Venezuelan Post-Chavez Roadmap to the Middle East
As interim Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro’s first protocol act was to hold talks with a Chinese delegation, in order to reinforce economic ties with the People’s Republic. Following the meeting on March 8, Maduro declared that “China is the biggest economic driving force of the new world and a main political actor in world decisions.” The meeting was broadcast live on local Venezuelan media and on big screens around the military academy, where Chavistas were paying an emotional farewell to their leader Hugo Chavez.
The meeting concealed a double meaning: It served as a public political cover against anyone interested in destabilizing the Bolivarian revolution, as had occurred in 2002 with the failed coup against Chavez. Officials in Washington likely took note. The second implicit meaning was to reinforce the spirit of the Chavista revolution. It represents a continuity with Chavez’s foreign policy: the Bolivarian revolution which started 14 years ago will pursue Chavez’s main personal goal of creating a multipolar world grounded on strong anti-imperialism.
In his speech at the funeral ceremony, Maduro lightly opened up to the United States, who had dispatched two low-profile delegates to the ceremony, but clearly stated that his future duty would lie in “shap[ing] a world where there are no hegemonic powers, especially here in America.”
Under Hugo Chavez’s presidential mandates, Venezuela attempted to establish a multipolar world order in order to challenge US hegemony. Since 1999, Chavez increased Venezuela bilateral relations with countries such as China, Russia, Belarus, Iran, Syria and Libya. He personally built a bridge between leftist countries in Latin America and this multi-polar world.
Chavez’s international relations were indeed very much self-oriented and grounded in strong friendships. Most of these friendly countries assisted with high profile delegations at the funeral and considered Chavez’s death a personal loss more than the passing of a mere political ally.
Chavez’s Legacy and the Middle East
However, the main focus of Chavez’s foreign policy has been the Middle East and especially the Arab cause, which was considered a priority. Chavez found in the Middle East a common ground for his anti-imperialist policy and good allies not fearful to speak out against US hegemony. In the last decade, Venezuela signed several agreements with Middle Eastern countries, especially Syria, Libya and Iran, concerning natural resources, housing and trade, but mainly preparatory in order to reinforce the political alliance.
The future of these strong ties between Venezuela and Middle Eastern countries hostile to United States represents the main question after Chavez’s death.
Several delegations from the Middle East arrived in Venezuela to pay their condolences to the Venezuelan president. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a telegram to Maduro and a delegation to assist with the funeral. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent around 24 hours in Caracas and attracted much attention from Venezuelan media. During the ceremony, Ahmadinejad kissed several times the coffin and finally raised his fist in homage to his political ally and close friend.
Venezuelan media followed him around until his last steps on Venezuelan soil at the airport of Maiquetia. The relationship between Venezuela and Iran was solidified with Ahmadenijad’s rise to power in Iran in 2005, and with the consolidation of the Bolivarian political project in Latin America. Ahmadinejad traveled to Latin America on several occasions and received numerous visits from Latin American leaders.
On the other side, Chavez opened Latin America to Ahmadinejad as well, especially in terms of ideological and trade relations with other leftist governments in the region and especially with the members of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas).
Facing international media speculations on the Venezuelan vacuum and about the end of bilateral relations between Iran and Venezuela after Chavez’s death, Ahmadinejad declared upon landing in Iran that “the Iranian nation has strong ties with revolutionary nations and we will help strengthening these ties. Thus, nobody should believe that our relations will be weaker because of the death of Chávez.”
The Iranian state PressTV also reported the declaration of Iran’s Vice-President for International Affairs Ali Saeedlou affirming that the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez would not undermine relations between Tehran and Caracas, and that it was wrong to consider ties with Venezuela as based merely on a personal relationship.
Beside the condolences from regional heads of states and the rush to discredit speculations, the main question remains after Chavez death: Will his successor be able to manage such a self-oriented foreign policy and stance toward the Middle East?
The Arab Spring and Venezuela Last Stances on the Middle East
In the last months, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro publicly supported China and Russia’s veto against UN Security Council resolutions to sanction Syria. In previous years, Chavez’s government expelled the Israeli ambassador as consequence of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, and he vehemently criticized foreign intervention in Libya, supporting instead his close friend Muammar Gaddafi against what he considered another imperial aggression.
The Arab Spring destabilized Chavez’s relations with some Middle Eastern countries, and Libya was the first loss. But Adriana Boersner, director of the Venezuelan think tank Diploos, is skeptical that the Arab Spring represented any serious inconvenience for Venezuela: “the bilateral relations with Libya were merely related to an ideological component and they were very pragmatic in terms of trade, social, educational and cultural agreements. Of these 150 treaties, only 10 were being ratified by the assembly. Definitely the death of Gaddafi did not greatly affect Venezuela.”
Gaddafi’s death instead affected Hugo Chavez on a personal level. According to Reinaldo Bolivar, vice-minister of foreign affairs for Africa, “Venezuela lost contact with Libya but maintains good relations with other countries in the area.”
Indeed, Venezuela managed to maintain good relations with other countries from the region even if with different perspectives on the events in the Middle East – at least on an official level. That is the case especially with Qatar. The honeymoon between the emir and the comandante was mainly motivated by Chavez’s attempt to emulate the al-Jazeera model with his own creation, TeleSUR.
With the spreading of the Arab Spring to Syria, the agreements between the channels almost faded. But Venezuelan criticism toward al-Jazeera and Qatar’s role in Syria was left to low profile ministers and grassroots groups or individuals. The government publicly remained silent.
According to Reinaldo Bolivar, “in terms of Venezuelan politics toward the Middle East and North Africa, Maduro’s government will act in perfect continuity with Chavez’s mandate. Venezuelan foreign policy will be coherent with the Plan de la Patria of 2013-2019, which basically aims to create a multipolar world, express international solidarity with the oppressed people of the world, the defense of sovereignty and the complete rejection of foreign intervention.”
The Plan de La Patria is to be considered a road map for the coming years of the Bolivarian revolution and it was written a few months before Chavez’s death. It indicates that Venezuela’s prerogative in foreign policy is to shape a multipolar world which aims to preserve peace based on the principle of respect for all countries’ sovereignty.
Maduro, the Chavistas and the Middle East
Doubts persist if Maduro will be able to continue Chavez’s multipolar path and will be able to keep political alliances strongly based on friendship. Maduro was directly chosen by Chavez as his successor in his last public speech on December 8, before he traveled to Cuba for medical treatment against cancer.
Venezuelan analysts have different perspectives on the future of their country’s relations with the Middle East. Carlos Romero, professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, reminds us that “even if Chavez established very strong and personal relations with Middle East leaders, Maduro was his minister of foreign affairs for seven years before becoming vice president. He personally knows all these country’s leaders, and probably the relationship with the Middle East will be even deeper in the next years.”
Adriana Boersner instead maintains that after Chavez’s death “Venezuelan foreign policy will be deeply affected. During Chavez’s self-oriented mandates, the foreign ministry was reduced to a merely bureaucratic institution and it did not participate actively and autonomously in shaping international relations with other countries.”
Chavez’s self-oriented relationship with Middle Eastern countries is evident, too, from the limited awareness in terms of foreign policy at the grassroots level of the Bolivarian revolution.
Roso Grimau, delegate of the Venezuelan Communist Party and member of the Committee of International Solidarity in the Venezuelan Assembly considered that “Chavez personally accelerated Venezuela’s relations with the Middle East and Arab nations, because he considered it a right cause. Relations have never much been at the popular level, but now it is the duty of the Venezuelan people to engage and internationalize at its grass root’s basis, the Bolivarian revolution, by expanding ties with people who are facing imperialist aggressions, especially in the Middle East.”
That work needs to be done already. And beside this internationalist stance, Chavistas in the streets in the days of his funeral were sincerely unaware of who Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was when he was interviewed on local television. The basis of the Bolivarian revolution seems definitively uninterested in foreign policy and the Middle East, in particular at this stage.
The Future Bolivarian Roadmap to the Middle East
Maduro will probably win the next elections and act with greater pragmatism. It is not clear if other Latin American leftist leaders such as Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Raul Castro or Daniel Ortega will follow in Chavez’s footsteps. Chavez’s path toward the Middle East was based on direct confrontation with the United States in the background, and not all these leaders seem interested or able to support that stance.
On the other side, the popular basis of the revolution neither appears ready nor interested in conducting and building solid relations with their counterparts in the Middle East.
The key lies in Maduro’s strength on the international scene. According to Carlos Romero, “Maduro will definitely continue on the path established by Chavez and he will maintain the basic axis of Venezuelan foreign policy for the Middle East, which is based on the support for a nuclear Iran, the rejection of foreign intervention in Syria and the condemnation of the occupation in Palestine.”
At least in the near future, the shadow of Hugo Chavez will guarantee the maintenance of strong relations between Venezuela and Middle East countries. Chavez was an extraordinary charismatic figure, but he shaped strong friendships that will be difficult to replace.