Chávez and the Arab dictators

May 17, 2011

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is respected as a left opponent of U.S. imperialism--but he is lending support to Middle East despots who are trying to suppress popular uprisings.

WHEN THE revolution sweeping the Arab world struck Libya and Syria, the governments there chose to act in the same way that the Bahraini monarchy did against its internal opposition: Open fire on unarmed crowds, arrest large numbers of people and outlaw demonstrations.

These actions have rightly received widespread condemnation from supporters of the Arab revolutions. But they have received at least tacit support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is widely considered an important figure on the international left.

"I don't know why, but the things that have happened and are happening there remind me of Hugo Chávez on April 11," Chávez told reporters, comparing the democracy rebellion in Libya to the U.S.-backed right-wing coup against him in April 2002. A mass outpouring of Venezuelan workers and poor people defeated the coup and returned Chávez to office.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro went even farther than Chávez, declaring the Libyan government's suppression of the uprising there to be essential to "peace and national unity."

Needless to say, these statements of support for the suppression of a popular uprising are disconcerting for those who support the democratic awakening in the Middle East--especially coming from Chávez and his government. In fact, the popular uprisings in the Middle East have more in common with the mass resistance that defeated the 2002 coup than with the coup.

SINCE HE was first elected in 1998 with widespread support from Venezuela's workers and the poor, Chávez has attempted to offer a challenge to the reigning neoliberal orthodoxy. Much of the international left has praised his paradigm of "21st century socialism" as a model for achieving social justice in today's world economy.

So how is it possible that the originator of "21st century socialism" can support dictators like Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who are ordering the shooting down of ordinary people demanding freedom and equality?

Of course, the international right has an easy answer to this question. To it, Chávez is nothing more than a dictator himself--so his backing of Qaddafi, Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is of a piece.

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The Miami Herald, whose views on Latin America track closely with the right-wing anti-Castro lobby, editorialized on May 2: "With dictators toppling like dominoes across the Middle East, Venezuela's president-for-life, Hugo Chávez, is signaling worry about his own despotic rule."

Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan diplomat who identifies with the right-wing opposition to Chávez, told a small demonstration at the Libyan Embassy in Caracas: "Hugo Chávez is complicit with Qaddafi's regime of tyranny. If his friendship with Qaddafi is greater than his responsibility as head of state, then he should go to Tripoli and help him there, but not in the name of Venezuela."

Before accepting these condemnations of Chávez, consider their source. The Venezuelan right--which operates with much more freedom in Venezuela than does any opposition in Libya or Syria, or Saudi Arabia for that matter--can hardly tout its democratic credentials. These were the same people who launched the failed coup against Chávez in 2002, and who cheered the 2009 coup in Honduras against Chávez's ally, President Manuel Zelaya.

What's more, it's hypocritical for anti-Chávez forces to point out Chávez's support for Syria's Assad while ignoring that other world leaders hoping for Assad to prevail include Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia's monarchy, which supports the Syrian regime as a bulwark of "stability" in the region.

Clearly, Chávez doesn't have much in common with these reactionary players in the Middle East. But in lending his credibility to figures like Qaddafi and Assad, he's undermining the support he had gained for championing "21st century socialism."

When Chávez denounced Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon and expelled its charge d'affairs from Venezuela, ordinary Arabs and activists cheered him. Back then, Dima Khatib, Al Jazeera's Latin American correspondent, wrote: "Today on many Arabic Internet sites, one can read comments such as: 'I am Palestinian, but my president is Chávez, not Abu Mazen.' Or: 'I don't want to be an Arab. From now on I shall be Venezuelan.'"

Also, to millions of Arabs, Venezuela's use of its oil wealth to fund a vast array of "social mission" programs for the poor contrasts favorably to the Gulf kleptocracies' gaudy flaunting of wealth.

But Chávez's support for Qaddafi and Assad has changed the perception of him, as Khatib tweeted on May 5: "Now since the beginning of the revolutions both Chávez and [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan have lost popularity in the Arab world. Chávez more than Erdogan."

It's worth remembering that even when Chávez was at the height of his popularity in the Arab world, his support for Qaddafi, the Assad and Ahmadinejad was no secret.

When Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 Iranian election and unleashed repression against the mass movement protesting for democracy, Chávez weighed in to say: "Ahmadinejad's triumph was a triumph all the way." Chávez called Ahmadinejad "a courageous fighter for the Islamic Revolution, the defense of the Third World and in the struggle against imperialism."

IN CONTRAST to what the right says, Chávez's praise of the despots of the Middle East stems more from geopolitics than from an affinity with the despots' politics. Some of it flows from a basic attitude of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." The U.S. government makes no secret of its disdain for Chávez, Ahmadinejad and other leaders who refuse to bow to U.S. dictates.

Chávez and Ahmadinejad have formed an alliance in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to push against the pro-U.S. positions of the Gulf oil monarchies. Along with Russia, Venezuela and Iran have formed what the Wall Street Journal once cheekily called "an axis of irritation" to a U.S.-dominated world energy system.

Venezuela's position as the U.S.'s fifth-leading supplier of oil has certainly allowed it more maneuvering room on the world stage than the U.S. would like. Its alliance with other energy powerhouses that lie outside the U.S.-led bloc is consistent with its willingness to challenge other U.S. global priorities, from support for Israel and wars in the Middle East to the U.S.-led "free trade" pacts.

But even while millions of people around the world admire Chávez for his willingness to tweak the nose of the U.S., we shouldn't lose sight of the contradiction of his position. As the head of what is still a capitalist state, operating in the world capitalist system, Chávez still sees politics from that vantage point. Even while trying to forge closer relations among countries of the "global South," the Chávez government has developed ties with state bureaucracies across the world.

According to the left-wing Venezuelan news site, Chávez recently pointed out: "King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was a friend of mine, King Abdullah is a friend...The emir of Qatar is a friend, and the president of Syria, he came here, too. And [Algerian President] Bouteflika."

Chávez's glib demonstration of his evenhandedness in dealing with Middle Eastern dictators shows the limitations of his state-centered vision of change. Operating within international norms of state-to-state relations means that, whatever his subjective views, Chávez can't be relied on to be an advocate for social movements or opposition movements in other countries.

Like Chávez's friend Fidel Castro, who maintained cordial relations with the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governments in Mexico for years while the PRI repressed the Mexican left, Chávez is primarily concerned with tending to the interests of the Venezuelan state.

Further evidence of this came in April, when the Chávez government arrested and immediately deported to Colombia Joaquin Pérez Becerra, a Colombian journalist and human rights activist who the Colombian government claimed was an agent of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Becerra, the editor of a news agency that reports on human rights abuses in Colombia, had received political asylum and citizenship in Sweden after fleeing his native Colombia.

Chávez's action caused a scandal across the Venezuelan left, including among those who are usually uncritical of him. The left rightly questioned why the Venezuelan government appeared to be doing the bidding of the right-wing Colombian government. Chávez admitted that he personally authorized the operation, which won praise from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The Venezuelan government claimed it had no choice but to enforce an INTERPOL "red alert" against Pérez Becerra. But it's not even clear when--or if--such an alert was issued.

Colombia won the silencing of one of its critics. In exchange, Chávez received praise from Colombian officials and a potential thaw with its neighbor. Venezuela had previously broke relations over former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's accusation that Venezuela harbored FARC guerrillas, but the two countries have since restored ties and established trade deals.

Needless to say, pleasing a government that has promoted itself as an outpost against the "pink tide" of the last decade's reformist governments in Latin America is no way to advance the left or social movements in Latin America. And equally, lending the mantle of "21st century socialism" to Middle East despots who are trying to suppress popular uprisings is no way to build international solidarity.

Even if Chávez and his government succumb to their own version of "realpolitik," Venezuelan workers' organizations and social movements should rally to the side of the Arab revolutionaries, who are, after all, fighting for the same goals of justice, equality and dignity.

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