Hugo Chavez’s popularity was not confined to Venezuela; it was a global phenomenon. He pulled together a coalition of forces into a kind of “Chavez International,” an alternative to Western hegemony. It was an amalgam of allies whose comradeship was historically weird – communists, Islamists, Soviet holdovers, Western idealists and far leftists – but politically potent. And in the end, irrelevant.
Chavez’s first, closest alliance was with Fidel Castro. It was unconditional devotion on the part of the younger man; on Fidel’s side, it was admiration coupled with a canny estimation of the benefits of Venezuela’s loyalty in a post-Soviet era. Cuba got billions of dollars’ worth of oil; Venezuela got thousands of Cuban medical staff, engineers and other experts. More than that, Fidel gave Chavez an ideology of sorts, or as Francisco Toro writes, “a kind of cosmic morality play pitting unalloyed socialist ‘good’ in an unending death struggle against the ravages of ‘evil’ American imperialism.”
The “American imperialism” was the glue that bound Chavez International together. It united him with a range of world figures eager to court him for his oil wealth, and happy to join with him against a West ‑ and an Amerika (with a “k:), in particular ‑ that was either their active or potential foe. Chavez visited, and loudly proclaimed the virtue, of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the late Muammar Gaddafi, the even later Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Many of those were given the “Order of the Liberator,” Venezuela’s highest honor, though most of these figures were or are deeply abusive of human rights, and some – such as Saddam, Mugabe and presently and most brutally, Assad – waged war on sections of their own population.
When – rarely – it was put to Chavez that his embrace of these figures was contrary to the posture of one who saw himself as a liberator, he fell back on a rationale that has become an all-purpose escape clause for those joined in Chavez International: that the tyrants are tyrants only according to the “Western corporate media.”
Christopher Hitchens traveled in Venezuela with Chavez, and with the actor and Chavez supporter Sean Penn, in 2008. He related a conversation in which the president appeared to deny the existence of Osama bin Laden: “I don’t know anything about Osama bin Laden that doesn’t come to me through the filter of the West and its propaganda,” Chavez said. “There is film of the Americans landing on the moon. Does that mean the moon shot really happened? In the film, the Yanqui flag is flying straight out. So, is there wind on the moon?”