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U.S. Can't Stay Quiet over Chávez Absence

(Image: Prensa Miraflores)

January 11, 2013

Remember the climactic scene in The Sound of Music when the von Trapp family fails to appear on stage to receive the top prize even as the band repeatedly introduces their entrance? It’s a little like the spectacle awaiting Venezuelans now that Hugo Chavez has missed his own presidential inauguration under the terms of the recent constitution that he himself instituted.

If he is unable to carry out his duties, Venezuela’s constitution requires another election within 30 days. Recovering from cancer – or not – in Havana, a number of alternatives have been floated by Chavez allies that would allow him to remain as president until such time or scenario as he could be physically sworn-in. Better not cue the band just yet.

Even so, whether Chavez eventually recovers and returns home to govern, transition is underway as the hemisphere contemplates life without him. For the 20 years since he first attempted to gain the Venezuelan presidency by force, and the 14 years since he was first elected, Chavez has played an outsized role in hemispheric affairs. His death or permanent incapacitation will be a watershed.  For Latin America, transition will offer the opportunity for meaningful contributions to democracy based on the demands for active partnership that animated the most recent Summit of the Americas in Colombia.

Chavez remains intensely popular with well over half of the Venezuelan population, and his political movement is entrenched.  There will be no return to the days pre-Chavez. Even his opponents took pains before the last presidential election, on October 7, 2012 to convince voters that if opposition candidate Henrique Capriles had been elected, he would have respected the gains of the Bolivarian revolution.

At issue are the constitutional rules of the game, in which the hemisphere put great store during political crises in Honduras in 2009 and in Paraguay last year. While it is manifestly in the U.S. interest that constitutional democracy in Venezuela be strengthened, it is also consistent with hemispheric principles and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which Chavez signed in 2001.

It should not be possible in today’s Latin America, for example, to designate a presidential successor without an election or to change mandated electoral requirements as may be political expedient.

This is an important test for the regional partnership that hemispheric nations have demanded, and careful, high-level diplomacy is required. For its part, beyond general statements supporting free and fair elections in Venezuela, the United States should be working assiduously to build regional support for constitutional democracy. By publicly supporting transition consistent with Venezuela’s own constitution, leaders would take a stand for democracy, support institutions over individuals, establish boundaries for the transition, and show true partnership in pursuit of a common outcome.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Brazil, in particular, would sign on to such an approach, although Brasilia’s claim to hemispheric leadership would then be undercut. Even so, the effort should go forward with willing partners.

This initiative may require significant diplomatic lifting from Washington, at a time when other foreign and domestic policy issues clearly predominate. The impact on hemispheric affairs would be dramatic, however, if the foreign ministers of the United States, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, and others stood together physically or at least rhetorically to support the democratic process and institutions in Venezuela. It would be analogous to then-Secretary of State James Baker and then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze jointly rejecting Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, thus laying the foundation for the subsequent international response.

The United States cannot remain mute given the principles and interests at stake in Venezuela. But neither will Washington be effective if it attempts to move forward alone. Partnership must be active, not passive, both for the United States and for the other nations of the Americas. Support for constitutional democracy in Venezuela, for the inauguration and beyond, demands a robust, regional approach.

*Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society.