You've got to hand it to WikiLeaks: the whistle-blowing outfit sure has impeccable timing. Even as forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi fire on protesters in a mounting massacre and human rights calamity, Julian Assange has released U.S. diplomatic cables which should prove acutely embarrassing to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Venezuela has been a long-time ally of Gadhafi's, and some reports even suggested that the Libyan leader might have recently fled to Caracas in an attempt to save his own skin [Venezuela's top diplomat Nicolas Maduro denied the speculation, however, remarking on Monday that Gadhafi had not escaped to South America. The strongman, Maduro added, had preferred to stay in Tripoli in an effort to exercise "the powers granted to him by the state and facing the situation"].
WikiLeaks cables lay bare the tight diplomatic and political alliance between Gadhafi and Chávez. In 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas wrote Washington about an African-South American summit held on the Venezuelan island of Margarita. Chávez had called the meeting in an effort to highlight the historic unity between long-oppressed continents, though such public relations efforts were severely undermined by the roster of participants which included autocrats like Gadhafi and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. According to U.S. diplomats, Chávez and Gadhafi congratulated each other on their "revolutions" during the ceremonies. From there, the rhetoric got more and more ridiculous. "The meeting with Gaddafi," U.S. diplomats wrote, "provided the opportunity for rhetorical assaults on capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism."
Bizarrely, Chávez declared "What Simon Bolívar [the Great Liberator of South American independence against the Spanish] is to the Venezuelan people, Gaddafi is to the Libyan people." Gadhafi then praised Chávez for "having driven out the colonialists," just as he had driven out those in Libya. "We share the same destiny, the same battle in the same trench against a common enemy, and we will conquer," Qaddafi said. As if these exchanges were not preposterous enough, Chávez then took advantage of the occasion to award Gadhafi the "Orden del Libertador," Venezuela's highest civilian decoration, and presented the Libyan leader with a replica of Simon Bolívar's sword [to see a video of the sword-bearing ceremony, click here].
The summit at Margarita was merely the tip of the iceberg: for years Chávez and Gadhafi have enjoyed warm ties. As fellow world oil producers and supporters of the Palestinian cause, Libya and Venezuela have seen eye to eye on foreign policy matters. According to Venezuelan paper El Universal, Chávez has visited Libya on five separate occasions. Perversely, Libya reportedly awarded Chávez with something called the "Qaddafi Human Rights Prize" back in 2004. Five years later, Gadhafi named a football stadium in the Libyan city of Benghazi after Chávez.
Now that Gadhafi has been discredited, will Chávez give second thought to his severely misguided foreign policy? Given the Venezuelan's bizarre track record, it doesn't seem very likely. For years, I've been writing about Chávez's backward approach to African affairs up on my website. Far from supporting popular struggle, Chávez has embraced the most unscrupulous and autocratic leaders imaginable. Commenting on former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the Venezuelan remarked "I don't know, maybe he [Amin] was a great nationalist, a patriot." Chávez didn't stop there, hailing Robert Mugabe as a "brother." The African leader, Chávez said, had been wrongly branded a "bad guy" in the eyes of the world. Like Gadhafi, Chávez once presented Mugabe with a replica of a sword wielded by Bolívar. As if it could get no worse, Chávez has also embraced Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, a leader who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in Darfur. The ICC has charged Bashir with five counts: murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, and rape.
With revolution now sweeping away the most autocratic rulers across the African continent, Chávez now has a unique opportunity to redraw his political priorities. Will the Venezuelan leader see the error of his ways or continue to embrace phony Third World liberation in the guise of autocratic despotism? Señor Presidente: the silence has become truly deafening.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com