From Hero to Villain: The Arab World’s Hugo Chavez Arc

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez passed away last week, the public in the Arab world felt as if they lost one of their own. Chavez who ruled Venezuela for 14 years did make a huge impact on the lives of ordinary Venezuelans and at the same time made very important gestures toward the Arab world and the Middle East. Ever since he assumed power, Chavez made it his life work to end poverty in his country and expand education and health care to millions of poor and underprivileged Venezuelans.

Although he supported and befriended the hated Arab dictators, he, however, was unlike them on several levels. Chavez for example was interested in reshaping the Venezuelans’ society and empowering the poor classes he was born into. Before Chavez came to power, Venezuelan society was divided along racial lines where the light-skinned or white Venezuelans, known as mestizos, sat at the top of the food chain and controlled much of its wealth and resources. Meanwhile, millions of black, Indian or mixed-race Venezuelans struggled in abject poverty at the bottom in one the richest countries on earth.

For those poor classes, Latin America analyst Oliver Barrett wrote on the Foreign Policy Blog that Chavez was their modern day “Robin Hood” and “Libertador.” Barrett added that Chavez used socialism as his vehicle to utilize the vast riches of the country to slash poverty levels by seventy percent, while cutting unemployment rate by half, and expanded health and education opportunities to millions of his beloved poor citizens. Chavez’s accomplishments in this regard were an impressive feat that no Arab leader, dictator or not, was able to accomplish.

In that respect, moreover, Chavez looked more like the late revolutionary Egyptian leader-dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who also used socialism to reshape the Egyptian society and the Arab world but failed in both endeavors. Nasser, albeit operating in a different world system, nevertheless fell victim to his own rhetoric and failed to deliver many of his lofty Pan-Arab goals. In addition, he was directly responsible for the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. His life however was conspicuously cut short at the age of 52, Chavez at 58.

Both Nasser and Chavez dwelled on anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism rhetoric and opposing Israel where both saw the three with little delineation. This kind of rhetoric was the main engine for their popularity among the poor and disenfranchised in the Arab World. When Chavez severed the diplomatic relations with Israel in protest for its attack on Gaza in 2008, his popularity in the region skyrocketed.

Chavez’s anti-Israeli pronouncements enamored him to an Arab public hungry for a charismatic leader in the mold of Nasser amid increasing marginalization, oppression and fragmentation that became the order of the day in many Arab countries especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings. Chavez therefore was that “distant” hero that reminded the Arab public of a bygone era when the Arab world led by Nasser was defiant and resisted the encroaching western influence.

But not many in the Arab World view Chavez as a hero, especially after he expressed his public support to Arab dictators Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. Chavez’s support for Arab dictators came across as a contradiction for the self-styled revolutionary who spoke against “American world domination” and “imperialism” yet supported brutal and bloody Arab dictators.

It was precisely this contradiction that propelled Shireen Mriash a Dubai-based pediatrician and a writer to write on her social network page accusing Chavez of dishonesty. For Mraish it was Chavez’s support for Gaddafi that made her change her perception of him: “If a man or a leader supports oppression and injustice against others, he himself, therefore, is unjust and an oppressor.”

Journalist Eman El-Shenawi, an editor at Al Arabiya news channel, voiced the same sentiments in an article she wrote last week. El-Shinawi cataloged Chavez’s cold and insensitive statements in support of Gaddafi and Assad which disillusioned his Arab admirers.

She explained further that while Chavez’s “vehement anti-Israel stance stood strong” it was “his support for the region’s dictators that millions had come out to oppose in mostly blood-soaked battles” that ended the Arab World infatuation with him.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.