by John Otis
With his anti-American rhetoric and socialist policies, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long symbolized the overturning of the status quo. But amid the uprisings in the Middle East, Chavez has voiced distaste and alarm. And in many cases, he's come down squarely on the side of the region's despots.
Chavez defended embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in a recent speech. "Just because the whole world calls Gaddafi an assassin doesn't mean Chavez will call him an assassin. That would be cowardly," Chavez said. "He's been a friend of mine and a friend of ours for a long time." Chavez has also described Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad as "a humanist and a brother."
In recent years, Chavez won legions of fans in the Arab world for breathing new life into OPEC, embracing the Palestinian cause and breaking diplomatic relations with Israel. So his recent comments have disappointed pro-democracy activists in the Middle East.
True, Chavez cheered the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, mainly because the Egyptian president was a staunch U.S. ally. But Chavez has also forged close ties to some of the Middle East's most notorious leaders, including Gaddafi, Assad and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And in their darkest hours, Chavez has stood by them.
For example, Chavez backed Ahmadinejad during Iran's disputed elections in 2009. Chavez also defied Washington by cutting business deals with Tehran.
Last month, the U.S. State department slapped sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company, known as PDVSA, for selling a gasoline blending component to Iran.
Critics contend Chavez wants to be president-for-life and has been spooked by the Middle East uprisings. By voicing support for pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya and the government crackdown on protesters in Syria, Chavez is sending a message to his own people, according to Jose Toro, a political analyst.
"What he is saying is:'Don't dare to do anything like that here in Venezuela because I am not going to accept it.'"
Yet Chavez isn't the only leader with questionable allies in the Middle East. This month, President Obama welcomed the Crown Prince of Bahrain to the White House despite that country's fierce repression of pro-reform activists. Washington also supported the Mubarak government at the start of the protests in Egypt.
Comparing Chavez to faltering Arab autocrats is also problematic. Polls show that Chavez remains quite popular at home. Some of Chavez's staunchest supporters come from the half million people of Middle Eastern decent who live in Venezuela.
Al-Ibrahim mosque in downtown Caracas (Photo: John Otis)On Fridays, some of these ex-pats worship at the huge al-Ibrahim mosque in downtown Caracas. Mohamed Salem, who administers the mosque, arrived here from Egypt 10 years ago. He said his visa applications for Europe were rejected, but Venezuela welcomed him and offered him citizenship. Not surprisingly, he refuses to badmouth Chavez and his foreign policy.
"Whether Chavez backs this person or that, I don't know anything about it," Salem said. "That's politics and I can't to get involved in that."
Support for Chavez is also strong at an outdoor market in Caracas dominated by vendors from the Middle East. They see Venezuela as a land of political freedom and business opportunity. Some got their start here with low-cost government loans.
Syrian immigrant Fadi Humsi, who sells sheets and towels, is about to open his second store. "In Syria," Humsi said, "if you don't have money, you can't start your own business. You have to be an employee. But here, if you want to work and get ahead, people help you."
But not everyone at the market is smitten with the Venezuelan president. Lebanese immigrant Charles Massad said that in the Middle East, Chavez has sided with the bad guys.
"He wants to make Venezuela like a dictatorship and we don't want that. And that's the reason he's with Gaddafi," said Massad.
When it comes to the Arab Spring, Massad said, Chavez is showing his true colors.