Death of an International Strong Man
Nashashibi, Sharif Hikmat, The Middle East
NOWHERE, OUTSIDE OF LATIN AMERICA, HAS the death of Hugo Chavez had more of an impact than the Arab world. "For many Arabs, Chavez's death means almost as much to them as it does to his loyalists in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas," wrote Ali Hashem, chief correspondent for the pan-Arab TV channel Al Mayadeen.
The late Venezuelan president used to enjoy superstar status in the region, mainly because of his staunch opposition to Israeli and American policies. "In this, some saw Chavez as more Arab than most Arab leaders," added Hashem, who was previously a war correspondent for Al Jazeera and a senior journalist at the BBC.
However, the close ties between Venezuela and the Arab world pre-date Chavez. The country has one of the largest Arab populations in the Americas, mainly from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Immigration started as early as the 19th century, and has influenced Venezuelan culture, particularly food and music. The community has a significant presence in Caracas, and the country's interior and justice minister, Tarek Al Assaimi, is of Arab origin. Chavez's regional popularity reached its zenith during Israel's 2009 invasion of Gaza, which he described as "genocide."
He severed relations with Israel and expelled its ambassador, describing the country as the "murder arm" of the US. However, his refusal to back the Arab Spring signalled the end of many Arabs' love affair with him, and with the anti-imperialist left in general.
Chavez's "humanitarian credentials quickly came into question" because of his alliances "with the grimiest of dictators in the Arab world," wrote Layelle Saad, Gulf Cooperation Council / Middle East editor at Gulf News. "Many Arabs have grown to detest the leader" because of "his double-standards on issues of humanitarian concern," she added.
"These were the same Arabs who perceived him as a hero when he repeatedly voiced his support for the Palestinian cause," said Khattar Abou Diab, a political scientist specialising in the Arab world at the University of Paris-Sud.
An Arab Public Opinion Poll, published in November 2011, showed how out of step Chavez was with regional sentiment. Of the 3,000 people surveyed in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, support for the revolutions in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain stood at 89%, 86% and 64%, respectively.
A majority viewed the Arab Spring as mostly about "ordinary people seeking dignity, freedom and a better life," while just 19% shared Chavez's stance that it is about foreign powers trying to assert their influence in the region. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, a vocal supporter of the revolutions, was the most admired among world leaders.
Nonetheless, social media websites were inundated with condolences from Arabs, regardless of whether they disagreed with Chavez's stance vis-a-vis the region's revolutions. This is an indication of the level of respect, if not popularity, that he commanded until his death. "Flawed, but still great," was the response of a Palestinian film-maker to a journalist's criticism on Facebook of Chavez's support for Bashar Assad.
His backing of the Syrian president in particular, in a conflict that has so far cost more than 70,000 lives, has arguably garnered the most Arab opprobrium. "How can I not support the Assad government?" Chavez asked in October 2012. "It's the legitimate government of Syria. Who should we be supporting, the terrorists?"
He described his Syrian counterpart, whose regime is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in its attempts to crush the uprising against it, as a "humanist and a brother. …