In Venezuela, La Negra Hipolita is considered a latter-day saint. Born a slave, she cared for the infant Simón Bolívar, who grew up to become Latin America’s storied liberator, and later, the hero of President Hugo Chávez.
Syrians would be forgiven for regarding Hipolita somewhat differently. In late May, militias loyal to Damascus killed over 100 noncombatants, including 49 children, in the farming town of Houla, while the Syrian government allegedly looked the other way. Two days before the massacre, an oil tanker named for Bolivar’s favorite nanny arrived in the Syrian port of Banias with a shipment of 300,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel. This time, La Negra Hipolita was nurturing Chávez’s new best friend, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Chávez may be ailing and his reelection prospects dimming, but the embattled Venezuelan strongman who is fighting cancer and a revitalized opposition, never forgets an amigo. He has lavished allies from Cuba to Argentina with cut-rate fuel or petrodollars, and stood up for a rogue’s gallery of autocrats who fall in disfavor with the “gringo empire” to the north.
Yet Chávez’s gesture to the Syrian dictator particularly stands out. Al-Assad may be an international pariah for his savage repression of national rebels, which has unleashed what international peace mediator Kofi Annan has called “horrific” violence on noncombatants, especially women and children. Yet in a large swath of Latin America, where Venezuela’s comandante calls the shots, the Damascus tyrant might as well be a global hero. Chávez openly praises al-Assad in public and is leading a hemispheric effort to rescue the dictator’s crumbling reputation.
In a joint statement issued this week, a compact of leftist nations known as the Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA) left little doubt as to where their allegiances lie in the conflagrated Syrian spring. "We value the Syrian government's steps in attending to the legitimate demands of those who have protested peacefully,” the Chávez-led Alba bloc declared. The statement went on to praise the regime's “program of reforms” and its “willingness to implement the peace plan” proposed by global mediator Annan.
The bloc went on to denounce the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution last month, which harshly condemned the al-Assad government for the massacre in Houla. The U.N. resolution is an attempt to “interfere in Syria's internal affairs, without contributing to dialogue or to the search for peace," ALBA declared.
This was not just lip service to a lost cause. Venezuela recently sent its third shipment of fuel oil to Syria. The latest dispatch of diesel came at a good time for the Syrian regime. Isolated internationally and shunned by key trading partners, Syria has struggled to keep its power plants running and its fleet of heavy vehicles on the move.
“We want to help,” Venezuela’s oil and mining minister Rafael Ramírez recently told reporters in Caracas.
Including this most recent shipment, over the past year, the Venezuelan government has sent roughly 600,000 barrels to the al-Assad regime, and Caracas has assured that there is more where that came from.
“Venezuela has been leading a highly visible diplomacy effort for Damascus,” says Jaime Daremblum, a Latin American expert at the Hudson Institute, a conservative, Washington, D.C.–based think tank.
“Chávez even offered al-Assad to build a refinery, which could process Venezuelan hard oil.”
This was no giveaway. Al-Assad’s regime has paid promptly–and in cash–for its “Bolivarian” energy. And Venezuela’s oil aid is a fraction of the total amount of fuel that the Syrian economy consumes.
What was remarkable, however, was its symbolic value. By honoring a contract inked in 2010 to supply 20,000 barrels of oil a day to Syria, and flouting international sanctions to deliver it, Chávez has elevated a global pariah into a legitimate trading partner.
Latin Americans share legitimate doubts over how to stop the bloodletting in Syria. Many governments outside Chávez’s sphere of influence fear a Libyan endgame, where toppling a tyrant could unleash waves of sectarian violence and disintegrate into civil war. That is one reason why even moderate countries, such as Brazil, have been reluctant to condemn the al-Assad regime outright and taken care to blame all sides for the violence in Syria. Military intervention could bring “disaster,” cautioned Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, who rejected imposing U.N. sanctions against al-Assad and pledged “full support” for a negotiated peace.
Yet Chávez’s generosity to autocrats like al-Assad comes at a price. Though flush with petroleum, Venezuela’s production has fallen steadily since Chávez took power in 1999, thanks to chronic underinvestment in exploration and drilling, and 12 years of raiding the oil company’s coffers to fund bottomless social programs. As oil prices surged worldwide, Venezuela’s petroleum output fell around 25 percent from 2000 through 2011, according to Daniel Yergin, a global-energy analyst at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
The result has been rolling blackouts across the country and soaring debt. The state oil company, PDVSA, has seen its debt climb 40 percent since 2010 to around $35 billion. But such is the price of Chávez’s so-called Bolivarian diplomacy that, in the name of 21st-century socialism, indulges likeminded allies in peril, even as it compromises the Venezuelan economy.
Chávez’s opponents have taken note. In late May, as word spread about the massacre in Houla, Democratic Unity, the alliance of opposition leaders in Venezuela, released a statement condemning Chávez’s support of al-Assad: “The Venezuelan government’s collaboration with Damascus disregards the decisions of the international community to defend the human rights of the Syrian people and disrespects all Venezuelans who once again see the name of our country aligned with one of the most abject dictators in the world.”
By then, La Negra Hipolita already had completed its mission.