In Venezuela, Chavez tries to boost Gaddafi

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 7:21 PM

Moammar Gaddafi is hunkered down, some once-loyal aides have abandoned him for the rebel side and President Obama and other leaders are demanding he step down.

But he still has a friend - the man who received the al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Though uncharacteristically quiet as Libya slid into anarchy, Chavez has in recent days venerated Gaddafi for his revolutionary credentials and asserted that the United States is about to invade the North African country to seize its oil. He also convened a meeting Friday in the Venezuelan capital in which his allies, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, agreed to a vague peace mission to end the violence in Libya.

"The countries of the Bolivarian alliance are demanding the United States and the world powers respect the people of Libya," Chavez said to cheering, red-shirted supporters. "No to imperialist intervention in Libya! No to a new imperialist war that looks for oil over the blood of innocents!"

Chavez's close allies in the region have also had plenty to say about Gaddafi.

Soon after the rebellion ignited in Libya, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua announced that he had told Gaddafi in a telephone conversation that "difficult moments put loyalty to the test."

Cuba's Fidel Castro, busy writing columns and providing running commentary on world affairs as his brother runs the island nation, has condemned the "colossal campaign of lies" about Libya from the mainstream press. He also explained, in one essay, that the violence in Libya had little in common with the unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

"Libya is first in the human development index in Africa," Castro wrote. "Education and health care receive special state attention, and the cultural level of its people is, without a doubt, the highest."

The camaraderie is perhaps not surprising. Nicaragua's Sandinista rebels received training from Gaddafi. Castro, like Gaddafi, has become iconic to some for resisting the United States.

Chavez, too, has forged ties to Libya since taking office in 1999. The two countries share little in common culturally, but both are powers with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"There's a common bond of anti-U.S. sentiment that brings together Gaddafi with some figures in Latin America, including Chavez and Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "There is a sense of standing up to the superpower, which is the United States, and that's created some sort of solidarity."

When it comes to Chavez and Gaddafi, two former army colonels who conspired against the governments they served, the links go beyond rhetoric.

There's the Hugo Chavez Stadium, for instance, just outside what is now the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, so named because of Gaddafi's fondness for Chavez.

And then there was Simon Bolivar's sword - or rather, a replica of the sword used by Venezuela's venerated independence hero. In 2009, five years after Gaddafi honored Chavez with Libya's annual human rights prize, Chavez awarded Gaddafi a replica of the sword. "What Simon Bolivar is for Venezuelans, Moammar Gaddafi is for the Libyan people," Chavez said to Gaddafi, then making his first visit to the region.

Last week, Chavez said it "was a great lie" that Gaddafi's forces had attacked civilians, and he also stressed that Gaddafi would not be fleeing Libya anytime soon.

"It's a lie that Gaddafi is going to come to Venezuela or go to Nicaragua," he said to cheers from supporters. "Gaddafi is not going anywhere, I'm sure. Gaddafi is among those men who die fighting."

Margarita Lopez Maya, a political analyst in Caracas, said that Chavez is closely following the unrest in the Middle East because it could prove instructive for him.

"He can see what happens to a leader after so many decades controlling and concentrating power," said Lopez Maya. explaining that she believes Chavez intends to remain in power indefinitely. "These kinds of problems that leaders similar to him confront may serve as a lesson to him."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company