What’s Next For Venezuela

As the dust begins to settle since the news that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had succumbed to cancer, the real issue that Venezuelans currently face is transition.

The coming months are crucial to Venezuela’s future. The first real step towards improving Venezuela will be the implementation of free and fair elections for the first time in decades. The country has little chance of success without a serious change in the way democracy operates.

I have been involved in Venezuelan national elections and we found very clear evidence of fraud. We notably caught it in 2004, but subsequent elections have been marred by either actual or partial efforts to rig the count and electioneering as well as signs of widespread political intimidation and, often times, threats.

To be sure, the international community is well aware of these offenses and it is not worth it to belabor the point here. But suffice it to say, the Chavezistas do not play fair. What’s more, there is no reason to believe that an unpopular and untested vice president like Nicolas Maduro will do anything other than try to rig the elections himself. I am already told that he is preparing for those elections and the question now becomes whether the opposition can get together behind a candidate like Henrique Capriles, who ran last time and was nearly tied in the polling just weeks before the election, or some other candidate.

But there is a larger and arguably more pressing issue in Venezuela than just free and fair elections: rebuilding civil society.

Venezuela has a rich history in respect to civil society. It is one of the first stable and thriving democracies in Latin America and has long been supportive of American and Western values. That said, this history has been all but decimated by Chavez through his ties to the Russians, the Cubans, Iranians and the Chinese.

For instance, last year, while majority of the international community had been busy condemning Bashar Assad for massacring his own people, Chavez sent large shipments of oil to the Syrian leader, in defiance of international sanctions. He was an active supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah while he was alive and his administration was heavily involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.

Chavez oversaw these pursuits to the detriment of his own people and with an obvious desire to vitiate the thriving civil society that once existed. He ran the state as a one-man quasi-kleptocracy. As a result, Venezuela desperately needs its institutions rebuilt.

There is a clear path forward. As my dear friend and colleague, Ambassador Diego Arria, has advocated for some time now, Venezuela needs a government of national unity.

Venezuela requires reconciliation already. There is talk of insurrection, violence and instability. The only way to prevent that is to make sure that we strengthen traditional institutions, but also make sure that whatever government is formed reflects all segments of society and all parts of the country as well as, crucially, all political factions.

Unless we can support Venezuela to ensure that these changes come to fruition, it will surely face a period of increased inflation, instability and potential disruption of our supply of oil. This is a risk that we simply cannot take.

Read more at Forbes.com