Chavez leaves behind mixed legacy in Arab world

Text by: Marc DAOU
3 min

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died on March 5, was long perceived as a hero in the Middle East and Arab world – until he expressed his support for the regimes targeted by the wave of revolutions that swept the region in 2011.


Firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died on March 5, was long admired in the Middle East and Arab world. To this day, the fierce critic of “American imperialism” enjoys soaring popularity – especially for a Latin American leader – in Iran.

It was in particular his response to the 2009 Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip, which he qualified as “genocide”, as well as his decision to expel the Israeli ambassador from Caracas, that initially earned him admiration among Arabs in the region.

Over the course of his terms, he voiced steadfast support for, and cultivated strategic partnerships with controversial leaders, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Binding Chavez to those leaders was a shared aversion to American power.

“Their common animosity toward the US was the main reason for the alliance and friendship that formed between Arab dictators and Chavez, who was nostalgic for the movements of anti-imperialism and support for ‘third world’ nations that were popular in the 1970s,” explained Khattar Abou Diab, a political scientist specialising in the Arab world at University of Paris-Sud.

“Other than that, they had very little in common ideologically,” he said.

But Chavez’s loyalty toward his Arab allies ended up tarnishing his reputation in the region when the Arab Spring erupted in 2011.

“By deciding to side with the government and not the people rebelling, Chavez significantly altered his image among Arab populations,” noted Diab. “These were the same Arabs who perceived him as a hero when he repeatedly voiced his support for the Palestinian cause.”

Syria and Iran pay homage

While Gaddafi tried to stamp out a popular uprising in Libya by force, and an international coalition worked to take him down, Chavez offered his support, arguing that Western powers were only interested in taking control of Libyan oil resources.

“Wherever you may be, resisting a new imperialist aggression, may God protect you, and give good health and a long life to you and the Libyan people,” Chavez announced to Gaddafi at the time.

Unsurprisingly, the Syrian regime (which Chavez had also supported, calling the anti-regime movement “a Yankee plot”) paid homage on Wednesday to the deceased Venezuelan president: Assad called Chavez’s death “a great loss for me and for the Syrian people”.

Meanwhile, Iran declared Wednesday, the day after Chavez died, a day of national grieving as a tribute to the “president-commander”.

According to media reports, Ahmadinejad, who has called Chavez a personal friend, may attend the funeral planned for the former Venezuelan leader on Friday in Caracas.

Chavez visited Iran 13 times between his rise to power in 2009 and his death, while Ahmadinejad has made six trips to Venezuela since 2005.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning