“Go to a pro-Palestine demonstration in North Africa or the Middle East, and chances are you’ll see a Hugo Chavez poster bobbing above the crowds,” wrote a commentator in 2009 when discussing why the feisty Venezuelan president mattered to the Arab world. But Chavez, who died on Wednesday after a two-year battle with cancer, attracted in recent years a renewed Arab view point that stood poles apart from the 2009 hero once depicted by many.
While his vehement anti-Israel stance stood strong, his recent electoral victory in 2012 was plugged with “thorn in the bush comments” on the Arab Spring; his support for the region’s dictators that millions had come out to oppose in mostly blood-soaked battles.
His rhetoric on Syria most recently shocked the masses. He voiced support for the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of his frequent anti-U.S., anti-European and anti-imperialist discourse.
“How can I not support the Assad government?” he asked, as he gave his first press conference in October 2012 since reelection, before continuing:
“It’s the legitimate government of Syria. Who should we be supporting, the terrorists? The so-called “Transition Council” who are killing people everywhere? I don’t understand how some governments in Europe, that claim to be serious, have been meeting with terrorists.”
It echoed his tremendous support for Libya’s ousted regime, during which the relationship between Chavez and the late Muammar Qaddafi left a haunting mark on the Libyan uprising since its early days. All the while, the portrayal of the Venezuelan leader by his local and international opponents became increasingly dictatorial.
Before Qaddafi’s death in October 2011 and while fighting Libya had reached one of its many white-hot peaks, Chavez said: “I can’t say that I support, or that I am in favor of, or that I applaud any decision that any friend of mine makes in whatever part of the world, no, not from afar, but yes, we support the government of Libya.”
Earlier on in the uprising in February, civil unrest spreading from a riot in Benghazi to protests in Zintan and Misrata had provoked Chavez to speak out in support of his friend – a friendship which was described as “shameful” by Venezuelan opposition media outlets during Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown on his people.
“A campaign of lies is being spun together regarding Libya,” Chavez said during a televised speech in February. “I’m not going to condemn him. I’d be a coward to condemn someone who has been my friend,” he added, seemingly forming even closer ties to Qaddafi as they became united more than ever in mutual antagonism towards the U.S.
‘Foul enemy play’
On Wednesday, the Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, gave a tearful speech in which he not only announced Chavez’s death, but nudged towards foreign interference into his illness – an example of the late leader’s ability to repeatedly hint at external meddling in Venezuela’s affairs.
Maduro, who will assume the presidency until an election was called within 30 days, said he had no doubt that Chavez’s cancer, first diagnosed in 2011, had been induced by foul play by Venezuela’s enemies. This was met by the United States, which promptly rejected the accusations as “absurd.”
But the thought may linger, at least in the minds of Chavez’s millions of Venezuelan followers and devotees. Maduro said a scientific commission could one day investigate whether Chavez’s illness was brought about by what he called an enemy attack.
Meanwhile, Chavez’s local opponents run strong, including former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonsky - who was backed by United States, European and Israeli interests.
Although the world lost an iconic Latin American leader, his stances on the Middle East are likely to linger if Maduro wins the upcoming elections – which analysts expect is likely. Capriles Radonsky is also expected to run for presidency again after he lost out to Chavez by 11 percentage points in October.
And now, will we see places such as Lebanon’s “Hugo Chavez Road” be a poignant reminder of the late leader’s legacy? Will his images still pop up at pro-Palestinian protests? Perhaps. Chavez’s anti-American, anti-Israeli sentiment had quickly gathered pace and won over Arab audiences instantaneously.
But for a man who wanted to portray himself as a revolutionary leader, his refusal to back the Arab Spring signaled the death knell of his regional popularity.