DEATH OF A STRONG MAN

Nowhere outside of Latin America, has the death of Hugo Chavez had more of an impact than the Arab world. “For many Arabs, Chavez’s death means almost as much to them as it does to his loyalists in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas,” wrote Ali Hashem, chief correspondent for the pan-Arab TV channel Al Mayadeen.

The late Venezuelan president used to enjoy superstar status in the region, mainly because of his staunch opposition to Israeli and American policies. “In this, some saw Chavez as more Arab than most Arab leaders,” added Hashem, who was previously a war correspondent for Al Jazeera and a senior journalist at the BBC.

However, the close ties between Venezuela and the Arab world pre-date Chavez. The country has one of the largest Arab populations in the Americas, mainly from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Immigration started as early as the 19th century, and has influenced Venezuelan culture, particularly food and music. The community has a significant presence in Caracas, and the country’s interior and justice minister, Tarek Al Assaimi, is of Arab origin. Chavez’s regional popularity reached its zenith during Israel’s 2009 invasion of Gaza, which he described as “genocide.”

He severed relations with Israel and expelled its ambassador, describing the country as the “murder arm” of the US. However, his refusal to back the Arab Spring signalled the end of many Arabs’ love affair with him, and with the anti-imperialist left in general.

Chavez’s “humanitarian credentials quickly came into question” because of his alliances “with the grimiest of dictators in the Arab world,” wrote Layelle Saad, Gulf Cooperation Council / Middle East editor at Gulf News. “Many Arabs have grown to detest the leader” because of “his double-standards on issues of humanitarian concern,” she added.

“These were the same Arabs who perceived him as a hero when he repeatedly voiced his support for the Palestinian cause,” said Khattar Abou Diab, a political scientist specialising in the Arab world at the University of Paris-Sud.

An Arab Public Opinion Poll, published in November 2011, showed how out of step Chavez was with regional sentiment. Of the 3,000 people surveyed in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, support for the revolutions in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain stood at 89%, 86% and 64%, respectively. A majority viewed the Arab Spring as mostly about “ordinary people seeking dignity, freedom and a better life,” while just 19% shared Chavez’s stance that it is about foreign powers trying to assert their influence in the region. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan, a vocal supporter of the revolutions, was the most admired among world leaders.

Nonetheless, social media websites were inundated with condolences from Arabs, regardless of whether they disagreed with Chavez’s stance vis-a-vis the region’s revolutions. This is an indication of the level of respect, if not popularity, that he commanded until his death. “Flawed, but still great,” was the response of a Palestinian film-maker to a journalist’s criticism on Facebook of Chavez’s support for Bashar Assad.

His backing of the Syrian president in particular, in a conflict that has so far cost more than 70,000 lives, has arguably garnered the most Arab opprobrium. “How can I not support the Assad government?” Chavez asked in October 2012. “It’s the legitimate government of Syria. Who should we be supporting, the terrorists?”

He described his Syrian counterpart, whose regime is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in its attempts to crush the uprising against it, as a “humanist and a brother.” He accused Assad’s opponents of being part of “a Yankee plot.”

Chavez visited Syria in 2006 and 2009, during which, ironically, he praised Sultan Pasha Al Atrash, who led Syrian revolts against Ottoman and French rule. In 2010, Assad became the first Syrian president to travel to Venezuela, where estimates of the number of people of Syrian origin range from more than 70,000 to almost 2m. Assad has called Chavez’s death “a great loss for me and for the Syrian people.”

The late Venezuelan president also attracted Arab disdain for his opposition to the revolution that ousted his late Libyan ally Muammar Gaddafi. “Wherever you may be, resisting a new imperialist aggression, may God protect you, and give good health and a long life to you and the Libyan people,” Chavez announced to Gaddafi at the time.

“A campaign of lies is being spun together regarding Libya. I’m not going to condemn him. I’d be a coward to condemn someone who has been my friend,” Chavez said in February 2011. “We support the government of Libya.” After his killing, he described Gaddafi as a “martyr.” Chavez visited Libya three times. A playground in the country’s second city of Benghazi was named after him in 2009, but it was renamed after the revolution.

His other travels to the region took him to Algeria (four times), Saudi Arabia (thrice), Iraq (twice, in 2000 and 2002), Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. During his visit to Iraq in 2000, he toured Baghdad in a car driven by the late Saddam Hussein.

Chavez’s waning regional popularity since the Arab Spring was a far cry from the adoration he received for supporting the Palestinian cause, as well as opposing the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

“We’re on the side of the Palestinian people’s memorable struggle,” he said. “We reiterate our greatest commitment and our greatest solidarity for the creation of an independent Palestinian state with the holy city of Jerusalem as its capital.” A street in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared is named after him.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Chavez in 2009, and received the Venezuelan medal of freedom, as well as a replica of the sword of Simon Bolivar, who liberated Latin American countries from Spanish colonial rule at the start of the 19th century.

“With the passing of our brother and comrade Chavez, all the patriots fighting for their freedom have lost a great leader, who fought for a better world, clean of oppression and colonialism,” Abbas said. Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah thanked the late Venezuelan president for his support during Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, referring to him as “our brother Chavez.” A street in the Lebanese town of Al Bireh is named after him. Estimates of the number of Venezuelans of Lebanese origin range from more than 100,000 to 340,000.

After Algeria erected in its capital a memorial statue of Bolivar in 2009, Chavez named a square in Caracas after national hero Abdelqader Al Jazairi, who led the struggle against France’s colonial invasion in the mid-19th century.

If Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro wins upcoming elections, as analysts expect, it will likely mean the continuation of the late president’s foreign policy vis-a- vis the Arab world. “It was Maduro who orchestrated Venezuela’s pro-Assad foreign policy in the first place. Indeed, Maduro even travelled to Damascus in an effort to shore up the Syrian dictator,” wrote Nikolas Kozloff, author of the book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

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