The death of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has elicited so much commentary that it's hard to believe that the charismatic, paranoid, egalitarian, totalitarian, nationalistic, anti-Semitic, hemisphere-altering, West-bashing friend of Cuba and Iran but major oil supplier to the United States died of something as distressingly human as cancer. His role in guiding a nation that became more economically compassionate to the poor, but also more violent and less democratic, is legendary. At some stage in the last decade he replaced Cuba's Fidel Castro as the Latin American leader that North Americans loved to loathe.
Now, however, Chavez's death creates an opportunity for the United States to finally make our relationships with our southern and Latin American neighbors less about their leaders and more about common interests and sound policies.
Major segments of Venezuela are in shock, unsure whether Chavismo -- Chavez's revolutionary movement -- will survive the death of its namesake. The White House's vague statement in support of a "constructive relationship" with Venezuela in the future read like a cut-and-paste from a file called "platitudes in awkward times." A major battle is brewing among Chavez's potential successors.
The ramifications are also being felt by our closest Latin American neighbor, Cuba, whose relationship with Venezuela was a proxy for one of the strangest love stories in modern times. Chavez adored Fidel Castro and trusted him enough to oversee his medical treatment.
Cuba got the better end of the bargain, however. Venezuela ships about 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, charging a low price and letting Havana resell it for profit. It is the same arrangement that Cuba had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Cuban government has been bracing for a potential disruption of the oil flow after the death of Chavez, sensing a growing discontent with the arrangement among some segments of the Venezuelan population. But for Cuba, any change could be disastrous: It simply has no other source of financing.
Cuba's woes could also have major ramifications in the United States. Cuba could plunge into an economic nightmare that would lead, as in past crises, to a mass illegal exodus of Cubans onto boats towards Miami. There, because of current immigration rules, they would be allowed to stay. More hopefully, an interruption of the Venezuelan oil spigot could force Cuba to accelerate the immigration and financial reforms begun by Raul Castro in 2007 to provide freer access to Cuban markets for emigres and investors.
The United States, which is comprehensively reassessing its immigration policies, has the capacity to change these hemispheric dynamics in its favor. Our efforts to strangle Cuba economically have served as a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment, allowing leaders like the Castros and Chavez to mask their own horrible records of corruption.
By eliminating the automatic refugee status granted to Cubans if they somehow reach US soil, we would stop tempting them to take to the seas in rickety boats and inner tubes on which many lose their lives. We would also put the whole world on equal footing, determining which refugees are allowed to stay not by whether we like (or don't like) their country's leadership, but whether they have valid reasons to stay, including a fear of political reprisals. It is time we end a Cuba policy that has sowed ill will among our southern neighbors and non-Cuban immigrant populations in the United States.
At the same time, we can encourage more exchanges of people, and therefore commerce, between the two nations. We could then assist Cuba in making the political and economic reforms that we have been demanding for years. We shouldn't punish Cuba for taking our advice. A healthier Cuba is only of benefit to the United States: The US intelligence community has not viewed Cuba as a direct threat to our national security since the 1970s.
President Obama can have his own Berlin Wall moment. With Chavez gone, and Cuba so desperate, we can shift the relationship between the United States and South America to one of strategic interests rather than personalities. Chavez is dead. The Castros are exiting the stage. America should move on.
Juliette Kayyem is a columnist for The Boston Globe. E-mail, email@example.com; Twitter @juliettekayyem.