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(photo credit: AP)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has the theatrical fanfare of Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, and the revolutionary zeal of Fidel Castro, Cuba's legendary communist leader.
To be sure, contrary to Castro, Chavez has so far refrained from setting up a totalitarian regime in Venezuela. In part, this is due to the well-rooted opposition forces in the country and to the constant watch by the international community over political events there.
Chavez has a singular ability to elicit attention with a combination of show-like diplomacy and a policy of aligning himself with some of the most ruthless and unsavory regimes in the international system.
He has a profound disdain for the United States, equaled by few world leaders, which seems to guide his foreign policy to a considerable extent. He tends to take the opposite side to the one adopted by the US, no matter the issue or the region concerned.
Thus, he was fully behind Russia in its conflict with Georgia last summer. Chavez has cut diplomatic relations with Israel over the latest operation in Gaza. He is a friend and ally of Iran. He is a foe and rival of Colombia, one of the US's foremost allies in the region. Chavez openly embraces Cuba and its revolutionary ideology. Indeed, he has been trying to take the political leadership of left-wing regimes in Latin America, such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, creating a bloc antagonistic to US policy in the area and beyond.
NOTWITHSTANDING THE ideological dimension of his foreign policy, there are economic benefits that accrue to Venezuela as a result of his political alliances. The question is whether economic gains determine the ideological orientation of Chavez's foreign policy or vice versa. The answer, it seems, is the latter. Ideology appears to delineate the framework within which economic relationships are forged.
Well, ideology and personal grandeur.
Chavez seems to be willing to do almost anything to be talked about. His ego defines the extent of his foreign policy as much as his ideology. In Venezuela there is no such thing as a party line in foreign policy, but a personal guidance in the form of Chavez. He tries to do the utmost to help establish the image of his ideology in his own image.
Something similar happened with Juan Domingo Peron, three-time president of Argentina. Peronism was a distinctive ideology created in the image of Peron.
As with the case of Chavez, Peron tried to fuse radical left-wing and nationalistic ideas into a coherent whole. In the first two phases of his presidency, particularly in the first half of the 1950s, Peron followed a policy antagonistic to Britain and the US. Having been an admirer of Italian fascism, Peron couched his foreign policy in a populist nationalist rhetoric. As with the case of Chavez, Peron became the spokesman of the destitute, the poor and the marginalized.
There are some notable differences between Peron and Chavez. Peron was more cautious and less extravagant. On the other hand, Peron managed to establish a dictatorship, which Chavez hasn't been able to do so far. Peron was less interested in becoming a world leader holding an ideological torch and more interested in power. But he also knew his limits.
The legacy Peron left is questionable. His political followers have pursued policies anathema to his original ideology. Peronism remains a personal, rather than an ideological, legacy. In that respect, the same may occur with Chavez after he leaves the political arena.
Chavez would become a much less influential leader in the international arena if Venezuela had no oil. His theatrical capabilities, his ideological credo and his political maneuvering would have much less of an impact in world affairs.
True, Cuba, without oil, was able to play an active and central role in world affairs thanks to a charismatic leader and an ideology that knew no boundaries. However, had it not been for the backing of the Soviet Union, Cuba's influence in the world stage would have been less pronounced.
Chavez has leveraged the huge oil reserves Venezuela holds to further a foreign policy which is no less dangerous to the free world than the one pursued by Cuba's Castro.
The writer is a lecturer in the Diplomacy Program at Tel Aviv University. He holds a doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University.
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