Hugo Chavez is trying to come to the rescue of his friend and fellow “colonel,” Moammar Kadafi. The Venezuelan president has offered to mediate Libya’s civil war, and warned against any foreign intervention in support of Libya’s opposition, which now controls much of the east of the country, including the port of Benghazi, home of the Hugo Chavez soccer stadium. The Venezuelan government even railed against the move to oust Libya from the United Nations Human Rights Council because of Kadafi’s violent crackdown on his own people.
The attempt by Chavez (winner of the Kadafi International Prize for Human Rights in 2004) to play a role in Libya’s future is unlikely to amount to more than a Quixotic gambit, though it remains a distinct possibility that Kadafi could find himself a comfortable retirement home in Venezuela (some reports in the British news media already have one of his sons hiding out on Venezuela’s Margarita Island). But Chavez’s solidarity with Kadafi (whom he has compared to Simon Bolivar) speaks volumes about the fate of democracy and human rights in the region — in Latin America, that is.
Disturbingly, Chavez isn’t Kadafi’s sole ally in this hemisphere. Fidel Castro (Kadafi Prize, 1998) has long been a comrade in arms, and the Cuban Foreign Ministry has accused the United States and the Western news media of instigating the current violence in Libya.
And no world leader has been as bizarrely effusive about Kadafi in recent days as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega (Kadafi Prize, 2009). The Sandinista leader has boasted of frequent calls with the Libyan leader, whom he described as waging a great battle to defend his people.
“I have transmitted to him the solidarity of the Nicaraguan people,” he told a rally in Managua, even as the Libyan leader was unleashing foreign mercenaries against his own population.
The Latin American left’s pathetic infatuation with Kadafi — a symptom of anti-imperialist solidarity run amok — shows the immaturity of Latin America’s civil society and is a blow to democratic values everywhere.
Chavez has his flaws, and we should be worried about his Bolivarian revolution’s cavalier relationship with the rule of law, but he is no Kadafi. Not even close. The strong bond between the colonels is their shared aversion for el imperio, and that anti-U.S. affinity bridges all other differences. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s embrace of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in recent years is an even more troublesome example of this dynamic, especially because Lula is by any other measure a man of impeccable democratic credentials. The point is that even he has to play this tiresome game: If you are on the side of “the people,” that means you embrace certain rogues around the world who’ve stood up to the Yankees, starting with the Castro brothers in the region, and thugs such as Kadafi and Ahmadinejad farther afield.
We can only hope that the horrible images out of Libya will make this game harder to play. Latin leaders (of all ideological persuasions) have arrogantly considered foreign affairs their exclusive prerogative, divorced entirely from whatever constraints they face at home, and this excessive compartmentalization breeds moral blindness.
But blindness is harder in this age of instant global communications. Venezuelans see what is happening in Libya and are asking pesky questions about why their leader compared Kadafi to Bolivar and gave him a replica of their liberator’s sword. And Nicaraguans have every right to ask why their collective solidarity is being offered to a despot intent on killing his own people.
Latin America has been fertile ground for the spread of democracy in recent decades. Its democracies have plenty of shortcomings, but compared with the rest of the world, Latin America as a region is the one part of the global south where democracy has made its deepest inroads.
The tragedy of the Latin left’s knee-jerk alignment with the likes of Kadafi, and the unquestioned championing of sovereignty over any international scrutiny or enforcement of human rights, is that it mocks the very values that courageous democratic leaders such as Lula fought for when his country was governed by an oppressive military regime. Because it is so consumed by a reactionary anti-imperial solidarity, Latin America has abdicated its responsibility to be an authoritative voice for human rights and democratic norms elsewhere in the developing world. That’s how we end up with absurdities like Libya on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
To the United States, this criticism should sound vaguely familiar. Hasn’t our nation been known to abandon its professed values overseas to support the adversaries of its adversaries or to advance other national interests? That was standard operating procedure during the Cold War; at least in the case of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, we were quick to alter course.
Let’s hope that Latin American leaders will now do the same, or at least convince themselves that the best way to stand up to el imperio is not by embracing its more unsavory enemies, but by ceasing to emulate the hypocrisy revealed in that space between a nation’s professed values and its actual behavior.
By Andrés Martínez, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.