When Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez flew to Tripoli in 2004 to receive the Moammar Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, he joined a select club. Other recipients of the prize include Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. This should not be surprising. It is no coincidence that the prize has been awarded to some of the most tyrannical and anti-American yet clownish despots in the Third World. They share those qualities, and a hatred of individual liberty, with Qaddafi. The relationship between Qaddafi and those “laureates” has been long and involved, going back in the case of Castro and Ortega to cooperation in terrorist wars in the 1970s and ’80s.
Although President Chávez was a latecomer, he lost no time in consummating the friendship and joining the club. In 2009, during an official state visit by Qaddafi to Venezuela, Chávez bestowed upon him the Order of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s highest honor, and famously said, “What Simón Bolívar is to Venezuela, Qaddafi is to Libya.” In reality, Bolívar was an admirer of George Washington’s and the architect of the independence of six existing nations of South America. Bolívar today would be called a democrat in the classical sense, certainly not a candidate for the Qaddafi Prize.
Chávez’s rationale for flattering Qaddafi was sincere: imitation. For Chávez, keen on following Qaddafi’s example, the relationship seemed natural. A powerful Qaddafi had thumbed his nose at the international community for four decades, sponsoring some of the world’s worst terrorists and even establishing the “Harvard for Tyrants,” a training center that has produced some of the world’s most radical revolutionaries. Likewise, since reaching power Chávez has used his nation’s oil wealth to support terrorist organizations such as FARC and ELN in Colombia, the Basque ETA in Spain, Hezbollah, and others in his attempt to “usher in a new world order” and “bring about the collapse of the [American] empire.” As Qaddafi did, Chávez has established militaristic control over his country, and, also as Qaddafi did with his grandiose pan-Africanism, he has placed himself at the head of a pan-American coalition that he generously subsidizes — the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), comprising Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
But suddenly the situation has turned complicated. Since this January, the Arab world has been trembling. First, the less cruel regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell. Somewhat slow on the uptake, President Obama has finally spoken with resolution. He has called on Qaddafi to “step down from power and leave.” Why the Qaddafi regime’s demise will be good for democracy and freedom in North Africa is obvious. But it will also be good for the Americas. As the award-winning journalist Douglas Farah observes in the “Harvard for Terrorists” article cited above, not only are Chávez and Ortega trampling on their countries’ constitutions and moving toward dictatorship, but with Qaddafi they “support the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a terrorist group that produces more than half of the world’s cocaine and two-thirds of the cocaine entering the United States.”
Sensing how tenuous is their Arab partner’s position, Chávez and his ALBA front offered to mediate in a last-ditch effort to help Qaddafi remain in power. Probably smelling a rat, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley stated, “You don’t need an international commission to tell Colonel Qaddafi what he needs to do for the good of his country . . .”
These firm words from the Obama administration are encouraging, and we must hope that soon the world will be free of the “mad dog of the Middle East,” as President Reagan called Qaddafi. There is, however, an inconsistency in the message. A United States government that calls for freedom and democracy in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya while ignoring the plight of those closer to home will continue to suffer from a crisis of credibility. In Venezuela in the past decade, multi-million-person marches (far larger than anything seen in Cairo) demanded that an increasingly authoritarian Chávez step down. But the international media and U.S. “liberals” vilified the spontaneous protests as an invention of the Bush administration. In Cuba, even facing a totalitarian regime that has executed thousands of political adversaries, hundreds of political prisoners and their families go on hunger strikes to protest the total lack of freedom on the island 52 years after a revolution that was allegedly fought to restore human rights. And yet some sectors of American society, so quick to support liberation movements in geographically and culturally distant parts of the globe, continue to support nearby dictators or to blame America for their abuses.
Last week the actor Sean Penn was in Caracas lending support to the man who has called the Butcher of Tripoli “a friend.” In Cuba, a regime that totally dismantled the infrastructure of civil society, at a human cost that may never be fully known, has just celebrated more than half a century in power — ten years longer than Qaddafi — while continuing to welcome leftist sycophants (last week it was the Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro).
It may be that there are too many dictators in the world for this administration to confront. And to be sure, we must act on the basis of economic, security, and geopolitical priorities, not on emotion. Yet precisely for these reasons, encouraging freedom in our hemisphere is important. A Chávez regime that subsidizes other dictators, supports terrorists, and serves as a haven for drug traffickers, money launderers, and FARC rebels represents a present danger to the security of the United States. Venezuela’s location bordering the Caribbean, the Andes, and the Amazon basin, with easy access to Central America and only three hours from Miami, makes it eminently more dangerous than terrorist states half a world away. The malign influence of Chávez can be measured by the more than $10 million a day in oil money that he gives Cuba, almost equal to the $5 billion a year by which the Soviets kept the Castro brothers afloat for over 30 years.
It is good that dictators in the Middle East are at long last being overthrown, and that President Obama has finally called on Qaddafi to step down. The administration must explain, however, why it does not say the same about Castro and Chávez, or why Cubans and Venezuelans who have been tirelessly protesting against their dictators for years receive no support from the administration. Why do we see instead that the Cuban government receives financial incentives from the United States? Why do Bolivia’s Morales and Nicaragua’s Ortega — both Qaddafi Prize winners and Castro-Chávez allies — receive no pushback in their relentless efforts at subjugating their people? It is easy to see why some Americans have concluded that the Obama administration is more interested in appeasing its political base than in replacing anti-American dictators.
Now that it has apparently found its voice, the administration must speak firmly and consistently in opposing dictatorships near and far. Now is the time to support democracy everywhere, especially in Venezuela, before Hugo Chávez succeeds in becoming Latin America’s Moammar Qaddafi.
— Otto J. Reich was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela under Pres. Ronald Reagan, and assistant secretary of state and senior staff member of the National Security Council under Pres. George W. Bush.