth from its oil production, a leader who cared about people more than personal power could have made major advancements in those areas.

Under Chavez’s policies, Venezuela had no hope of capitalizing on its natural resource for the betterment of its people. Even with the world’s largest oil reserves, investors shied away from the country in which Chavez’s hard left policies, nationalization and harsh retaliation against rivals created a hostile investment climate.

Good relations between the United States and Venezuela would be mutually beneficial on a great many levels. Unfortunately, it appears a Venezuela under Maduro will be destined to continue down this path of opportunities squandered while jousting at an imagined enemy.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board