March 31, 2011 ( WASHINGTON POST ) — I recently wrote an article on the likely exile destinations Col. Moammar Gaddafi would have to choose from if he decides to flee Libya. Venezuela made the list, if for no other reason than President Hugo Chavez has been so outspoken in his support for the Libyan dictator. Even as Gaddafi revealed himself as a murderous tyrant willing to mow down his own citizens in order to cling to power, Chavez continue to voice his support for his “friend.” He has said that the international news coverage of events in Libya has been nothing more than a “colossal campaign of lies,” and it was “a great lie” that Gaddafi’s forces have killed innocent Libyans. Chavez continued to defend Gaddafi, even after a journalist from Telesur, a Venezuelan state-owned television network, reported that there was overwhelming evidence that Gaddafi ordered his loyalists to massacre Libyan citizens. I spoke to one former Venezuelan student leader yesterday who told me, “I have had conversations with moderate Chavistas who can’t justify what [Chavez] is doing.”
Hearing Chavez’s comments, it is tempting to roll your eyes and mutter something about how crazy the man sounds after more than a decade in power. And that may be true. It could be as simple as that. (He is the same person who recently speculated that capitalism could be responsible for killing life on Mars.) But it has been people’s ready willingness to write Chavez off as a clown that has in part helped keep him in power for so long. He may be buffoonish, but after a decade, he shouldn’t be underestimated.
So, I’ve found myself asking, “Why is he speaking out for Gaddafi so loudly? As the evidence of Gaddafi’s crimes mount, why doesn’t he worry about the domestic political costs of appearing so close to a ruthless dictator? If his comments are of concern to people in his own camp, they are probably playing far worse among other groups at home. So why do it?”
A couple of explanations come immediately to mind. Chavez has created an elaborate mythology that attempts to convince his countrymen that the “Empire” to the north is on the verge of invading Venezuela. (On my trips to Venezuela, members of the government I met with almost always referred to me as someone from the Empire, not a U.S. citizen.) It is easy to see how the United States taking a leading role in military operations over Libya — as long as he omits the humanitarian nature of the mission — helps to feed Chavez’s fantasies of being under siege from an imperial power. Secondly, even if there is overwhelming international support for ending Gaddafi’s reign, there are still many countries that are strongly against any U.S. role in Libya. Chavez would like to fashion himself a leader among any anti-American clique.
But even that felt incomplete as an explanation. So I called Maruja Tarre, a former diplomat and well-known expert on Venezuelan politics. Tarre agreed with my aforementioned theories, saying, Chavez “truly believes this is the intervention of the Empire. The Empire is after Gaddafi, and the Empire is after him.” But Tarre had another analysis that had not occurred to me: Chavez sees a little of himself in Gaddafi.
Tarre has the fairly unique distinction of having met both Hugo Chavez and Moammar Gaddafi. Many years ago, as a professor, she spent an academic term teaching at a university in Benghazi and met Gaddafi while there. She also spent time with Chavez in the 1990s, when she would invite him to speak to her university students in Venezuela before he became the country’s president.
“Chavez sees himself as the same,” Tarre told me. “Gaddafi was a young colonel. Chavez was a military man. Both were quite daring as young men. Both are charismatic and charming. Young officers from a poor background who end up ruling their countries.”
While in the military, Chavez is said to have studied and admired Gaddafi’s “Green Book,” which sets out his political philosophy and anticapitalist ideas. And as leaders of their respective countries, those bonds grew. “They are similar. They see themselves as hated by the U.S.,” says Tarre. “They are true friends.”
In fact, if anything, Tarre believes that Chavez even has a touch of envy for Gaddafi. “It may seem strange but Chavez doesn’t like the fact that he was selected through elections. He envies that Gaddafi came to power through revolution. Chavez didn’t have that.”
The one thing that Chavez does have is a safe place to sleep at night. If Gaddafi decides to flee, Chavez could still end up being Gaddafi’s salvation. After all, what are friends for?