Comparisons to the great Egyptian president Gamal Abdul-Nasser began immediately. Many even declared Chavez himself an Arab based on his anti-imperialist policies and support for Palestinian liberation. Political commentators, at least those not on the Saudi and Qatari payrolls, emphasized his public support for Palestinian rights and Iran’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program, as well as his opposition to the wars on Iraq, Libya, and most recently the proxy war on Syria.
It’s not difficult to understand why Chavez enjoyed such support and admiration among the Arab public. Chavez stood in stark contrast to the politically impotent, petty tyrants that rule the Arab world. He spent 14 years as president of Venezuela and consistently won clear majorities of the vote in free and fair elections.
During this period Arabs watched him defy the American empire as semi-literate oil-Sheikhs and brutal dictators groveled in front of the latest US secretary of state. They heard Chavez condemn the war on Iraq as Gulf Cooperation Council royals did sword dances with George W. Bush.
Arabs remembered Chavez’s condemnations of Israel’s 2006 onslaught of Lebanon, when Arab regimes were quietly, and some not so quietly, supporting Israel’s bid to destroy the resistance in Lebanon. Arabs watched Chavez’s famous speech on Gaza when Hosni Mubarak, along with Israel, was enforcing a siege on 1.5 million Palestinians. They also remember that it was Chavez who expelled the Israeli Ambassador to Venezuela in protest of Israel’s 2008 massacre in Gaza.
But it wasn’t only Chavez’s impact on the world stage and his support for Arab causes that earned him popular respect and admiration. The Arab public also admired Chavez’s achievements in Venezuela and Latin America, which also stood in sharp contrast to the failures, incompetence, and corruption of Arab regimes. Chavez succeeded in achieving greater economic and political integration in Latin America while pursuing progressive social and economic policies at home.
Arabs watched Chavez nationalize Venezuelan oil and use the increased revenues to help improve the lives of the most marginalized Venezuelans. Arabs watched their own oil profits squandered on the lavish lifestyles of indulgent sheikhs while Chavez cut poverty in half. Arabs also watched the rise of obscene skyscrapers and the construction of artificial islands as Chavez was investing in social programs to end illiteracy, expand education, and provide healthcare to the most impoverished areas of Venezuela.
Chavez and Nasser had much in common both on a personal and political level. Both came from a humble background, began their careers in the military, and then lead popular revolutions that changed their society. As with Nasser, Arab support and sympathy for Chavez was not emotional nor was it driven solely by a charismatic personality. Although both leaders were highly charismatic, enjoyed an emotional connection with their people, and brought them a greater degree of dignity, their support derived mainly from tangible accomplishments at home and abroad.
Chavez and Nasser were able to improve the quality of life for the neediest in their societies, and both men understood the struggle for freedom and social justice at home was intrinsically linked to the struggle against imperialism and foreign domination. For this, Chavez, like Nasser and all leaders that insist on full sovereignty and the right to pursue independent domestic and foreign policies, was also vilified by Western governments and media.
We often hear that Arab Nationalism is dead and that Arabs do not share any common concerns beyond the borders. US client regimes in the region and their hired propagandists have insisted Arabs no longer consider the liberation of Palestine the central cause of the Arab people and that anti-imperialist discourse is something of the past. Yet the passing of Chavez and the invocation of Nasser’s memory in the wake of his death show the exact opposite.
The overwhelming support for Chavez leaves no doubt that his vision for Venezuela represents many Arabs’ vision for their own future, and that must be very troubling for many people.