Even as an admirer of Hugo Chavez's accomplishments in Venezuela, Danny Postel is minded to rehearse the man's record on the Middle East and North Africa. It isn't a pretty one:
Chávez had been an enthusiast of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since the latter became Iran's president in 2005. In 2006, while Ahmadinejad presided over a massive escalation of repression against dissidents, trade unionists, and human rights activists in Iran, Chávez awarded him the Order of the Liberator medal, the highest honor Venezuela bestows on foreign dignitaries. In June of 2009, as millions of Iranians took to the streets to ask Where Is My Vote? Chávez was among the first world leaders to congratulate his ally in Tehran on his reelection...
This provoked widespread dismay and appeals to Chávez from Iranians, many of whom sympathized with the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, to stop supporting their reactionary president. Those appeals, alas, went ignored, further damaging the standing of the Venezuelan leader among progressive Iranians.
"In Egypt, the situation is complicated," Chávez pronounced during the Tahrir Square protests that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. He remained conspicuously silent on the Battle of Cairo, one of the great democratic uprisings of recent times, remarking merely that "national sovereignty" should be respected.
But silent he was not as the Arab revolts spread to Libya and Syria; he spoke out emphatically in support of Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad. Chávez had been chummy with the Libyan leader before the 2011 uprising against him; in 2009 he regaled Qaddafi with a replica of Simón Bolívar's sword and awarded him the same Order of the Liberator medal he'd bestowed on Ahmadinejad. "What Símon Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people," Chávez declared, "Qaddafi is to the Libyan people." As the Libyan revolt grew and Qaddafi went on a rampage of slaughter, Chávez was one of a handful of world leaders who stood by him: "We do support the government of Libya." That support, as one observer noted, was "politically costly and proved to be an embarrassment to many of Latin America's erstwhile revolutionaries who now share a vision of a democratic future."
"How can I not support Assad?" Chávez asked last year as the body count in Syria approached sixty thousand. While the regime bombed bread lines and hospitals, Chávez shipped upwards of 600,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel to his ally in Damascus. Meanwhile, the Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA) denounced a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that condemned the Assad regime for the horrific massacre of over one hundred noncombatants, including forty-nine children. The UN resolution, ALBA protested, was an attempt to "interfere in Syria's internal affairs."
Chávez's support for despotic and murderous regimes isn't limited to the Middle East; he also hailed Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe, the late Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, and Alexander Lukashenko, the repressive Belarusian leader known as "Europe's last dictator."
And there's more. A grim profile, I think it fair to say. If you're writing in praise of Chavez after his death, how do you handle these aspects of his record? One way of doing it is this: you acknowledge that he was sometimes at fault, but point out that others are similarly. Thus:
And then there is the matter of some of Chavez's unpleasant foreign associations. Although his closest allies were his fellow democratically elected left-of-centre governments in Latin America - nearly all of whom passionately defended Chavez from foreign criticism - he also supported brutal dictators in Iran, Libya and Syria. It has certainly sullied his reputation. Of course, we in the West can hardly single out Chavez for unsavoury alliances. We support and arm dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia; Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair is paid $13 million a year to work for Kazakhstan's dictatorship. But our own hypocrisy does not absolve Chavez of criticism.
Or here's the Guardian's version, focused on domestic affairs rather than foreign alliances:
In politics proper, Chávez was right to see that the old establishment he had displaced was ready to use unfair means, up to and including a coup attempt in which Washington may have been complicit. He was wrong to use unfair means to protect himself and his government, particularly as he almost certainly did not need them. His friend Lula has criticised the abolition of presidential term limits, others have singled out the closures of radio stations and restrictions on the print press, interference with and intimidation of the judiciary, and detentions of some opponents and critics. If this was bad, and it was, it is also true that it was not even remotely on the same scale as the abuses of rightwing military regimes which countries like Argentina are still pursuing in the courts.
All tickety boo, then, and wrapped in ribbons: not absolved, and what's bad is bad; BUT there's a lot of that sort of badness about.
Except, now, can you imagine the same thing in relation not to a figure like Chavez with less than robust democratic credentials, but rather in criticism from the left of a Western leader, or government of a pluralist democracy? Can you imagine it with the direction of the comparative exercise reversed, so that the faulting of that Western leader or government is contextualized by reference to the similar failings of which undemocratic leaders and regimes are guilty?
Try to conjure it up, a Guardian leader on, say, waterboarding or Guantanamo, where the wrongness involved is balanced by a sentiment like: 'it is also true that it was not even remotely on the same scale as the abuses of rightwing military regimes in Chile and Argentina, or of Saddam's Iraq'. You picture that? No, me neither. Or what about a leftwing critic of British support for dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia writing that this sullied Britain's reputation, but people in Latin America or the Arab world could 'hardly single this country out for unsavoury alliances', given the alliances entered into by some of the governments in those regions? Nope, I can't see it.
Apologetic tropes is what they are, disguised as they may also be by an arse-covering 'Well, it wasn't good'. That's as in: wasn't good, but... yououou knowww, it's a wicked world, let's not be too severe.