Hugo Chavez and his affinity with the Arab World

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The death on Tuesday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who succumbed to cancer, ended 14 years of controversial rule that won him passionate support from Latin America to the Middle East.

Visits to Arab countries

Chavez visited Saudi Arabia three times, and toured Baghdad in 2000 in a car driven by Saddam Hussein. He visited the late Iraqi president again in 2002, and was the only Latin American leader to condemn the U.S. occupation.

Also in 2002, Chavez visited Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and Algeria as part of a tour of member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. He invited these countries’ leaders to attend the OPEC summit in Caracas at the end of that year.

His circumstances did not allow him to visit Palestine, but President Mahmoud Abbas visited him in 2009. Chavez honored him with the Venezuelan medal of freedom, and a replica of the sword of Simon Bolivar, who liberated Latin American countries from Spanish colonial rule at the start of the 19th century.

Chavez opened a Venezuelan embassy in Palestine, and requested that his education minister distribute maps of the occupied Palestinian territories so students could see how small they are, and how Gaza alone is populated by 1.5 million people.

He visited Syria in 2006 and 2009, and was warmly received. To much applause, he praised Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, leader of the Syrian revolution against the French mandate at the beginning of the last century. Bashar al-Assad repaid the visit in 2010, the first Syrian president to travel to Venezuela, where there are reportedly more than 70,000 people of Syrian origin. Since then, Chavez frequently reiterated his support for Assad.

The Venezuelan leader visited Algeria four times, strengthening ties with it. He named a square in Caracas after national hero Abdelqader al-Jazairi, who led the struggle against France’s colonial invasion in the mid-19th century. A statue of Jazairi was placed in the square after Algeria erected in its capital a memorial statue of Bolivar in 2009.

Chavez also strengthened relations with Libya, which he visited three times. A playground in Libya’s second city Benghazi was named after him in 2009, but it was renamed after the revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, which Chavez opposed. Following the killing of Qaddafi, the Venezuelan leader described him as a “martyr.”

Chavez’s expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and his severing of relations with Israel, due to the war against Gaza in 2009, warmly stirred Arab emotions. Subsequently, a street in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared was named after him, as was a street in the Lebanese town of al-Bireh. He never visited the country, although there are more than 100,000 people of Lebanese origin living in Venezuela.

Chavez established special relations with non-Arab Iran, which he visited 13 times. His Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmedinejad visited Venezuela six times.

Background

Chavez was born in Sabaneta in 1954, the second of seven children. His family was poor, and Chavez as a teenager had to work as a candy seller in the town's streets.

He joined the military academy in 1971, and studied there for four years. In 1992, he led a failed coup against then-President Carlos Andres Perez, for which he was jailed for two years.

Chavez had a reputation in Venezuela as a womanizer, and had children from two marriages. In 1977, he wed Nancy Colmenares, who was from his town and was also poor. They had three children: Rosa Virginia, Maria Gabriella and Hugo Rafael, who suffers from mental problems.

Due to his desire to have a healthy son and heir, Chavez divorced his wife in 1992, and that same year ended a secret affair of 10 years with leftist Venezuelan historian Herma Marksman. She bore him no children, but he reportedly loved her dearly and was greatly influenced by her.

He married journalist Marisabel Rodriguez in 1997. The two had a daughter, Rosinés, but he divorced Rodriguez in 2000. The next decade saw numerous affairs and failed attempts at having a son. His last relationship was with former Miss Venezuela and actress Ruddy Rodríguez.