Friday, March 11, 2011

Where Gadhafi’s Name Is Still Gold


                            
MEXICO CITY—Most of the world’s leaders have condemned Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi for unleashing a brutal repression that has killed hundreds of his fellow countrymen. But he is still being supported by Latin America’s most autocratic leftist leaders, with whom he has longstanding ties.
Cuba’s retired dictator Fidel Castro said this week it was too early to criticize Libya’s government and warned of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization invasion of Libya he claimed was being orchestrated by U.S. “imperialism.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista revolutionary, has been telephoning Mr. Gadhafi to express his solidarity against Libyan rebels.
The normally voluble Hugo Chávez, a longtime friend of Mr. Gadhafi, has been quiet on the Libyan situation—even as neighboring leaders like Peru’s president condemned Mr. Gadhafi’s actions. Suddenly on Thursday night, Mr. Chávez tweeted to his millions of followers, “Viva Libya and its independence. Kadafi is facing a civil war!!!” he wrote, referring to the Libyan leader.

Ties between the two men have been so close that rumors circulated this week that Mr. Gadhafi had fled to Venezuela on his jet prompting an appearance by Mr. Gadhafi before cameras to rebut speculation.
“It’s an old boys’ club,” said Riordan Roett, head of Western Hemisphere studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Baltimore’s John Hopkins University. “They all believe the same stuff—that they are in power for life, that their people love them, and that the U.S. is behind all their problems.”
The four leaders have seen themselves as comrades in arms in an international effort to counter U.S. influence abroad. Messrs. Castro and Ortega initially came to power through revolution, and Mr. Chávez, an army officer like Mr. Gadhafi, failed in a 1992 coup attempt before turning to electoral politics seven years later. All came up with their own eccentric versions of socialism.
In the 1960s, Mr. Castro tried his hand at engineering the new Cuban man as well as a super milk cow. Years afterward, after a sojourn in the desert to rethink his brand of revolution, Mr. Gadhafi wrote his famous “Little Green Book,” a guidebook to his “people’s revolution.” Then in 1979, Mr. Ortega and his fellow Sandinista comandantes tried to put a Nicaraguan stamp on their own anti-Yankee revolution.
Mr. Chávez, the youngest of the bunch, has borrowed from Mr. Gadhafi’s playbook for his Bolivarian revolution. Mr. Chávez’s notion of “communes” that would take the place of local government owes much to Mr. Gadhafi’s idea of “popular committees.”
The Venezuelan leader has borrowed more than just ideas. In December, Mr. Chávez said he would give up Venezuela’s presidential palace to people displaced by heavy flooding to move into a large Bedouin tent left him by Mr. Gadhafi after a visit to Caracas two years ago.
During that visit, Mr. Chávez also gave Mr. Gadhafi a jewel-encrusted replica of the sword of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s revered founding father. “Simón Bolívar is for us Venezuelans what Moammar Gadhafi is for Libyans,” he told Venezuelans at the time. “Viva Bolivar! Viva Gadhafi!”
Mr. Chávez, who has visited Mr. Ghadafi in Tripoli half a dozen times, recently signed a $1 billion economic agreement that included handing over Hato Piñero, a world-class nature preserve he recently expropriated, to a Libyan agricultural commune to grow rice and raise cattle.
Mr. Gadhafi has reciprocated the honors and gifts, including the naming of a soccer venue in Benghazi the Hugo Chávez Stadium in 2009. The three Latin American leaders are laureates of Mr. Gadhafi’s so-called human-rights prize, first won by Mr. Castro in 1998. Through the years, Mr. Gadhafi has given millions of dollars to Mr. Ortega’s Sandinista movement, and even lent the Nicaraguan a presidential plane when Mr. Ortega visited Libya in 2007 and then flew on to Iran, where he made an anti-U.S. speech.
But the revolt against Mr. Gadhafi’s 42-year rule is likely to strain the old friendships. Mr. Gadhafi went on television this week, vowing to kill his opponents “house-by-house.” His government has killed hundreds of people since then.
Mr. Castro was the first to react to the unrest. Writing in his “Reflections of Fidel” column in state-run newspaper Granma, he warned that the U.S. government had long sought control of Mr. Gadhafi’s oil and to undo his revolution’s progress.
“What for me is absolutely clear is that the U.S. government is not concerned with absolute peace in Libya and will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade this rich country, perhaps within hours or very short days,” he wrote.
On Wednesday, Cuba’s foreign minister echoed Mr. Castro’s comments, accusing U.S. politicians and news outlets of “inciting the violence.” That day Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said Cuba had begun a crackdown of political dissidents of its own, arresting 50 people. Analysts said the arrests were in reaction to fear of protests amid unrest in the Middle East and the lead-up to the one-year anniversary of the suicide of a dissident during a hunger strike.
In Nicaragua this week, Mr. Ortega said he placed several phone calls to Mr. Gadhafi to express his support for the embattled colonel. Mr. Ortega later told a rally of supporters in Managua that the Libyan leader was fighting a great battle to defend the country. “How many battles has Gadhafi had to fight,” said Mr. Ortega. “I transmitted to him the solidarity of the Nicaraguan people.”
David W. Close, an expert on Nicaraguan politics at Memorial University in Canada said the Nicaraguan president, himself ruling with a strong hand, has little to lose. “There’s still something kicking around in [Mr. Ortega's] head, that one-party rule could still work, like Gadhafi,” Mr. Close said.
Some analysts credit the unrest in the region for forcing Mr. Chávez to make concessions this week to opposition students who were on a hunger strike that was quickly spreading through the country. “Chávez is very nervous,” said Moises Naim, an analyst at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He got scared. That’s why he gave in to the requests of the hunger strikers.”
The support or silence of Mr. Gadhafi’s old revolutionary buddies in Latin America underlines the contradiction at the heart of these governments, analysts say. As they wish Mr. Gadhafi luck, they are also aligning themselves against the very type of popular revolution that brought them to power in the late 20th century.
“They claim that they are on the side of popular change, that they stand with the people—and yet that’s not what they’re doing,” said Ray Walser, an analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
By NICHOLAS CASEY And  JOSE DE CORDOBA of the Wall Street Journal