Venezuela and Libya: An Interview with Gregory Wilpert

Chavez seems to be torn on the issue of Libya. On the one hand he has declared that Gaddafi is his friend and that he trusts Gaddafi. On the other hand he says he does not know what is happening in Libya today, that one cannot trust the international media on this issue, and that he cannot support even a friend on everything they do.


Venezuelanalysis.com conducted the following interview with Gregory Wilpert. Wilpert is a sociologist, freelance journalist, co-founder of Venezuelanalysis.com, and author of the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power.

To what extent has Chavez really taken sides in the conflict in Libya?

Chavez seems to be torn on the issue of Libya. On the one hand he has declared that Gaddafi is his friend and that he trusts Gaddafi. On the other hand he says he does not know what is happening in Libya today, that one cannot trust the international media on this issue, and that he cannot support even a friend on everything they do. So, while Chavez has taken a fairly cautious approach with regard to Libya, he has in effect taken sides with Gaddafi to the extent that he has cast doubt on news reports about atrocities being committed by Gaddafi in Libya.

Chavez often states that what each country does internally is their business, and that it’s important that other world leaders not comment on such things, in order to respect the sovereignty of that country. He made such comments regarding the recent popular rebellion in Egypt. Why then do you think he has taken sides, even if in a limited way, in this issue?

I think Chavez has taken sides because he bases his foreign policy to a large extent on personal relationships. Once he establishes a personal rapport with a foreign leader he trusts that leader implicitly and negative news reports about that leader leave him completely unimpressed because he knows only too well from personal experience how biased international media can be.

Some critics of Chavez like to argue that he is fond of people like Gaddafi because they are autocrats just like him.  That is a silly argument, though, if you consider that Chavez is also close friends with people such as Lula da Silva of Brazil, who has an impeccable democratic reputation. Rather, Chavez simply makes friends across the “democrat” – “autocrat” spectrum, regardless of their governing styles.

Do you think Chavez’s own experiences of a U.S backed coup, and complete distortions about Venezuela by the international private media have played a role in his reaction to what is going on in Libya, or is it more a part of his general foreign policy?

Both. There is a general foreign policy component in that Chavez is very interested in strengthening South-South relations and in order to do that he has to do to establish ties with unsavory characters such as Gaddafi. Also, with Chavez being a history buff, he sees Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution in Libya as an anti-imperialist liberation struggle and values Gaddafi for that (which is why he honored him with a replica of Simon Bolivar’s sword). Meanwhile, Chavez seems to be unaware that Gaddafi and Libya have changed significantly since then and so he continues to view Gaddafi through this historical lens.

Many of the international left have strongly criticised Chavez for not condemning Gaddafi. What risk is there that this move will delegitimize the Bolivarian Revolution among the international left, and also among the ALBA countries?

I think the danger of Chavez losing legitimacy, especially among the international left, is significant. While there are leftists who share Chavez’s positive appraisal of Gaddafi, most do not and cannot understand why Chavez would not condemn him. Chavez supporters outside Venezuela will tend to think that Chavez is either hopelessly naïve about Gaddafi or that he is receiving terrible foreign policy advice.  It seems, though, that most governments of the countries in ALBA share Chavez’s point of view on Libya. Actually, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega has been much more outspoken in his support of Gaddafi than Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has taken a similar position to that of Chavez.

Also, here in Venezuela the opposition and the private media have taken advantage of Chavez’s position on Libya, as well as the general North African and Middle Eastern popular rebellion to launch a full-frontal attack on Chavez, suggesting he “could be next” and implying that he is as much a dictator as Gaddafi. Firstly, how true are those claims, and secondly, what could be the consequences in Venezuela of such a campaign by the opposition?

Such claims are pure wishful thinking on the part of Venezuela’s opposition. The situation in Venezuela is the opposite of the situations in these Arabic countries. First of all, while inequality and repression have generally increased in these countries over the past decade or more, inequality decreased and political participation has increased in Venezuela during the Chavez years. None of these Arabic countries has a functioning democracy while Venezuela has a thriving democracy. The only similarity might be that Chavez, Mubarak, and Gaddafi are all military men. However, Chavez has repeatedly proven that despite his military instincts he is genuinely attempting to create a more participatory and socialist democracy in Venezuela.

Given the emphasis that Chavez places on people power in his own country, on an international level why does he focus more on the leaders of countries, even leaders who are not necessarily popular among their people, such as the president of Iran, and Gadaffi?

My impression is that his emphasis on leaders comes from two sources. First, he believes in the importance of leaders and leadership for moving societies forward. Second, as I mentioned earlier, he bases much of his politics on personal relationships and his good rapport with them causes him to overlook their shortcomings, in spite of (or especially if there are) negative mainstream media reports about these leaders.

Chavez has proposed a Peace Commission to mediate in Libya. It seems he is often the person to propose such initiatives internationally. Is this true, and why would that be?

Yes, Chavez seems to be quite interested in playing the role of mediator and certainly has tried to play that role on several occasions, such as in the Colombian civil war and during the coup in Honduras. I think a large part of his motivation might come from him wanting to project an image that counters his reputation as a belligerent world leader. However, while this might be a psychological motivation, I do think Chavez also wants to put in evidence that his foreign policy is peace-oriented, in contrast with the U.S. foreign policy, which is war-oriented.