From dining room tables in politically polarised Venezuela, to the halls of power in Washington, Beijing and Moscow, average people and global elites alike, are now discussing the antics of a man who sees himself as the harbinger of “21st century socialism”.
“Previous Venezuelan governments almost exclusively travelled to Washington, and Washington alone, for their foreign policy,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela and a professor at Pomona College.
“These visits are about creating the conditions where a multi-polar world can exist, they are also about signing oil contracts,” says Salas, who splits his time between Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, and Southern California where he teaches.
With the world’s sixth largest oil reserves, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, petroleum accounts for about 80 per cent of Venezuela’s total export revenues and contributes around half of the central government’s income. So it isn’t surprising that Chavez is visiting other petroleum potentiates like Iran, Libya and Russia.
Foreign policy contradictions
However, trips to Belarus and to a lesser degree the Ukraine and Syria leave analysts scratching their heads.
“I don’t think he [Chavez] gets much economically out of a central Asian junket,” says Nikolas Kozloff, author of several books on South America including Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics and the Challenges to the United States. “In his efforts to create a multi-polar world he has created a foreign policy contradiction.”
Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who Chavez calls a “comrade” has ruled the country with an iron grip for more than 15 years. Unlike other former Soviet republics who tried to break from Cold War history, the Belarusian secret police is still called the KGB, after the infamous Soviet security forces.
Lukashenko has threatened anyone joining opposition protests, stating: “We will ring their necks – as one might a duck”.
Still, Chavez found it appropriate to say that Lukashenko is helping to build “an alternative to imperialism”.
Some who support Chavez’s attempts to stand against US hegemony, an entrenched Venezuelan elite and pervasive inequality, find those statements hard to stomach. “He is coming out in favour of a repressive government that doesn’t have much in common with the leftist changes happening in Latin America,” Kozloff says. “The Chavez faithful, in not raising their voice on these foreign policy issues, is ceding ground to the Venezuelan opposition.”
“I am not a big fan of the Venezuelan opposition,” he says. “They are too pro-business and work with the US [to undermine Venezuela’s democratically elected government]. But on the issue of foreign policy [the Venezuelan] opposition is correct [to criticise cozy relationships with repressive governments] and Chavez is wrong.”
After agreeing to sell Belarus about 30 million tones of heavy oil over three years and signing up to buy advanced tanks from Russia, adding to about $4bn spent on Russian military hardware since 2005, Chavez travelled to Iran.
When meeting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, Chavez said the two countries were “united to establish a new world order based on humanity and justice”.
At first glance, the warm relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Venezuela, led by Chavez who calls himself a “Christian socialist”, may seem strange.
The Saudi connection
However, Kozloff says “geopolitics trumps religion” because the current “political winds in Iran and Venezuela coincide” and both oil producers have similar interests in OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
“When Chavez was first elected in 1998, Venezuelan oil was selling between eight and nine dollars a barrel,” Salas says. “Both Venezuela and Iran want oil trading between $70- $90 per barrel.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia – a US ally with the world’s largest oil reserves- is thought to favour somewhat lower prices to keep consuming countries content and the market stable. Moreover, with its frosty diplomatic relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia – being a swing producer – can use oil as an economic weapon.
“For the Saudis, who fear Iran’s religious, geopolitical and nuclear aspirations, the decision to lower the price of oil has a number of benefits, the biggest being to deprive Iran of hard currency,” stated an NBC report.
As smaller exporters who are more dependent on oil revenue, Venezuela and Iran favour higher prices, and thus their interests converge in OPEC and global energy markets.
In forming bonds with countries which have shaky relations with the West, Chavez is attempting to position himself as a leader of a new non-aligned movement, promoting unity in Latin America and the global south in general, some have argued.
“In many respects, in my view, Chavez is modelling himself on [Gamal Abdel] Nasser [the Egyptian president from 1956-1970 who attempted to advance pan-Arab nationalism]. Chavez has a pan national goal of uniting Latin America,” says Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University who has published on Latin America and the Middle East.
“This message of uniting Latin America under a Chavez vision has not really worked. There is only one potential great power in Latin America and that is Brazil. Big countries do not follow the lead of small countries,” Katz says.
Venezuela’s upward curve
Despite what some Chavez supporters see as problematic foreign policy, there is still optimism about the changes happening in Venezuela.
“By indicators from the United Nations and other international organisations the conditions for average Venezuelans have improved under Chavez,” Salas said, adding that the country still faces persistent problems like high inflation and crime.
Venezuelan elections in September saw the opposition gain some ground, eliminating Chavez’s complete congressional majority. But the majority of Venezuelans have repeatedly opted for of 21st century socialism in democratic elections.
And while visits to Belarus, the Ukraine and Syria may seem strange, the project of Latin American integration is widely supported.
“Growing up as a child in Venezuela, one never saw Brazilian or Argentinean products available in stores, only American products. Now there is a great array of products available in the country” especially from other Latin American countries, says Salas.
“There is a sense of empowerment [for the poor] that wasn’t there ten years ago. That empowerment serves as a zero sum gain because the elites think benefits to the poor are coming at their expense,” he said.
Like any democratically elected leader, Chavez’s primary responsibilities are to the people he represents. And, after his current international tour, he will return home to a bitterly divided country. Salas experiences this first hand, as his family is “very polarised”, since unlike him, “the majority are on the opposition”.
The pro-US opposition attacks virtually every move Chavez makes. And, after an attempted coup supported by Washington, it is hard to blame the president for seeking new allies. However, the quest for multi-polarity itself has been polarised and Chavez seems to be acting on the impression that my “enemy’s enemy is my friend”.
Multi-polarity can not be built on such weak foundations, garnered by relations with autocrats with little credibility; opposition to the US alone should not be the measuring stick for progressive leaders to pick their allies.
Internationally and domestically, Salas says that: “The way this issue has been framed, there is no middle ground.” And maybe that is the problem.