Hugo Chávez and the Middle East: Whose side was he on?

Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embrace. (AP/File)

Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embrace. (AP/File)

The death of Hugo Chávez is a turning point and an opportunity — regardless of who wins the first post-Chávez election April 14 — for Venezuela. The image and concept of Chávez himself, practically beatified by some some, reviled by others, is part of this next stage. Chávez was a confounding man: committed to a particularly immediate and hands-on brand of social justice, he reduced poverty by 50 percent in Venezuela and helped Latin American unite, addressing hemispheric problems away from the long shadow of the U.S. But Chávez was also a bully, appropriating domestic media, terrifying investors. And when it came to foreign policy, he often embraced some of the world’s most dangerous despots.

My longtime friend Danny Postel, the associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran (2006) and the coeditor, with Nader Hashemi, of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011), wrote this fascnating piece about Chávez’s relationship to the Middle East for the University of Chicago’s Critical Inquiry. He agreed to let me share it here.

Most of the postmortem commentary on Hugo Chávez has focused on his domestic legacy in Venezuela, his wider regional legacy within Latin America, and what we might call his hemispheric legacy—his “special relationship” with the United States. And for good reason: these were the principal realms in which he operated during his fourteen years as Venezuela’s president (1999–2013), and it is for his accomplishments in these domains that he will be remembered and the Chávez Era (it was, to be sure, an era) will be evaluated.

But there’s a less discussed dimension of the Chávez legacy that I’d like to examine briefly: his relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, a story whose significance became more salient with the onset of the momentous changes the region has been undergoing over the last few years—not merely since the “Arab Spring” or Arab revolts starting at the end of 2010 but going back to the upheaval in Iran in the summer of 2009.

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