Venezuela could play an "important and useful role" should it choose to help carry out a transition to democracy in Cuba after almost 50 years of one-party rule, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, speaking to reporters, said Venezuela has an obligation to promote democracy in Cuba under terms of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, ratified in 2001.

Beyond that, Venezuela is in a position to exert influence in Cuba, Shannon said, because of the "special relationship between President Hugo Chavez and the Cuban regime."

At a time when Cuba is the lone holdout against democracy in the hemisphere, it would be "a sad thing indeed" to "find a state prepared to side with a totalitarian regime," Shannon said.

During his seven years in office, Chavez has emerged as perhaps President Fidel Castro's strongest supporter in the hemisphere. Chavez has indicated no dissatisfaction with the system Castro has created.

CountryWatch: Venezuela