Why Hugo Chavez’ re-election matters to the Arab world

From Al Akhbar English:

As crowds occupied the streets of Caracas, Venezuela on the evening of Sunday 7th October, to celebrate the successful re-election of President Hugo Chavez, a Lebanese flag was held aloft. As they poured into the grounds of Miraflores to hear him speak from the balcony of the Presidential palace, later that night, a Palestinian flag was also visible as it was waved above our heads. These symbols were not without meaning; the re-election of Chavez with 55%, eleven points ahead of his opponent, Henrique Radonski, will have repercussions not only in the continent of Latin America, but also in the Arab world.

On Tuesday, just two days after his electoral victory, Chavez re-iterated his support for the Syrian government, of which he has been characteristically vocal over the last year. It is a far cry from the pre-election promises of Capriles, who was seen by many in Venezuela as ‘the candidate of the United States’ and had pledged to develop ‘closer relations with Israel’, as well as re-thinking several areas of foreign policy. Chavez, on the other hand, took the step of expelling the Israeli ambassador in January 2009, during the bombing campaign of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. It was not the first time he had taken such action, after ordering the US ambassador to leave in September 2008.

From the evidence of his first press conference since being re-elected, and particularly in regard to the Arab world, it is clear that re-thinking foreign policy is the last thing on Chavez’ mind. He described Assad’s as the ‘only legitimate government’ of Syria, before continuing to add:

“[he] has made a huge effort to make concessions, constitutional changes, [and has] called for elections, but none of that is true for those who want to overthrow it.”

Whilst speaking from the ‘People’s Balcony’ of Miraflores, at just before midnight on Sunday, Chavez called for re-conciliation with the opposition at home, but he knows that his victory, although down from the 26% margin he won by in 2006, would be a considered a landslide in many other countries and gives him a strong democratic mandate for the next six years of government. Foreign policy has often been a talking point during the last fourteen years of Chavez’ government, and his popularity, so pervasive amongst the poorest sections of Venezuelan society, has also spread as far as occupied Palestine, the south of Lebanon, and many parts of the Arab world.

Chavez vehemently denounced the NATO bombing of Libya earlier this year, which he described at the time as “imperial cynicism”, a “massacre” and a “madness” that had “destroyed” the country. On Tuesday, Chavez took the opportunity to mention former Libyan President Colonel Gaddafi, saying that “the way he died was a barbarity.”

Some western commentators have criticised Chavez’ support for what they see as dictatorial governments in Libya and, now, Syria, whilst recognising the democratic credentials of Venezuela itself. However, Chavez is particularly aware of what demonization of political leaders who challenge or question the dominant narrative – once referred to as the “Washington Consensus” but now struggling to retain one hand, let alone a “consensus” in Latin America – can lead to. The April 2002 coup d’etat against his government, which resulted in huge demonstrations and the re-instatement of Chavez after just forty-eight hours, was preceded by much hysterical commentary in both the US and in the privately-owned Venezuelan media, which routinely referred to Chavez as an “autocrat”, a “monkey” or even “Venezuela’s Hitler”.

Chavez is of the view that, whilst undoubtedly embroiled in a situation of turmoil, there are more forces at work in Syria than usually portrayed in the mainstream media. On Tuesday, he repeated his opinion, in regards to Syria, that “the US government is largely responsible for this disaster.”

There is no doubt that Chavez’ presence will be continued to be felt in the Arab world over the next six years. With a wave of pro-poor, anti-imperialist governments continuing to enjoy widespread popularity in Latin America – Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina – the question remains as to how Arab people will respond to this example of resisting subservience to foreign interests. Indeed, in a speech following his decision to expel the Israeli ambassador, Hugo Chavez made a proposal of his own:

“Every day, Latin America will be more united and more free. I hope that one day, Arabs will be the same way; united. United or dominated, you decide!”

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