With due respects to Abraham Lincoln, one can say that Venezuela is a “house divided against itself.” The question for the Obama Administration is how long this important nation can remain half free and half a Hugo Chavez fiefdom. A powerful tug-of-war is underway between those who support Chavez’s radical, anti-American program of “Socialism of the 21st Century” and those in Venezuela who have had enough and believe that tyranny, repression, and economic misery take root in the accumulation of unchecked executive power.

Chavez took a pummeling in the September 26, 2010, National Assembly elections.

Rising Venezuelan political star Maria Corina Machado called it right: Chavez “turned the election to the National Assembly into a plebiscite and lost.  t is very clear. Venezuela said no to Cuban-like communism; Venezuela said yes to a way towards democracy and now we have the legitimacy of citizens’ votes; we are the people’s representatives.”

Chavez continued trying to explain why half of Venezuela voted against his Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Noted The Financial Times:

In a four-hour press conference in the Miraflores presidential palace that dragged on late into Monday night, Venezuela’s prolix president was at pains to explain how the PSUV won 5.4m votes nationwide, while the opposition’s Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) got just 5.3m votes—”a huge difference of more than 100,000 votes,” he said.

The problem with this good news from Venezuela is that the Obama Administration may have trouble adapting to it. When asked about the elections, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley did manage something mildly positive:

It would appear that the results suggest that there’s now a real opposition, and President Chávez and his administration will have to govern as part of a functioning democracy and can’t just dictate policies to a compliant legislation.

The Obama Administration faces significant challenges. It has no visible Venezuela policy. It has no plan for supporting a “real opposition.”

Chávez, moreover, has painted the Administration into a diplomatic corner, formally rejecting the Obama Administration’s nominee as ambassador, career diplomat Larry Palmer, because the nominee spoke the truth about the morale of the Venezuelan military and about Chavez’s backing for Colombian narco-terrorists.

Having already removed Ambassador Patrick Duddy from Caracas, the Obama Administration must now choose between doing without ambassadorial representation and eating humble pie and finding a pliable, tight-lipped diplomat more suitable to Chávez’s liking. For the time being the State Department is sticking with Palmer.

State Department, however, has limited funding available for democracy assistance in Venezuela. It is either slashing or ending the work of the Office of Transition Initiatives that was designed to “maintain democratic stability and strengthen [Venezuela’s] fragile democratic institutions.” There is an urgent need to find creative, perhaps indirect, ways and means to signal to the forces of pluralistic and “real” opposition in Venezuela that the U.S. and the Obama Administration has not abandoned them.

The clock is already ticking toward Venezuela’s 2012 presidential elections and one can assume with little fear of contradiction that Chávez will not cease looking for ways to undercut and sabotage the growth of Venezuela’s democratic opposition.