Tears streamed down the face of Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro yesterday as he announced that longtime Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was dead. The news likely came as a surprise to no one—Chavez had been battling cancer for years and was long thought to be on his deathbed. In fact, the Venezuelan leader had not been seen in public since December.

Though not unexpected, Chavez’s death has far-reaching—and potentially dangerous—implications for the U.S. and the world.

Addressing the nation, Maduro called on the Venezuelan people to rally together in the spirit of “love, peace, and discipline,” proclaiming, “Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate.” Interestingly, this came from the same man who just three hours earlier made irresponsible and dangerous claims that Chavez’s poor health was caused by deliberate acts of the regime’s enemies. 

Further implicating the U.S., Maduro also expelled American military attaché David Delmonaco from the country, charging him with engaging in “destabilizing projects” against the regime.

Because they are outlandish to our ears, these claims may seem inconsequential. Yet in Venezuela, these ridiculous assertions threaten to take a dangerous situation from bad to worse.

It may be hard for many Americans to understand, but despite the sometimes brutal and authoritarian nature of the Chavez regime, the Venezuelan leader’s passing will be a difficult moment for the nation. Ruling Venezuela for 14 years, Chavez’s unique combination of populism, authoritarianism, socialism, and combativeness allowed him to build nothing less than a cult of personality. Bolstered undoubtedly by a system of socialist subsidies and political patronage, Chavez enjoyed the adoration of the masses.

With the nation already in mourning, the outrageous and provocative statements of Vice President Maduro have the potential to spark strong anti-American violence in Venezuela like that seen throughout the Middle East late last year.

As Heritage Latin America expert Ray Walser wrote yesterday:

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.

Factor in the country’s known ties to major U.S. enemies—namely Hezbollah and Iran—and the situation may develop into the first major foreign policy crisis for newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry.

Indeed, the threat of Iranian influence in Latin America is nothing new. In October 2011, two Iranian nationals were indicted in an attempt to bomb a D.C.-area restaurant and assassinate the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil. The men were caught trying to hire a Mexican drug cartel member to carry out the assassination. While Venezuela has never been directly implicated in the plot, with daily flight between Tehran and Caracas, Venezuela remains Iran’s critical entry point into the Americas.

While Chavez declared Maduro his successor before his death, the Venezuelan constitution requires that an election be held within 30 days. Former presidential candidate and democratic opposition leader Henrique Capriles is likely to run against Maduro. The Obama Administration should signal to Venezuela that anything other than free and fair elections for the nation’s new president will open the door to possible diplomatic and economic sanctions.

Regardless of who wins, the road ahead will be difficult. The nation’s new leader will inherit a nation plagued by over-dependence on oil revenues and stagnant industry, not to mention high inflation, currency devaluation, and extremely high levels of homicide and criminal violence.

Chavez may be dead, but his anti-American spirit and the damage caused by his sweeping socialist policies are not. In the days and weeks to come, both newly confirmed Secretary of State Kerry and the next president of Venezuela will have many challenges on their hands.

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