On February 15, the Venezuelan electorate in a referendum gave President Hugo Chavez a green light to become what he longs to become: president for life. By mobilizing the weapons in his arsenal that includes influence over state employees and recipients of his largesse, with increased media control, and a stranglehold on the police, courts, and electoral tribunals, Chavez successfully mustered 54% of the popular vote. He reversed the “no” vote of 2007 and can run for the presidency in 2012.

That the Chavez’s victory constitutes a setback to real democracy, a blow to the freedom of the Venezuelan people, and a challenge to U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere is without question.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how the Obama/Clinton State Department has already learned to spot a patch of blue in even the most menacing sky. It is reassuring to know that in a nation led by an authoritarian-populist that kicks out the U.S. Ambassador, denounces the U.S. as “the enemy,” threatens to cut off oil sales, and seeks to be best buddies with Iran’s ayatollahs and the masters of the Kremlin, that relations are generally “positive.”

The State Department’s Acting Deputy Press Spokesman Gordon Duguid’s reply to questions from the press corps on February 17 is worth reviewing:

QUESTION: Do you have reaction to the result of the referendum, the fact that Chavez has won and now he can stay in power almost indefinitely?
MR. DUGUID: Well, it’s my understanding that the referendum took place in a fully democratic process, that there were – although there were some troubling reports of intimidation of opponents, for the most part, this was a process that was fully consistent with democratic practice. However, democratic practice also requires that the government govern well and govern in the interest of all of the people of the diverse interests that are present in Venezuela.
QUESTION: But what about the result of the —
MR. DUGUID: It was a matter for the Venezuelan people. And as I said, the process was held consistent with democratic principles. Therefore, we have always sought to have a positive relationship with Venezuela. We will continue to seek to maintain a positive relationship with Venezuela. But their democratic processes need to be taken into account on our part. But also on our part, we look for governments who have achieved a positive democratic result to use that in a positive manner.
QUESTION: Do you think it’s healthy to be able to be reelected indefinitely?
MR. DUGUID: I don’t have an opinion on the democratic practices of Venezuela. In the United States, we have term limits, but that’s our practice.

This small olive branch to Chavez will certainly be welcomed in Caracas, as Chavez takes a victory lap, but one hopes the State Department’s tepid response to Chavez’s bid for unlimited power and the sad demise of pluralism and individual liberty in Venezuela is not a harbinger of things to come at higher levels.