The big rumor wafting out of the bloody unrest in Libya over the weekend – that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had taken refuge in Venezuela – had become so widespread that when Gaddafi appeared on state television on Tuesday, one of his first messages was: “I am here in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.”
The global media had been all too willing to give the rumor credence, however, because Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a big chum of Gaddafi’s – and of just about every other despot who’s in the crosshairs of the democratic revolution sweeping the Mideast. And that’s got to make the socialist, anti-U.S. Venezuelan leader, who has been in power himself for almost 12 years now, wonder if his bromance with leaders from Algeria to Iran might end up backfiring on him and his self-image as a champion of democracy, especially as he girds for yet another re-election bid next year.
Shortly after he took office in 1999, Chávez began jetting to Mideast countries to strengthen ties with leaders like Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom he embraced in Baghdad as “my brother.” (Hussein was toppled by a U.S. military invasion in 2003 and later hanged for crimes including genocide.) Chávez’s backers insisted he was simply showing solidarity with fellow members of the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) as a means of shoring up oil prices, which were at historic lows at that time and have since reached record highs, thanks in part to Chavez’s OPEC-bolstering efforts. But Chávez was also on a mission to poke the “imperialist” U.S. in the eye by befriending any regime unfriendly to Washington. That included what is today an especially close relationship with Iran and its controversial President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.As long as those leaders faced little resistance at home, Chávez faced relatively little criticism for his gushing camaraderie with them – especially since the U.S. maintained its own friendships with the likes of Egyptian thugocrat Hosni Mubarak. As recently as December, when Chávez offered the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas to Venezuelan families left homeless by flooding, he crowed that he would sleep in a large Bedouin tent that his friend Gaddafi had given him.
But if, rightly, the U.S. now has to answer for its coddling of iron-fisted autocrats like Mubarak, who was forced from power this month by mass protests as angry as they were sudden, Chávez will have to answer not just for excusing but extolling terrorist tyrants like Gaddafi if and when they’re felled by the same popular forces. And two factors will make that situation particularly uncomfortable for Chávez. The first is that while his anti-Israel stances can often be justified – especially when the Israeli military rains artillery down on Palestinian civilians – Venezuela has also grappled with a number of anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, including a 2009 attack on Caracas’ largest synagogue, which involved police officers. Chávez condemned the acts, but many Jews blamed his overheated Israel rhetoric, and his just as ardent support for Israel’s Mideast foes, for creating an atmosphere of intolerance.
The second involves growing questions about Chávez’s own democratic bona fides. On the one hand, he’s a democratically elected President who, despite hyperbole from opponents and Washington alike, has hardly suppressed free expression and other human rights the way real dictators do. But he certainly flirts with authoritarian rule, witnessed by the decree powers he had his rubber-stamp National Assembly grant him last year to help him circumvent a more opposition-laden legislature that was seated in January. As the Mideast unrest keeps exposing Chávez amigos like Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – and as the world realizes how little he’s tried to prod them toward democratic reform, which the U.S. can at least say it did with Mubarak – Chávez may have to worry about their dark reputations now rubbing off on him. (Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a leftist Chavez ally who says he phoned Gaddafi on Tuesday to express his “solidarity” with the Libyan leader, could face similar p.r. problems.)
The U.S. long argued that it had to be friendly with the likes of Mubarak to preserve its interests – which included its hegemony. Chávez gratuitously sought out the likes of Gaddafi to promote his overriding interest – thwarting that hegemony. But just like the U.S., he may be about to learn that making the enemy of your enemy your friend can have unfriendly consequences.