President Hugo Chavez used Venezuela's vast oil wealth to buy friends, bully adversaries and sustain a power base that was built on dividing the population and paralyzing them under a cult of personality. His death Tuesday at 58 after a long struggle with cancer leaves a vacuum and an opportunity for Venezuela to come to terms with the ruin Chavez brought to one of the most important players in the Western Hemisphere. The United States should engage Venezuela during this transition and seek to rebalance America's influence on a regional scale.
Chavez was a big-talking socialist who managed to shift popular blame for Venezuela's poverty to the U.S. government, his country's own elite and the global economy. He used oil revenues to burnish his revolutionary image across Latin America. He shipped cheap oil to Cuba in exchange for face time with Fidel Castro, seeking to assume the role of America's chief nemesis. He received Cuban doctors and teachers in exchange, who worked on Chavez's antipoverty programs.
But Chavez's autocratic style, harassment of the opposition and press, and nationalization of key industries reflected how he kept power by playing one group off another. A deeply polarized country gripped by soaring prices, slum housing, aging infrastructure and one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world now faces an election where the choice is between the shadow regime of a departed strongman and a revived but weakened opposition.
The United States has too much at stake to stand idly by. Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to America, and it has banked favors across the hemisphere for its leadership in creating a new sense of independence from Washington. Regional stability depends on the ability of a post-Chavez government to address inequality and basic domestic needs, rebuild a middle class and attract foreign investment.
Florida has a special stake; more Venezuelan expatriates live in Miami-Dade County than anywhere else in the country. For Venezuela to make a fresh start, it needs to attract the talent and money that fled to Florida and elsewhere in recent years. The leadership change could also affect the pace of democratic reform in Cuba if the new Venezuelan government decides to divert those subsidies back home. The transition looks uncertain, and the United States lacks leverage. But this is a moment to lend an open ear and an open hand.