To be sure, Hugo Chávez may boast of many political and social accomplishments, but his foreign policy utterances are fast making a mockery of Venezuela. The latest erratic salvo from señor presidente came a few days ago, when Chávez decried the awarding of a Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese political dissident who is currently serving out a harsh 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion. A courageous literary critic, poet, scholar and political essayist, the 54-year old Liu has long been an unstinting advocate for peaceful change.
In recent years, Chávez has sought to build up key, strategic relationships with powerful countries which may serve as a counterbalance to the United States. While his desire to create a so-called "multi-polar" world is understandable, Chávez has failed to exercise any discrimination or restraint. Pushing an aggressive foreign policy, Venezuela has allied itself to such throwbacks as Russia, China, and even Iran. These alliances have made a muddle out of Chávez's politics and led the Venezuelan leader into taking morally objectionable stands.
Though some may be surprised by Chávez's moves to back up Beijing and its horrible human rights record, it's not the first time the Venezuelan leader has taken such a retrograde position. In advance of the Olympic Games in China, Chávez backed Beijing's nasty crackdown in Tibet.
Ridiculing attempts to protest the games, Chávez said that Venezuela was strongly behind Beijing and Tibet was an integral part of China. The Venezuelan leader added that the protests against the Olympic Torch were an example of the U.S. "empire" "going against China" and trying to divide the Asian powerhouse. "America is the main force behind whatever is happening in Tibet," Chávez said, "and its motive is to create problems in the Olympic Games."
Venezuela, which seeks to increase oil exports to the China, could have stayed silent on the issue of Liu and his Nobel Prize. Chávez, however, has gone way out on a limb, remarking that Liu was a "counter-revolutionary" who was surely serving out a jail sentence "for violating Chinese laws." Dropping to a new low, Chávez said the prize should not have been awarded to Liu, and that moreover members of Venezuela's opposition were "lackeys" of the west for supporting the Chinese dissident.
To be sure, the Venezuelan opposition has held many questionable views and positions, but on China it is right and Chávez is wrong. In many ways, Liu represents a promising future for China. In 1989, during the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, he staged a hunger strike. As soldiers stood by with their rifles drawn, it was Liu who negotiated a peaceful retreat involving the student demonstrators. As a result of Liu's diplomacy, thousands of students were allowed to safely exit the square.
In the wake of the massacre at Tiananmen, the authorities repeatedly harassed and detained the brave Liu. On a personal and professional level, the writer paid a stiff price for his political activism: Chinese officials sentenced him to 18 months in jail for his role at Tiananmen, and Liu was banned from teaching. Later, in 1995, he was sentenced to three years of "re-education through labor" for writing essays which criticized the authorities.
What was Liu's most recent "crime"? That would be co-authoring "Charter 08," a manifesto calling for human rights and equality. Liu also urged an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power, direct elections, free speech, judicial independence and religious freedom. Clamping down hard, the authorities sentenced Liu to one of the most severe sentences in recent memory: a full 11 years in prison.
Most Chinese are not aware of Liu's plight in prison and haven't heard of his Nobel Prize. That is because the authorities have conducted a massive news blackout, with only the Global Times, an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese government, carrying a stinging attack of the Nobel Committee in its Saturday edition. Those Chinese who sought to get more information about Liu must have been sorely disappointed: typing in the human rights defender's name or even "Nobel Peace Prize" in computer search engines elicited either blank screens or error messages reading "research results do not fit the relevant regulations and provisions."
Human rights activists, however, heard the news in Beijing and were emboldened by Liu's award. In the long run, Liu's lawyer says, the Nobel will encourage others to strive for greater freedoms. In the short run, however, the humiliated government might lash out in anger and even arrest more activists. For said reason, international leaders must keep up the pressure on Chinese authorities so that human rights workers may continue to work.
Chávez, on the other hand, has thrown the engine into reverse by validating Beijing. "Our greetings and solidarity go to the government of the People's Republic of China," he said recently. "Viva China! And its sovereignty, its independence and its greatness," the Venezuelan added. No, señor presidente: long live Liu and his valiant struggle against political oppression and one party rule.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com