Venezuela’s quirky (Middle East) foreign policy

MANIFESTACIÓN EN FAVOR DE PALESTINAWhen it comes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Venezuela has been at the forefront in providing diplomatic support for both Gaza and the West Bank. With the exception of a $50 million arms deal inked in 2005, the late-president Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution has taken a confrontational stance towards Israel in response to their military operations in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2009). And this is not mere radical posturing. Chávez rightfully severed diplomatic relations with Israel, condemning them as a terrorist and genocidal state, in 2009. As a result, for many observers in the Arab world, Hugo Chávez emerged as an unequivocal hero whereas Arab leaders simply crossed their arms and sat idly as Palestinians got mercilessly sieged.

I truly believe that Venezuela’s support for Palestinian liberation is one based on principle: a strong moral revulsion at Israel’s desire to impose a colonial system in the occupied territories. After all, the history of Latin America is rife with centuries of oppression, whether by direct Spanish colonial rule or constant U.S. interference into the region’s internal affairs. So it was really no surprise to me that, earlier this year, President Nicolás Maduro unveiled a plan to sell discounted oil to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

I normally take a very critical approach to Venezuela’s use of petroleum as a foreign policy tool since it utilizes the resource to bring other nations into its sphere of influence – here’s a good read on how Venezuela holds Jamaica’s energy sector hostage so it can influence the latter’s voting behavior in international organizations like the OAS – but I firmly approved of this transaction since it helps Palestinians assuage the worst economic effects of the occupation.

And it is these types of initiatives that distinguish Venezuela from other Latin American countries who pledge solidarity with Palestine. While Argentina and Brazil either issue statements of condemnation or recall their ambassadors from Israel, Venezuela takes it a step further by providing material and humanitarian support, e.g. the establishment of “orphanages [in Venezuela] to shelter Palestinian children who have been injured or lost their parents in the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

gaddafi_and_chavez_10115_814Venezuela’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Palestine represents the former’s desire to introduce a more “ethical” dimension to international affairs; one that is based on third world cooperation and international solidarity in order to inaugurate a multi-polar global system. This is their world mission. But Venezuela’s foreign policy in the Middle East has a “darker” side, and Chávez’s opposition to the protest movements that emerged from the Arab Spring in Qadhafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria are just two examples that accentuate my great disappointment.

Before continuing, I should declare my interest: I am not a fan of either Mu’ammar Qadhafi or Bashar al-Assad. Both leaders ran neoliberal security states and adopted presidential systems that were in actuality presidential monarchies, half republic and half monarchy. Hafez successfully transferred power to Bashar in 2000 while Qadhafi was in the process of grooming his son, Saif, to succeed him. It should be noted, however, that Syria differs a bit from Libya since the “presidential” system in Damascus is predicated on Alawi control of the state, preferably through the Assad family.

The anti-war left’s unequivocal support for the personalized corporatism that was Libya and is Syria left me completely disillusioned. They preferred to misrepresent the truth and strip the agency of Libyans and Syrians in order to advance a faux anti-imperialist ideology. Whenever faced between these two options, self-determination or anti-imperialism, the left typically opts for the latter because they’re more concerned with countering the U.S. rather than supporting people’s desire for dignity and justice.

Chávez, and now Maduro, had chosen to support oppressive tyrants over the aspirations of mobilized citizens. What explains this considering that the legitimacy and popularity of the Bolivarian Revolution rests on popular power?

As aforementioned above, one of Venezuela’s foreign policy objectives is to institute a multi-polar system through south-south collaboration. By definition, this necessitates (a) a reduction of American dependency – the U.S. remains the biggest importer of Venezuelan oil – and (b) a counter to U.S. dominance in global affairs. As a result, Chávez not only established diplomatic ties with regimes that demonstrated an antagonistic posture towards the United States, but developed a personal relationship with their heads of state, including Qadhafi and Assad.

As a consequence, Chávez regrettably subscribed to the narrative that the protest movements in both Libya and Syria were the result of an international conspiracy designed to topple two so-called socialist and anti-imperialist governments rather than to view it as a genuine uprising carried out by a cross-section of the public who decided to resist their autocratic regimes.

Of course, Chávez’s calculation was based on a superficial reading of the political economies of Libya and Syria, especially since both countries “abandoned whatever socialist commitments they once had.” In fact, both Qadhafi and Assad had adopted neoliberal economic policies that cultivated a powerful capitalist class closely aligned to their respective regimes. This runs contrary to Chávez’s ideological beliefs since he worked tirelessly to build an international coalition to counter neoliberalism (for a good read on how the uprisings in both Libya and Syria are in effect a response to the application of “highly polarized neoliberal econom[ic]” policies and the negatives effects that resulted from their implementation, I suggest Vijay Prashad’s “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter” and Adam Hanieh’s “Lineages of Revolt”). Further, Libya nor Syria were necessarily anti-American since both sought rapprochement with the United States (especially Qadhafi who not only became a staunch ally of Bush and his so-called “War on Terror,” but awarded oil concessions to Western international oil companies) and cooperated with the CIA in their secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs

One can only conclude that it was either Chávez’s naivety and/or his rapport with Qadhafi and Assad that led him to dismiss reports of repression carried out by the latter two leaders. And (again) Venezuelan support is not just mere posturing as exemplified by the material support they provided to Assad through the sale of oil in order to keep the war system in Syria lubricated.

Despite evidence of “industrial style killing” in Syria and the affirmation that Assad contributed to the rise of ISIS by “manipulating various players” in his favor, there is still a policy of continuity with the Maduro administration.

So while I praise President Maduro for his solidarity with the Palestinian people, he is not someone to be allied with when it comes to his administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. His support for Assad is an unforgivable failure and it makes Venezuela’s pursuit of a more “ethical” foreign policy a masochistic lie.

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