Hugo Chávez & the Middle East: Which Side Was He On?
March 09, 2013
Most of the postmortem commentary on Hugo Chávez has focused on his
domestic legacy in Venezuela, his wider regional legacy within Latin America, and
what we might call his hemispheric legacy – his “special relationship” with the
United States. And for good reason: these were the principal realms in which he
operated during his 14 years as Venezuela’s president (1999-2013) and it is for
his accomplishments in these domains that he will be remembered and the Chávez Era
(it was, to be sure, an era) will be evaluated.
But there’s a less discussed dimension of the Chávez legacy that I’d
like to examine briefly: his relations with the countries of the Middle East
and North Africa, a story whose significance became more salient with the onset
of the momentous changes the region has been undergoing over the last few years
– not merely since the “Arab Spring” or Arab revolts starting at the end of
2010 but going back to the upheaval in Iran in the summer of 2009.
But first, let me be clear that I admire a great deal of what Chávez
and his Bolivarian Revolution accomplished in Venezuela. As Mark Weisbrot of
the Center for Economic and Policy Research points
out, the Chávez government reduced poverty by half and extreme
poverty by 70 percent. Millions of
people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to
education also increased sharply, with college enrollment doubling and free
tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled.
And it’s significant that Chávez did all of this through the ballot,
not the bullet: he was elected and re-elected repeatedly, and by wide margins. I’ve
the experiments with alternatives to neoliberalism in Venezuela, suggesting
that other movements around the world study and learn from them. I’ve even been
to task for being too pro-Chávez.
It’s precisely because of these positive accomplishments that Chávez’s
record on the Middle East and North Africa is so disconcerting.
Chávez had been an enthusiast of Mahmood Ahmadinejad since the latter became
Iran’s president in 2005. In 2006, while Ahmadinejad presided over a massive
escalation of repression against dissidents, trade unionists, and human rights
activists in Iran, Chávez awarded him the “Order of the Liberator” medal, the
highest honor Venezuela bestows on foreign dignitaries. In June of 2009, as
millions of Iranians took to the streets to ask “Where Is My Vote?” Chávez was
among the first world leaders to congratulate his ally in Tehran on his reelection,
and the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry issued this statement:
The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela
expresses its firm opposition to the vicious and unfounded campaign to
discredit the institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, unleashed from
outside, designed to roil the political climate of our brother country. From
Venezuela, we denounce these acts of interference in the internal affairs of
the Islamic Republic of Iran, while demanding an immediate halt to the
maneuvers to threaten and destabilize the Islamic Revolution.
This provoked widespread dismay and appeals
to Chávez from Iranians, many of whom sympathized with the ideals of the
Bolivarian Revolution, to stop supporting their reactionary president. Those
appeals, alas, went ignored, further damaging the standing of the Venezuelan
leader among progressive Iranians.
“In Egypt, the situation is complicated,” Chávez pronounced during the
Tahrir Square protests that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. He
remained conspicuously silent on the Battle of Cairo, one of the great
democratic uprisings of recent times, remarking merely that “national
sovereignty” should be respected.
But silent he was not as the Arab revolts spread to Libya and Syria:
he spoke out emphatically in support of Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad.
Chávez had been chummy with the Libyan leader before the 2011 uprising against
him: in 2009 he regaled Qaddafi with a replica of Simón Bolívar’s sword and awarded
him the same ‘Order of the Liberator’ medal he’d bestowed on Ahmadinejad. “What
Símon Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people,” Chávez declared, “Qaddafi is to the
Libyan people.” As the Libyan revolt grew and Qaddafi went on a rampage of
slaughter, Chávez was one of a handful of world leaders who stood by him: “[W]e
do support the government of Libya.” That support, as one observer noted,
was “politically costly and proved to be an embarrassment to many of Latin
America’s erstwhile revolutionaries who now share a vision of a democratic
“How can I not support Assad?” Chávez asked last year as the body
count in Syria approached 60,000. While the regime bombed bread lines and
hospitals, Chávez shipped upwards of 600,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel to
his ally in Damascus. Meanwhile, the Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for
Latin America (ALBA) denounced a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution
that condemned the Assad regime for the horrific massacre of over 100
noncombatants, including 49 children. The U.N. resolution, ALBA protested, was
an attempt to “interfere in Syria's internal affairs.”
Chávez’s support for despotic and murderous regimes isn’t limited to
the Middle East: he also hailed Zimbabwe’s
dictator Robert Mugabe, the late Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, and Alexander
Lukashenko, the repressive Belarusian leader known as “Europe’s last
These international alliances raise troubling questions about Chávez’s
judgment and legacy (a legacy that awaits, and deserves, a thorough historical reckoning
along the lines of Perry Anderson’s
magisterial retrospective on Brazil’s Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva), especially for those of us who do admire many of the
Bolivarian Revolution’s accomplishments.
Some of Chávez’s defenders chalk these unsavory alliances up to realpolitik calculations that a Third
World leader has no choice but to make in dealing with a global hegemon hell
bent on undermining all alternatives to its dictates. But this only goes so
far. Lula’s foreign policy involved lots of deals and alliances – the Brazilian-Turkish
attempt to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, for instance – but, unlike
Chávez, he never defended the repressive domestic policies of the Islamic
Republic or denounced Iran’s democratic movement.
A group of Iranian leftists who support the goals of the Bolivarian
Revolution made this point in an open
letter to Chávez. “To us,” the letter reads, “it is possible for the
Venezuelan government to have close diplomatic and trade relations with the
Iranian government without giving it political support—particularly where
domestic policy is concerned. Above all, endorsing its labour policy is in
complete contradiction with your own domestic policy.”
Dealing with ambiguity has never been a particular forte of the Left.
Yet assessing the legacy of Hugo Chávez requires nothing so much as a sense of
ambiguity. I thus find Bhaskar Sunkara’s observation
that the Bolivarian Revolution contains “both authoritarian and democratic,
demagogic and participatory” elements most refreshing. I know from personal
conversations with countless progressives that ambivalence about Chávez,
particularly on the international front, runs deep – but the critical
conversation has yet to reflect that ambivalence.
Theorizing Chávez’s international relations – examining the
ideological affinities between his left-wing populism and the right-wing
populism of an Ahmadinejad’s, exploring patterns between his domestic and
foreign policies, comparing his international dealings with those of other
progressive leaders in the Global South – remains to be done. I don’t think any
complete reckoning with the legacy of this historic political figure can be
complete without confronting these questions, thorny though they may be.
Rather than draw any grand conclusions on this phenomenon, though, I’d
love to hear what thoughtful admirers of Chávez might have to say on the
subject. Perhaps we can enter into a critical dialogue on this theme.
Danny Postel is the Associate Director of the Center for
Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of
International Studies. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation
Crisis” in Tehran (2006) and the
co-editor, with Nader Hashemi, of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the
Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011). His website is here.