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Hugo Stay Home

By Michael Shifter
Foreign Policy, March 5, 2011

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Hugo Chávez inserted himself into the turmoil gripping the Middle East. Uncharacteristically silent ever since revolutions began to break out in Tunisia last December, the Venezuelan president has clearly been enticed by the Libyan drama, where his longtime friend and ally, Muammar al-Qaddafi, is under siege from rebel forces. After taking to his Twitter feed last week to defend "Libya and its independence," Chávez has now offered to create an international commission composed of South American, European, and Middle Eastern countries to mediate and seek a peaceful resolution of the Libyan crisis -- and also, presumably, to figure out a way for Qaddafi to stay in power.

In making this proposal, Chávez is keen to shore up his waning global constituency. The prospect of civil war in Libya offers him the chance to use his close relationship with Qaddafi to try to head off what he claims is an impending U.S. military invasion. As a measure of the camaraderie between the two army colonels, bonded by oil and ideology, the rumor circulating early in the crisis that Qaddafi would seek refuge in Venezuela had a ring of plausibility. But in fact, Chávez's belated intervention in the Libyan crisis seems likely to fall flat on the international stage -- and to carry some unexpected, unpleasant consequences for the Venezuelan leader at home.

Chávez's somewhat delayed response to the historic events unfolding in the Middle East can be attributed to conflicting loyalties stemming from geopolitical complexities. Chávez's ties to Qaddafi -- for decades Chávez has admired Qaddafi's "Green Book" and called him (the highest compliment possible) the Simon Bolivar of Libya -- is exceeded perhaps only by his attachment to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Chávez has sought to build alliances with these and other leaders who are similarly intent on curtailing U.S. influence. But Ahmadinejad's cheering of anti-government forces in the Middle East and his condemnation of Qaddafi's "unimaginable repression" against his own people posed a dilemma for Chávez. That dilemma was resolved when Washington's anti-Qaddafi rhetoric heated up, triggering Chávez's reflexive anti-U.S. response and driving him headlong into the fray.

The Venezuelan government claims that its proposal had been accepted by Qaddafi, though the Libyan ruler's son Saif al-Islam seemed less than enthusiastic about Chávez's role. He said, "We have to say thank you ... but we are able and capable enough to solve our issues by our own people ... ourselves. There is no need for any foreign intervention. ... They are our friends, we respect them, we like them, but they are far away. They have no idea about Libya. Libya is in the Middle East and North Africa. Venezuela is in Central America. We appreciate this." Libya's rebels immediately rejected the Venezuelan offer.

Chávez's proposal was received more sympathetically in the Arab League, where its secretary general, Amr Moussa, said the organization would consider it. But most Western countries have dismissed the idea summarily. U.S. President Barack Obama has insisted that there is nothing to negotiate: Qaddafi must go. The Italian and French governments have agreed.

In fact, the main impact of Chávez's plan may be felt not in the Middle East, but much closer to home. With Chávez's proposal getting little traction, he could become increasingly isolated in a region where the bulk of public opinion is in solidarity with rebel forces in Libya and with people's movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Qaddafi's brutal crackdown on fellow Libyans has touched a nerve in a region that has its share of experience with military-led governments.

As current president of the U.N. Security Council, Brazil, South America's undisputed regional power, joined in the 15-0 vote for sanctions against the Qaddafi regime on Feb. 26. Other governments were quick to take stronger anti-Qaddafi stands. Peru was the first to break off diplomatic relations with Libya and call for the implementation of a no-fly zone. Indeed, even some of Chávez's closest allies seem torn and thrown off balance by the agitation in the Middle East. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has recently faced protests over food shortages and rising prices, has been more restrained than Chávez in his support of Qaddafi.

It's no surprise that Chávez now seems likely to reiterate his appeal at the March 11 meeting of Chávez-led ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas). In Latin America, Chávez has been joined by ALBA members Fidel Castro and Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega -- incidentally, all three are past recipients of the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights -- in giving Qaddafi the benefit of the doubt and warning against what they reflexively see as imperialist machinations in Libya. In a recent newspaper column titled "NATO's Inevitable War," Castro condemned the "colossal campaign of lies" in the Western media about Libya and suggested that the United States and NATO "couldn't help but take advantage of the internal conflict that has arisen in Libya to promote military intervention."

In fact, if Castro himself offered to broker an agreement with Qaddafi, the chances of success might be greater than with Chávez as self-appointed mediator. Castro is notably more strategic and structured than Chávez and is more experienced in working out accords, having helped reduce tensions between Colombia and Venezuela in the past. After a dozen years in power, Chávez has only managed to demolish the old order, not build a viable alternative.

Whatever Chávez's intentions, it is hard to imagine that he will end up playing a constructive role in the Libyan situation. His previous forays into peacemaking in Colombia -- where some believed his sympathy with FARC guerrillas would give him an upper hand in ending the conflict -- ultimately proved fruitless after he betrayed the confidence of the Colombian government, which had originally invited him to play a role. In light of the near-unanimous international opprobrium of the Libyan regime, the only acceptable deal at this point would entail Qaddafi relinquishing power. It is highly doubtful that Chávez -- himself intent on clinging to power in Venezuela -- would ever help engineer such an outcome.

For the time being Chávez is benefiting from the Middle East convulsions. Oil prices are rising. The crisis helps keep international scrutiny away from Venezuela's authoritarian practices. And his gambit has brought him the kind of attention he craves.

But Chávez can take little comfort from the wave of protests that isroiling the Middle East. His latest move to shore up a repressive regime like Qaddafi's won't work. It will only bolster his harshest critics who will point out that the nexus with Qaddafi shows his true colors. And in the long run, as Chávez's friend Qaddafi can now attest, the economic distress and autocratic rule that increasingly mark Venezuela today are not a winning formula anywhere.