With the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez last week after a long battle with cancer, one hopes that U.S.-Venezuela relations will see the sort of thaw that sometimes comes when rival states choose new leaders.
Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, for his part, has been frosty toward Washington since being sworn in as interim president. Maduro, offering no evidence, hinted this week that U.S. agents may have poisoned Chavez.
“We have this intuition that our commander Chavez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted to be rid of him,” Maduro said in announcing an official probe into Chavez’s death.
Maduro’s trite accusation is ridiculous, but it’s too early for President Barack Obama to write him off as an implacable enemy. In a conspiracy-rife culture proudly resistant to what it perceives as American imperialism, Maduro’s comments are just more of Chavez’s battle-tested populism.
Maduro wouldn’t admit it, but his fear-mongering is necessary only because presidential rival Henrique Capriles of the center-right Justice First party is mounting a credible challenge to Maduro’s candidacy in the April 14 special election to succeed Chavez.
Public sympathy and the power of incumbency make Maduro the favorite over Capriles. But Capriles’ narrow election defeat — 54 percent to 45 percent — at the hands of Chavez last fall testifies to the health and vigor of Venezuela’s internal debate over the country’s future. Although many voters approved of Chavez’s use of the country’s oil wealth to finance health and education programs for the nation’s long-suffering poor, Venezuela’s stagnant economic growth and rampant crime didn’t go unnoticed by his skeptics.
The last thing Washington policymakers should do now is lend credibility to Maduro’s anti-American fear-mongering by acting hostile toward him. Such behavior is likely to alienate all Venezuelans — even those 45 percent who voted for Chavez’s ouster last fall — and galvanize Maduro’s rule.
Since World War II, presidents have often seemed fearful of not appearing “tough enough” toward militant strongmen. After all, nobody wants to repeat the performance of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose naive appeasement is often blamed for Adolf Hitler’s rise.
But Hitler was ... well, Hitler. And since belligerence and hostility can quickly backfire, they should be reserved only for dangerous madmen who pose a clear and present danger to the U.S. Among the threats to our national security, an oil-rich rabble-rouser in Venezuela isn’t nearly as troublesome as the threat of nuclear proliferation from states such as North Korea, Iran and Pakistan.
While any U.S. outreach to Maduro might turn out to be a waste of time, it’s still the right thing to do. He deserves the respect due any head of state, if only as a show of respect to the Venezuelan people.