Skip to main content

Ahmadinejad's hug and the future of Chavez's alliance

By Eduardo J. Gómez, Special to CNN
March 13, 2013 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eduardo J. Gómez: Ahmadinejad criticized back home for hugging Chávez's mother
  • He says support in Iran may be waning for alliance with Venezuela
  • Chavez bankrolled anti-U.S. alliance, but new leaders may not want to, he says
  • Gómez: Nations in Latin America may see benefits of improved relations with U.S.

Editor's note: Eduardo J. Gómez is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy & Administration at Rutgers University at Camden.

(CNN) -- At the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, his good friend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was photographed embracing Chávez's bereaved mother, in a show of compassion and support.

Back home in Tehran, Ahmadinejad was immediately bashed by newspapers and by conservative politicians who cited a religious prohibition against touching a woman who is not your wife or a relative.

While theology is a factor, there may have been a deeper message to this backlash from Tehran: that it's no longer cool to be supporting Chávez, his family and political allies, and that this alliance, like others cultivated by Chávez, may be in jeopardy.

Eduardo J. Gómez
Eduardo J. Gómez

Chávez put great effort into his friendship with Iran and into a broader alliance with other states in Latin America, with both efforts motivated in part by opposition to the United States' international role.

Chávez's death is certainly changing the political calculus in Venezuela, but will it also result in a broader shift that could realign much of Latin America and affect attitudes toward, and relationships with, the United States?

The answer is likely "yes."

First, the grouping of nations previously opposing the United States under Chávez's leftist alliance -- namely the "Alba" alliance, comprised of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia -- could well wither away, due to Venezuela's ongoing recession and fears that alliance members will no longer have Venezuela's financial backing. When combined with reports of Chávez's expressed desire to strengthen ties with the Obama administration, regional hostility towards the United States may decline.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Since assuming office in 1999, Chávez viewed Washington as an oppressive force manipulating Latin American politics while keeping the region underdeveloped through its dependence on U.S. resources. In response, Chávez approached like-minded leaders to build a coalition challenging the regional influence of the United States.

By 2005, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and Ecuador joined Chávez's coalition, which led to the formation of the Bolivian Alliance of the Americas, also known as Alba. Alba served as an alternative to the Free Trade Act of the Americas, with an explicit focus on poverty reduction, but it also facilitated the unification of these nations in their anti-American sentiments .

With Chávez gone, however, there may be no one left who has the clout to keep financing this alliance. Venezuela is Alba's largest financier, contributing millions in aid to its members as well as oil at low prices. But Venezuelans may believe that with ongoing poverty and inequality, their country's needs are more important than those of Chávez's small club of nations.

This situation worries Alba members. According to Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, while Bolivia and Ecuador are independently wealthy and not financially dependent on Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua are.

Cuba receives roughly 100,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil a day, while Venezuela accounted for $8.3 billion of Cuba's $20 billion in foreign trade in 2011. Chávez also paid approximately $6 billion annually for 40,000 Cuban doctors and nurses, according to Reuters.

Cuban citizens fear that Chávez's death will push them back to the days of the post-Cold War recession, when Russia gradually withdrew its funding for Cuba. Meanwhile, Nicaragua has received approximately $500 million a year in loans and oil credits, increasing to $609 million in 2011, while earnings from agricultural exports to Venezuela increased from $2 million in 2006 to $300 million in 2011.

But alliance members also realize that they have options. Nicaragua's economic minister, Bayardo Arce, recently stated that it's time to diversify Nicaragua's economic relations with China, Europe and the United States, mainly because Nicaragua has "to anticipate that Alba is not going to be permanent." Cuba may also seek to strengthen its relations with Brazil, its second-largest trade partner in the region. In fact, both governments already have plans to engage in several trade and infrastructure projects and are ramping up trade, mainly in sugar exports.

Ecuador and Nicaragua are working more closely with Brazil in helping to construct hydroelectric energy plants and chemical industries, respectively. In addition to strong economic growth rates, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff's policy commitments to the poor and enhanced control over key economic sectors, such as oil, may provide a more appealing leftist model.

In recent years, Chávez was also interested in improving relations with the United States. He saw President Obama's re-election victory as an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties. Chávez once commented: "I wish we could begin a new period of normal relations." Chávez was so committed to this endeavor that even from his hospital in Cuba, he authorized his second in command, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, to start negotiating with the U.S. State Department.

While it may seem that Maduro may have a difficult time working with the United States, considering his accusations that the United States has historically plotted against Venezuela and the recent removal of U.S. diplomats from Caracas, it appears that this was mainly done to gain the trust of Chávez political supporters in order to secure Maduro's position as the next president.

U.S. diplomatic officials view Maduro as a pragmatist and the fact that he was supportive of initiating closer ties with the United States last year suggests that this could continue, especially in light of Venezuela's economic troubles and the need to increase revenues through trade.

Chávez's passing should motivate the United States to seek a new partnership with Venezuela. First, Secretary of State John Kerry should reopen the U.S. embassy in Caracas, which has been closed since 2010, while assigning diplomats who are committed to engaging in peaceful dialogue and political and economic cooperation.

Second, Kerry should take this opportunity to strengthen cooperation over issues that can provide mutual benefits in the areas of national security and the economy, such as counternarcotics, counterterrorism, as well as sustaining oil trade: the United States currently imports just under 1 million barrels a day from Venezuela.

But the United States should also see this situation as an opportunity to strengthen its ties with other nations, such as Cuba. With the likely decline in economic assistance to Cuba from Venezuela, Cuban President Raul Castro may consider stepping up negotiations with the Obama administration over the U.S. embargo, human rights and the release of American prisoners, such as Alan Gross.

Chávez is gone, but the United States' commitment to peaceful democratic relations persists. Going forward, the United States should explore ways of strengthening its ties with Venezuela and other Latin American nations.

But this is not a one-way street: Maduro in Venezuela will also need to find ways to strengthen his government's ties with the United States, which may be a balancing act if he wants to sustain his government's good relations with Iran, particularly after Ahmadinejad leaves office.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eduardo J. Gómez

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT