As strife heated up in Libya by the end of February, rumors surfaced that long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela. While this development later proved to be inaccurate, it is worth mentioning that one of Gaddafi’s former cabinet ministers (now part of the opposition) suggested that the Libyan head of state should leave the country for Caracas in search of asylum. As the situation in Libya deteriorates and the opposition’s military deployment seems to be foundering, Latin American scholars have openly wondered whether Hugo Chávez will offer asylum to his close Saharan ally, and if so, whether the latter will accept.
Although Caracas was unusually quiet during the early phases of Libya’s rapidly growing anti-Gaddafi manifestations, Chávez eventually declared his full support for his embattled ally. Chávez’ loyalty to Gaddafi and his rejection of calls for intervention against the Libyan leader by the U.S. may be commendable. However, the Venezuelan leader would be wise to reevaluate the basis and quality of his friendships given the recent bloodshed visited upon Libyan civilians, Gaddafi’s poor human rights record, and his bleak long-term prospects of survival.
On March 3, Chávez made a minor departure from his earlier support for Gaddafi when he expressed interest in helping mediate the conflict between the Libyan government and the insurgent regions of the country. Chávez’ vacillation between a hard and soft stance on the justice of Gaddafi’s cause can be interpreted as a turn from a pragmatic to an ideological position. However, the offer to mediate has been rejected by the Libyan opposition as well as members of NATO. The Arab League is still considering the proposal. On March 5, Venezuela’s allies in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) expressed support for a peace mission, which Chávez now suggests might be led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter or former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Brazil, while not explicitly endorsing the ALBA proposal, has said that it favors a “negotiated solution” over the prospective military action under consideration by the U.S. and its NATO allies.
The diplomatic and military situation regarding Libya is becoming more complex by the day. But regardless of the outcome, Chávez’ early comments in support of Gaddafi served to remind the international community that—while he is the author of social visions and some beneficial programs that have served his people well—the Venezuelan leader has a history of joining up with unsavory allies who do not share his humanitarian concerns.
Chávez and Gaddafi
Chávez has maintained a strong relationship with Gaddafi both personally and at the inter-governmental level for over a decade, and has made numerous diplomatic visits to his counterpart in Tripoli. In 2004, Libya awarded Chávez with its annual Gaddafi International Human Rights Prize for “resisting imperialism.” In addition, Gaddafi named a new soccer stadium near the city of Benghazi after Chávez in 2006. In return, the Venezuelan leader presented Gaddafi with a replica of the sword of South American independence hero Simón Bolivar following the 2009 Africa-South America Summit.
Analysts have compared both Chávez and Gaddafi’s attempts to exert greater influence over their respective continents. In December 2004, Christian Science Monitor journalist Mike Ceaser argued that “Chávez’ regional push is similar to an effort by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in the late 1990s in Africa. The Libyan leader had visions of creating a sort of United States of Africa and spent billions of dollars in oil money to garner the support of African nations. But while the governments gladly received his cash infusions and cheap oil, his vision was never realized.” There is an undeniable parallel between the two leaders’ use of oil profits to achieve greater regional authority.
During this period of great popular upheaval throughout North Africa, Chávez is one of few heads of state, joined by Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, to take the controversial position of backing Gaddafi. The Venezuelan leader has been quoted in the Latin News as stating “[W]e do support the government of Libya, the independence of Libya…we want peace in Libya and we are against the possibility of [foreign] intervention.” Rather than addressing the mounting bloodshed inflicted by pro-Gaddafi forces, Chávez has resorted to his usual rhetoric of criticizing “Yankee hegemony” and its ongoing military involvement in foreign states’ domestic affairs.
Chávez’s offer to assemble a so-called “Committee of Peace” to mediate the Libyan crisis has been declined by the Arab League, the international community, and the opposition forces in Libya. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, former Libyan justice minister and head of the opposition based in Benghazi, argued that he had not been consulted regarding the initiative. Both the U.S. and France rejected the proposal due to their unwillingness to accept any diplomatic accord that leaves Gaddafi in power. It seems Gaddafi may grow more inclined to engage in negations as the looming threat of civil war eats further into oil revenues.
Chávez’ Other Controversial Friends
Gaddafi is one among several controversial heads of state who enjoys friendly ties with Chávez—Iran, Syria, and Belarus are all close Venezuelan allies. Chávez’ avowed support for these nations is often couched in language declaring a right to political self-determination, and a desire to stand together in resistance to Western dominance. The Venezuelan president opposes any and all economic sanctions levied against Iran to curb its nuclear aspirations.
Statements made on all sides show an overall air of bonhomie and Western defiance among the heads of these nations—all which have questionable human rights records. In an October 2010 visit to Venezuela, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his admiration for Chávez known when he noted that “there are few politicians who are courageous to speak out when it’s necessary…Chávez has projected the image of a resistant Venezuela.” Chávez reinforced the mutual goodwill, stating that the “Arab civilization and our [Latin American] civilization…are being summoned in this new century to play the fundamental role of liberating the world, saving the world from the imperialism and capitalist hegemony that threaten the human species…Syria and Venezuela are at the vanguard of this struggle.”
In addition, Chávez enjoys a vibrant friendship with Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president popularly known as “Europe’s last dictator.” Over the years, Lukashenko has succeeded in crushing opposition groups and remained in power through questionable landslide reelections. In a 2006 visit to Belarus, Chávez clearly liked what he saw in Lukashenko’s government, proclaiming that “we see here a model social state like the one we are beginning to create.” After the heavily disputed December 2010 Belarusian presidential election where Lukashenko won with a dubious 79% of the vote, protests broke out and resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of over 580 individuals. Chávez declared his support for the reelected Lukashenko, describing the electoral victory as “[an] extraordinary day for democracy…Lukashenko knows how to lead the glorious motherland to independence, putting the sacred interests of his people ahead of the narrow-minded intentions of the world powers.” Aside of shared political support, Venezuela and Belarus have joined forces in a number of joint oil-related ventures, including the Petrolera BeloVenezolana partnership under which the two nations will develop two new oilfields in Venezuela.
Having Friends in Low Places—Not the Change that Chávez Foreign Policy Needs
Chávez has made a career of critiquing Washington, which he defines as “imperialistic and interventionist.” While Chávez’ critiques are often unwelcome in the international community, the targets of his comments are not entirely beyond reproach when it comes to supporting foreign nations with poor human rights records. The U.S. and the EU maintain close ties with several states that can be labeled as repressive—enormous trade exists with China despite the country’s repressive internal policies. Another example would be Washington’s decades-old friendship with the recently-deposed Hosni Mubarak, an alliance based on mutual interests despite a sad history of repression in Egypt.
Yet, in the end Washington often makes good on its avowed commitment to human rights throughout the world—the U.S. ultimately changed its policy toward Egypt and called for Mubarak to step down. While a certain level of hypocrisy can undeniably be attached to the U.S. or Venezuela in lauding democracy while maintaining unsavory friendships, Chávez seems to be particularly bold in his support of nations that have been brutally repressive with their populaces—Libya, Iran, and Belarus serving as prime examples. Friends of the Bolivarian revolution have tirelessly urged Chávez to focus more on domestic affairs and tone down his attempts to play a greater role on the world stage. Such requests seem to go unheard as the Venezuelan leader continues to exert greater influence in international affairs and foster alliances against the perceived Western hegemony.
It is hard to believe that Chávez could be so blind as to truly believe that an individual like Belarus’ Lukashenko could possibly win with 79% of the popular vote, despite the ensuing nationwide protests. Perhaps Chávez is comparing other such heads of state to himself; the Venezuelan leader remains very popular in his country and may be naïve enough to believe Lukashenko enjoys such a wide margin of political support. Perhaps it could be argued that Chavez is turning a blind eye to the grave human rights concerns in his allies’ countries in order to pursue important geopolitical influence. The U.S. has certainly done the same throughout history by propping up despotic leaders who were sympathetic to U.S. interests.
Currently, an opposition in Venezuela is mobilizing to protest Chávez’ support for Gaddafi despite the brutal repression in Libya. Factions of the Venezuelan opposition have cautioned that Chávez is putting Venezuela in the uncomfortable position of being an apologist for governments repudiated by the international community.
Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics
The suggestion that Gaddafi might choose to flee to Venezuela to seek asylum is not particularly far-fetched, considering Venezuela’s history of harboring ousted politicians. Vladimiro Montesinos, former Peruvian intelligence chief under the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship, fled to Venezuela when Fujimori’s government was crumbling. Chávez publicly claimed ignorance to Montesinos’ whereabouts until international pressure forced the Venezuelan leader to extradite him after hiding for eight months in that country.
Although extending asylum to his international brothers-in-arms may sound like a good idea, Chávez’ government will find itself progressively more isolated if it continues down this path. Venezuela’s oil reserves will guarantee business ties with a multitude of nations in need of oil, but Chávez may end up in a scenario of dwindling political allies. Chávez’ offer to play mediator is an interesting sidestep after his initial comments of seemingly unconditional support for Gaddafi. Nevertheless, his diplomatic capital seems to be low considering the rejection of his offer.
For a leader like Chávez, whose political career has featured a valid emphasis on South-South cooperation, his choice of allies, and his willingness to defend even those currently committing human rights violations like Libya’s Gaddafi, show a dubious commitment to basic human rights standards. Despite some episodes of blatant authoritarianism in Venezuela, such as censorship of independent TV stations, Chávez has not become the full-scale, oppressive dictator that his foes often characterize him to be. Nevertheless, continued ties with the likes of Belarus’ Lukashenko and Libya’s Gaddafi will inevitably curtail any expansion of Venezuelan diplomatic influence.