By Gabriel Elizondo
Both geographically and culturally Latin America is a world away from Libya. However, examining the record shows how Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, in recent years has quietly built political and economic alliances with Latin America that are mutually beneficial. Those new alliances might now be working to Gaddafi’s advantage, earning him support by some of president's of the region, and forcing others to think twice before openly criticising him this past week.
With conservative estimates of hundreds killed in the past week, mass defections of Gaddafi loyalists, and reports the Libyan leader is employing foreign mercenaries to kill his own people who rise up against him, many of Latin America’s presidents have refused to condemn Gaddafi in the harshest of terms. Perhaps the reason why is because many of these same Latin American leaders were up until last week building cozy relations with Gaddafi; some on ideological grounds, others for trade and economic purposes; or both.
Below a snapshot of a few countries:
NICARAGUA AND CUBA
Reuters news agency obtained dozens of Libyan government documents that allegedly showed Gaddafi is a big donor to both Cuba and Nicaragua in recent years. Nicaragua, the small country of 5 million people in Central America, received over $300 million from Libya, the documents show.
Response now: Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega this week has publicly supported Gaddafi more than almost any other head of state on the planet, saying the north African leader is ‘waging a great battle’ for his country. Ortega called Tripoli to offer support. And he has vowed to stand by Gaddafi until the end, saying, ‘difficult moments put loyalty to the test.’ And former Cuban President Fidel Castro, in a newspaper column, also urged caution before rushing to judgment against Gaddafi and suggested the United States was about to invade Libya.
President Evo Morales and Gaddafi started building close ties in 2008, when the two met in Benghazi, Libya and vowed mutual respect and support. Morales was recently bestowed a human rights award by Gaddafi (as was Ortega).
Response now: Morales has been mostly silent on developments in Libya.
Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner visited Libya in 2008 on a two-day state visit, accompanied by a delegation of dozens of Argentina’s business leaders. According to Libyan state media at the time, at the end of her trip Argentina and Libya signed agreements on investment, agriculture and education worth millions of dollars.
Response now: Like Morales, Kirchner too has remained mostly silent. The strongest statement from Argentina came from the foreign ministry which called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to take urgent action to look into possible abuses in Libya, with no apparent irony that Libya actually once chaired the Human Rights Council. There was no mention of Argentina calling for action from the U.N. Security Council, a much more powerful and authoritative body.
No leader in Latin America is a more unapologetic friend of Gaddafi than Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who has visited Libya over 4 times in recent years. Both leaders are vocal anti-imperialists that have been the target of the U.S. intelligence agencies over the years. Both men naturally gravitate to one another, and they have know to regularly shower each other with praise and symbolic gifts. In 2009, Libya’s Football Federation inaugurated an 11,000 seat stadium named ‘Hugo Chavez Stadium’ in a suburb of Benghazi, of all places. According to Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper, at the end of last year alone there were more than 100 conventions signed between the two countries.
Response now: Venezuela has officially condemned the violence in Libya, but late on Thursday Chavez said via Twitter “…viva Libya and its independence! Kadafi is facing a civil war!!” Chaves is standing by his friend.
Brazil, the diplomatic giant of South America, has huge business ventures in Libya and the wider Arab world that could give the country great diplomatic sway in being a regional leader in forming a unified response to events in Libya. Last year alone Brazil’s commercial surplus trade with Arab countries and Iran was $7.1 billion – larger than Brazil’s trade with China ($5.1 billion), Mercosul ($5.9 billion), or the EU ($4 billion), according to data published in Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. Under former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil nurtured ties with Libya, and as I previously reported, some of Brazil’s biggest construction companies have billions of dollars in contracts inside Libya, including building part of Tripoli’s new international airport. Not only that, but Brazil's foreign policy the past 8 years has put considerable effrot and energy into larger, pan-African issues.
Response now: Brazil currently heads the U.N. Security Council, perfectly positioning the country to lead a U.N. effort in that body. Brazil’s foreign ministry has sent out communiqués condemning violence in Libya, and asking that free expression be preserved, but has not mentioned Gaddafi by name, and there is zero indication Brazil plans to go much further. Brazil’s new President, Dilma Rousseff, before being elected president was Lula’s trusted chief of staff. But as president she appears to be veering off track from her predecessors aggressive foreign policy. She has only been in office less than two months and has said nearly nothing publicly about Libya or, for that matter, on much of anything related to important international affairs this year. Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, was the ambassador to the U.S. from 2007-2009, and in diplomatic circles is generally thought to be more conservative and risk-averse than his predecessor, Celso Amorim. Bottom line: Unlike every other country in Latin America, Brazil has some real diplomatic influence and leverage it could try to use in Libya and inside the halls of the U.N. But so far, the South American giant appears perfectly happy sitting on the sidelines as a quiet spectator.
MEXICO, COLOMBIA, EL SALVADOR
The President’s from Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador have all spoken out forcefully, by comparison, about events in Libya. Felipe Calderon said he felt sorrow for the “civilians being massacred,” reiterating his governments position. Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, said what the Libyan regime is doing, “to the civilian population is unacceptable, we hope that this situation gets better as soon as possible and that the human rights and freedom of expression are respected in that country.” (However, in the case of Mexico and Colombia some have said it’s a hypocritical posture, given the fact thousands of innocent civilians in both countries have been the victims of decades old drug war).
On Wednesday, Peru became the only country in Latin America (and perhaps the first in the world) to formally break off all diplomatic ties with Libya. The justice minister said the move was taken, “due to the way the Libyan government is reacting to the citizens demands who are asking for a government change after 42 years of uninterrupted exercise of power from Mr Gaddafi,” according to the Associated Press. Peru has almost no economic ties to Libya.
Peru’s move against Gaddafi sets it starkly apart from a region that otherwise is now playing a delicate diplomatic dance with a Libyan leader they all once seemed - not too long ago - so friendly with.
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