London, Asharq Al-Awsat—I first met Hugo Chávez, the late flamboyant Venezuelan president, in 2002, after one of his earlier trips to Iran. With a few colleagues, we dined at an Italian restaurant in Paris. The conversation touched on a range of topics, but two themes dominated. The first was his “determination” to end poverty in Venezuela. “There is no need for anyone to be poor in a country as rich as ours,” he asserted as he sipped his Chateau Lafitte. “Give me four years, just give me four years!” The second main theme was Chávez’s claim that the Catholic Church, prompted by “wealthy oligarchs,” was trying to sabotage his social revolution. Chávez claimed to be the ideological heir of Simon Bolivar, the father of Latin American liberation from colonial rule, and recalled his hero’s commitment to “secular government.”
Bolivar had said that while the individual was free to have whatever faith he wished, the state should have no religion. As for society, its sole religion should be freedom within the rule of law. In that context, Chávez was particularly critical of the theocratic system established by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He said he admired the Iranian revolution and had fallen in love with Iran’s natural beauty and cultural richness—”ah, those roses in Isfahan!”—but was uneasy about the mullahs’ attempts to impose their version of Islam on all Iranians.
Now that Chávez has passed away, how would one assess his saga?
I must admit that, at the time, I felt certain sympathy for Chávez. I had never warmed to Venezuela’s previous leaders who emitted pseudo-aristocratic airs and clearly denigrated the native “Indian” and mixed race peoples who formed the majority of the country’s population. My sympathy was strengthened by the fact that Chávez had been democratically elected with a clear mandate to improve the lives of the downtrodden. Thus, when a group of army officers staged a coup and briefly seized Chávez as a prisoner, I expressed outrage against Washington’s decision to endorse the plotters, in an article published by Asharq Al-Awsat on 18 April 2002. The United States’ attitude was especially strange because it violated an agreement signed by the Organization of American States (OAS), with the exception of Cuba, not to recognize regimes produced by military coups. Worse still, Washington had been the principal force behind that treaty. I believed that Chávez deserved to have his four years at the helm.
I met Chávez again on several occasions including during the World Economic Forum in Davos while on assignment for Asharq Al-Awsat. At each subsequent encounter he appeared more obsessed by the old ideology of anti-Americanism. On one occasion he pointedly snubbed Peru’s President Alejandro Toledo. On another occasion he responded to a question about Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with a mocking laugh. Any Latin American leader who was not anti-American had to be an American stooge, Chávez believed. Even Brazil’s President Jose Ignacio Lula da Silva, himself a moderate leftist and former trade union leader, would not win any favor from Chávez who regarded him as soft on the Yankees.
Would anti-American obsession lead to political and intellectual paralysis for Chávez? That was the question that those who had initially wanted Chávez to succeed started to ponder at the end of his first term.
Well, following his death during his third presidential term, Chávez had more than 12 years—three times as much as he had demanded in that Paris restaurant. Thanks to rising oil prices, Venezuela has garnered something like USD 400 billion net in oil export revenues. That income has been topped by USD 100 billion worth of government borrowing. That means a total of USD 500 billion, not taking into account the government’s other revenues from taxes and custom duties.
Yet, under Chávez, Venezuela’s public debt (domestic and foreign) rose from USD 21 billion in 1998 to almost USD 60 billion. His own government’s reports revealed a steady rise in the number of people below the poverty line. Despite a multi-billion bonanza from the seizure of foreign funds from the Venezuelan Central Bank, the government had to issue bonds worth USD 4 billion a year to cover a perennial budget deficit.
What happened? What did Chávez do with the unprecedented wealth that came to Venezuela under his stewardship? Part of the answer lies in the fact that Venezuela leads Latin America in capital flight. Over the last 12 years, Venezuelans have transferred billions to foreign (mostly American) banks. Chávez also spent billions helping Cuba and distributing free or cut-price oil in several countries (including some U.S. areas). During his visits to Iran, he extended that generosity to the Islamic Republic by promising to supply cut-price gasoline to meet a shortage that previously caused riots throughout the country in 2006 and 2008.
It is clear that, somewhere along his trajectory, Chávez decided to cast himself in the role of a “fighter against Yankee imperialism”. Once he had made that decision, all other considerations became secondary. The elimination of poverty could wait for another day. As for Bolivar’s philosophy, it could be twisted to suit the new “heroic discourse”. To be sure, Chávez set up something he calls a “Bolivarian alliance” in Latin America. But the regimes he managed to attract—Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia—are more anachronistic quasi-communist set-ups than Bolivarian constructs. (In 2008, the Islamic Republic joined the “Bolivarian” alliance—added proof that the exercise is more motivated by anti-Americanism than by genuine Bolivarian values.)
In his 2008 visit to the Islamic Republic, his sixth in eight years, Chávez set aside his Bolivarian flag. He visited Khomeini’s tomb to pray for the bloodthirsty theocrat, under whose rule more than 1.5 million Iranians died in war and government repression. Chávez described the Khomeinist system as “political spirituality” and a model for mankind as a whole. He was especially enthusiastic in his praise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If the Islamic Republic’s state-owned media are to be believed, Chávez played a key role securing success for Ahamdinejad’s bid to become leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and to lead it into a new campaign aimed at “the destruction of American imperialism.” “With you in the lead,” Chávez said, “we shall defeat the United States and its allies wherever they are.”
Ahmadinejad and Chávez traveled to southern Iran, where a giant petrochemical complex has been under construction for years. Walking hand-in-hand and exchanging sentimental phrases, the couple visited Asaluyeh—one of the most deprived areas of Iran’s poverty-stricken Deep South. There, Chávez spoke of “the toiling masses’ right to a better life.” Yet part of his visit had been cancelled to avoid construction workers who had been on strike for weeks. (One grievance: They hadn’t been paid for six months.) Several of their leaders had been arrested by the secret police and shipped to unknown destinations. Asaluyeh workers are frequently beaten up by thugs working for government owned companies and their foreign partners.
The majority of Asaluyeh’s 60,000 workers are poverty-stricken individuals who have come from all over Iran to earn a living for families left behind—families they often are not allowed to visit for months on end. A recent Shiraz University study described conditions at Asaluyeh sites as “akin to slave labor camps.” The average six-day working week can run into 70 hours; most workers, hired on a daily basis, get no paid holidays at all. They live in overcrowded huts provided by employers, who charge up to half of the average wage as rent. Food and other necessities are also available only in company-owned shops, often at prices twice higher than the average in the province.
Bolivar insisted on the separation of religion and state and sided with the poor. He wanted Latin America to seek allies among the Western democracies, not the potentates of the Orient. Bolivar wanted Latin America to compete with the United States by enhancing its own freedoms, improving its educational system, achieving economic growth, and developing its culture. He did not believe that seeking the destruction of the United States was a worthy goal for any sane person, let alone a nation. Cheap and banal anti-Americanism, the last refuge of every scoundrel, does not a Bolivarian make. Chávez, a Bolivarian? The workers in Asaluyeh know better.
Chávez became a player in a doomed strategy developed by Iran’s ruling mullahs in their forlorn “Jihad” against the “Infidel” West led by the United States.
That strategy is based on a simple formula: America is trying to throw a lasso around Iran with the help of allies in surrounding regions. So Iran should throw a counter lasso via an alliance in the United States’ South American backyard.
Since the late 1980s, the Iranian-run Hezbollah, a global movement of Khomeinist militants, has built a base in Paraguay by recruiting in the Shiite community, about 15 percent of the population. That base played a key role in ensuring Fernando Lugo’s presidential election victory in 2008, especially via a huge fund-raising campaign backed by Iran and Venezuela.
Cuba was the first Latin regime to forge an informal alliance with Iran. In the last 30 years, Iran has injected billions into Cuba’s ailing economy, partly by providing free crude oil. But only after 2000 did Tehran find a true Latin ally in Chávez—after the Venezuelan leader revealed his “revolutionary colors.” Chávez helped Iran create a radical axis in OPEC, with Libya, under Muammar Gaddafi, and Algeria as occasional allies.
Tehran-Caracas ties deepened after Ahmadinejad took office, as the Islamic Republic revived its militant anti-US policy. Iran’s president has visited Latin America six times in seven years, more than any other region. That influence played a crucial role in encouraging Chávez’s increasing anti-American posture.
Ahmadinejad and Chávez have reason to be pleased with their work: America is clearly in retreat in its own backyard.
But what about the promised fruits of Bolivarism for the people of Venezuela? There is no doubt that standing up to the “Giant of the North” has inspired a certain pride in a country where xenophobia has always been a potent political potion. The fact that there has been a massive turnover of the ruling elite is also positive. Under Chávez, people from the poorest segments of the Venezuelan population secured access to important positions in the administration and the armed forces. Plum jobs are no longer reserved for individuals who claim to have “pure Castilian blood” in their veins, or who have acquired diplomas from expensive universities in the United States.
Chávez’s anointed successor Vice President Nicolas Maduro is a former bus driver. In fact, Chávez used to always introduce him with the following humorous remark: “Look at our bus driver! Look how far he has gone with the bus of the revolution!”
The hiring of thousands of doctors and nurses from Cuba also enabled Chávez to provide some of the poorest Venezuelans with an element of basic health care for the first time. The Chávez government also invested in building thousands of cheap housing units for the poor, including 4000 apartments constructed by an Iranian consortium. Nevertheless, one could argue that had Venezuela not squandered so much of its wealth on Chávez’s anti-American campaign, and the purchase of Russian, Chinese, Brazilian, and Iranian weaponry that the country does not need, it might have achieved far better results in the fight against poverty.
Chávez’s decision to adopt anti-Americanism as the centerpiece of his strategy was worse than a mistake; it was unnecessary. The US is the principal market for Venezuela’s oil exports. It is also the single largest investor in the Venezuelan economy. The state-owned Venezuelan oil company owns more refineries in the US than any other foreign oil group.
All in all, Chávez reminds me of an electrical switch that turns the light off exactly as it turns it on. He was a man who ignited new hopes only to immediately extinguish them.
Finally, Venezuela has also paid a heavy political price in the shape of the restrictions that Chávez imposed on the privately-owned media. Critics of the regime were kept under constant pressure and, at times, forced to go into exile. There is less political freedom in Venezuela today than when Chávez was sipping his Chateau Laffite in that Paris restaurant.