Nearly two years ago, as unrest spread throughout the Arab world, many wondered what trajectory future revolutions might take. As we now know, Islamists were able to wrest control and capitalise on the Arab Spring and later shaped much of the political and social agenda to their liking.
At the beginning, however, it was far from clear that backward religious conservatives would prevail. Indeed, some may have hoped that the Arab revolutionaries, having sloughed off authoritarian leaders, might rush to embrace more secular rule while injecting left politics into everyday life.
Where could idealistic youth and others turn to for inspiration? Halfway across the world, South America’s leftist “Pink Tide” was in full force, having earlier consolidated political control over many countries throughout the region. For years, South American leaders had bucked right-wing economics while making great strides in the social arena through the implementation of successful anti-poverty programmes.
To be sure, populists cultivated religious support and even incorporated messianic political rhetoric at times. By and large, however, the South American left eschewed any radical religious agenda, preferring instead to pursue a more secular path.
One would think that Latin leaders would see the Arab Spring as a unique and historic opportunity to further the cause of progressive politics. Yet, in a colossal misstep, the South American left failed to take the situation by the reins or to identify and work with sympathetic civil society groups on the ground such as labour, secular women and other leftists. It’s somewhat befuddling and disappointing development, since Latin and Arab leaders had been on track to actually consolidate progressive ties prior to the eruption of mass protest in North Africa.
Indeed, before popular revolution broke out, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela had enjoyed a certain degree of popularity within the Arab world for championing the cause of Palestinian rights. In a serious miscalculation, however, Chavez came out against the Arab Spring once revolution spread from Egypt to Libya and then onward into Syria. In so doing, Chavez and others discredited themselves and probably discouraged any lasting alliance between Arab revolutionaries and sympathetic forces in South America.
Politics of the Syrian-Venezuelan community
The reasons for Chavez’s missteps aren’t too difficult to fathom. As I wrote in an earlier Al Jazeera column, the Venezuelan leader fashions his foreign policy in accordance with the notion of counteracting the “US Empire”. While such an approach is understandable, it has led Chavez into some very questionable alliances with the likes of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, for example.
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If Venezuela had sensible leftist leadership, the country would have pursued a more level-headed approach toward Syria and reaped maximum political advantage in the process. Though it’s not a very well-known fact, Venezuela has a sizeable population of Syrians which reportedly numbers almost 2 million people.
Though it’s unclear where the political allegiances of all the many Syrian-Venezuelans might lie, reports suggest that at least some object to Assad’s crackdown on the civilian population. This Al Jazeera story, for example, demonstrates that anti-Assad sentiment is alive and well in Venezuela. In the report, some activists express concern that by openly demonstrating against Assad they might be exposing themselves to reprisals in the event that they return to Syria.
Perhaps, Chavez could have cultivated political support from more level-headed, anti-Assad Syrian-Venezuelans and staked out an independent line on the Arab Spring. Cynically, however, Chavez has chosen to steer the Syrian-Venezuelan community into his own corner while jettisoning any notion of a human rights-oriented foreign policy.
In June 2010 for example, shortly after the Arab Spring had spread to Syria, Chavez welcomed Assad to Caracas and remarked that the Syrian leader was now an honourary member of the Syrian-Venezuelan community. With a handful of sycophantic Syrian-Venezuelans looking on, Chavez added that the people of Arabia and Latin America would work together to construct a new world, and “Syria and Venezuela are at the forefront of that struggle”.
During the event, which was broadcast on Venezuelan state media, Chavez fondly recalled how Syrian-Venezuelans had embraced traditional folklore dance from his native Plains region, at which point members of the community broke into chants of “Oooh, ah, Assad no se va!” [“Assad is not leaving!”].
Syrian state media Sana seized on the glorified pep rally and sought to exploit the event for propaganda purposes. In a report, the outlet interviewed Syrian Venezuelan members of parliament and the head of the Syrian-Venezuelan Club of Caracas, both of whom praised Chavez’s misguided foreign policy to the skies.
Since Assad’s trip to Venezuela, both Syrian and Latin media have continued to extol the virtues of so-called anti-imperialist solidarity. Take, for example, South American news station TeleSur, which aired a very uncritical report showing a pro-Assad rally in Caracas.
Meanwhile, Correo del Orinoco, a paper edited by Chavez’s foreign policy adviser Eva Golinger, broadcast the views of pro-Assad members of parliament in Caracas. Not to be outdone, pro-Chavez website “Aporrea” quoted the Syrian Ambassador to Venezuela at length, who claimed that his government was doing its utmost to provide for its people. Ridiculously, the diplomat went so far as to say that Damascus authorities were promoting a socialist and even revolutionary political agenda in Syria.
The decline and fall of TeleSur
In yet other ways, Venezuela and the South American left failed to capitalise on the Arab Spring. Take, for example, the issue of media coverage of widening Arab revolt. In early 2007, I interviewed Aram Aharonian, the Director of South American news station TeleSur, who claimed that the media outlet was politically independent and not beholden to any particular ideological agenda.
But TeleSur, which receives funding from Venezuela as well as other leftist Latin American countries, has lost a lot of credibility through its misplaced coverage of Arab revolutions.
According to a scholarly article in Global Media Journal, TeleSur adopted an ideological approach when covering unrest in Libya which implicitly embraced official government positions. Later, in Syria, a TeleSur correspondent frequently quoted state-controlled Sana while TV anchors based in Caracas relied mainly on Al-Ba’ath, a newspaper which is close with the Assad regime.
Moreover, TeleSur’s reporter attached a lot of importance to Damascus demonstrations in support of the Assad regime and on many occasions the journalist “blamed foreign, Arab and international media for spreading false information” about the situation within Syria.
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At other times, TeleSur denied reports of clashes occurring throughout Syria and described the political situation in the country as calm. The network characterised Assad’s soldiers, meanwhile, as martyrs whereas demonstrators were referred to as “vandals”.
Global Media Journal writes that TeleSur blew its credibility during the Arab Spring and missed a historic opportunity to become an important media player throughout the region. Indeed, TeleSur’s abysmal coverage may have wound up wrecking Chavez’s “honeymoon” with the Arab world.
Al Giordano, who runs “Narco News”, a website which covers Latin American politics, has even harsher words for the network. In an online article, he criticises TeleSur’s coverage of the Arab Spring which had tarnished the network and turned the organisation into a “colossal flop and a predictable formulaic bore”.
Giordano claims to have had “first hand dealings with various TeleSur employees and freelancers”, and says the latter “live in constant, abject fear of getting ‘the call from Caracas’ (their words) or angering their superiors”. Giordano adds that TeleSur “is a viper’s nest for anyone employed there, filled with bullying middle managers and cut throat colleagues who covet each other’s jobs”.
Dropping the ball on women
In yet other respects, Chavez completely squandered the Arab Spring. Take for example, the issue of women and women’s rights. In many ways, popular revolt in the Arab world has given voice to disempowered women who clamoured for a greater stake in political and social affairs. To be sure, some women protesters have been tied to Islamist parties and religious conservatism, though others share a more secular outlook. Perhaps rightly, many secular women fear the growing ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalists and the hijacking of the Arab Spring.
It is here where Chavez’s retrograde stance on Syria and the Arab Spring seems even more perverse. If he had been astute, the Venezuelan leader might have recognised the truly radical potential of Arab revolt and played up his own country’s myriad social accomplishments. Indeed, as I explain in my second book, Chavez has leveled the playing field for many Venezuelan women.
Take, for example, Nora Castaneda, who pushed for the successful implementation of Article 88 within Chavez’s constitution of 1999. The provision officially recognises the unwaged work of housewives and provides a small wage for home duties. Many refer to the constitution as a “non-sexist Magna Carta” because it gives strong backing to women’s aspirations.
After lobbying for progressive changes to the constitution, Castaneda went on to become President of Venezuela’s innovative Women’s Bank, which employs a network of female promoters who fan out, “Avon Lady-style” across the country to offer financial assistance in the form of loans.
Little signs of change
Not only has Chavez failed to promote the hopes and aspirations of secular women, but Venezuela also lost a crucial opportunity more broadly to inject socially and politically progressive ideas into the Arab Spring. If Chavez seeks to become a kind of third world leader, then his antics in North Africa and Syria have done much to erode Venezuela’s international standing.
Perhaps, Chavez will turn over a new leaf in his next six-year presidential term, though the political signs are not very encouraging. As I revealed in a previous Al Jazeera column, the Venezuelan President seems to be grooming Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as his successor. It’s a disappointing choice, since it was Maduro who orchestrated Venezuela’s pro-Assad foreign policy in the first place. Indeed, Maduro even travelled to Damascus in an effort to shore up the Syrian dictator.
In light of his backward instincts and mediocre political team, it seems very unlikely that Chavez will budge when it comes to foreign policy. If Venezuelans want their leaders to play a more constructive role in the Arab world, not to mention other regions of the globe, they will have to stop worshipping Chavez’s every word and start to challenge their government’s perverse and misguided priorities in the international arena.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.
Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff