It is natural that rumors are swirling about the health of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, because he refuses to admit the truth about his grave and deteriorating condition.

Even if the cancer-ridden Chavez lives long enough to be reelected in October 2012, it is unlikely that he will complete a six-year term, giving the unified democratic opposition a better than ever chance to win power. In any case, U.S. policymakers must kick-start a Latin America policy to be prepared to clean up the toxic waste left by 14 years of Chavez’s anti-American activism.

Perhaps it is Chavez’s wish to leave behind a country that will be difficult to govern. Aggrieved and angry loyalists have been told that they must fight their neighbors to preserve the invisible achievements of the revolution. Democratic institutions and the military have been placed at the service of a political party, not the country.

The private economy has been systematically dismantled, with the economic disaster papered over by petro-dollars and quickie loans from China. The state-owned oil company is a wounded giant, with foreign companies making enormous profits at its expense. Millions of poor Venezuelans remain reliant on corrupted government programs. The people of Caracas have been forced to plan their lives around rampant crime.

In spite of everything, leaders of Venezuela’s democratic opposition are lining up to challenge Chavez and the host of problems his misrule has generated. People forget that the opposition won a majority of the vote in 2010 congressional elections. They appear to be unified now, and a primary next February should consolidate that unity. A candidate who can appeal to Venezuela’s vast working class majority in a credible way has a good chance of winning in the presidency very soon.

These democrats do not want or need foreign support. But they deserve international solidarity. Friends of the Venezuelan people must recognize this courageous democratic movement, reject any attempt at repression, and insist that the results of elections be respected. There should be no soft-landing for Chavez and his corrupt cronies.

It is good news that President Obama has chosen an experienced diplomat, Roberta Jacobson, to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Because Ms. Jacobson already holds that post on an interim basis today, she is in a position even before the Senate considers her nomination to take effective steps to respond to a long list of serious challenges.

Any effort to reboot U.S. policy must begin with the acknowledgement that the passive posture of ignoring Chavez has failed miserably – suggesting indifference or ignorance that has demoralized our friends and emboldened the rest. With Chavez fading, we need to defuse the threats he will leave behind and take advantage of the opportunities created as he leaves the stage.

We should start by reassuring our friends in the region that we want to build strong partnerships to advance our mutual prosperity and security. The White House can start by presenting for Congressional approval the free trade agreement with Colombia – once our best friend and ally in the region that has been neglected in recent years.

We must send a signal to China that we do care if they supplant us as a customer for Venezuelan oil, particularly as U.S. companies are swindled out of their investments there. We should tell the Russians that we do care that they are selling $9 billion of arms and manufacturing small arms in our neighborhood – particularly as Russian weapons are transshipped to Colombian guerrillas, Mexican narcotraffickers, and Middle Eastern terrorists.

We must use vigorous law enforcement measures to dismantle the narco-state that Chavez has built to shovel cocaine to our shores. Chavez’s narco-generals, who are desperate to hold on to power in Venezuela, should soon face justice here or in a new Venezuela.

The alternative to neglect is not confrontation. We can start by sharing information with our neighbors showing the Chavez regime’s dangerous complicity with narco-traffickers, illegal support for Iran's nuclear program (and mining of uranium and other strategic minerals), and support for a Hezbollah network in Venezuela and beyond. We can work with our regional allies to clean up this mess, but we can no longer evade these threats.

Although we should never seek to create enemies, we should have the good sense to recognize them where they exist. President Obama’s first Latin America chief adopted a conscious policy of placating our enemies and ignoring our friends. Like Chavez, that backwards policy is a thing of the past. It’s a simple proposition: Let’s work attentively with our friends and deal effectively with our foes.

Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients, and contributes to www.interamericansecuritywatch.com.