Photo: EFE/David Fernandez/Newscom

The government of Venezuela has announced that Hugo Chavez died this afternoon. His death was not unexpected.

What is unexpected is what occurred earlier today. Vice President Nicolas Maduro—Chavez’s heir apparent—informed a televised audience that Chavez was the victim of an attack by his enemies. “We have not a single doubt and at the proper moment we will convene a medical board to confirm that Chavez was attacked,” Maduro said. He linked Chavez’s case with that of Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, whose death, Maduro said, was caused by poisoning by the Israelis.

Maduro then ordered the expulsion of U.S. military attaché David del Monaco, whom he charged with advancing “destabilizing projects” within the ranks of the Venezuelan military.

Maduro’s claims that enemies of the regime (domestic and foreign) are to be blamed for the leader’s death are irresponsible, outrageous, and exceedingly dangerous. The death of Chavez will set Venezuela on edge. Wild and unsubstantiated allegations that the U.S. and the democratic opposition are directly accountable for Chavez’s cancer death will generate a crisis situation.

Chavez’s passing will be a difficult moment for Venezuela. Wild accusations by his successors have the potential to cause a bloodbath. The Obama Administration needs to act swiftly and sternly to rebut this outlandish claim, rally international support, and prepare to protect American lives and property, as well as that of innocent Venezuelans.