November 27, 2009

Relatively Unstable

Not all tyrants are created equally. Distinguishing between them can be rough work, but nature seems to apply a scale to all things and tyranny is as natural as water, apples, and radiation.

They appear so parallel, almost indistinguishable, but for what it’s worth, Muammar Gaddafi is no Hugo Chavez.

While Chavez is busy inflaming his border with Colombia and warning President Obama of regional interference, Gaddafi is hoping to put Egypt and Algeria's soccer shenanigans to rest. Libya’s state-run JANA news agency Jana reported that Arab League chief Amr Musa had asked Col Gaddafi to play the role of mediator.

"As chairman of the African Union, the Guide of the Revolution is going to work to bridge the gulf that has opened up between Egypt and Algeria," Jana reported.

Musa’s outreach is a propaganda coup for Gaddafi. As Chavez builds up his strongman rep, Gaddafi will attempt to play dove between two Muslim countries. Everyone wins. Ibrahim Youssri, former Egyptian ambassador to Algeria, told Al Jazeera that the introduction of Gaddafi as a mediator would “give the leaders a chance to save face.”

And Gaddafi receives good face time.

Chavez and Gaddafi appear closer than ever; Chavez was the guest of honor at a military parade celebrating Gaddafi’s 40th year in power. As Chavez searches Gaddafi’s political history for clues to extend his own rule, Gaddafi appears to be running his African campaign through Chavez.

Gaddafi and Chavez called for a “NATO of the South" during a September summit between African and South American leaders. A document to redefine terrorism, widely ridiculed, is also in the works. It rejects, “attempts to link the legitimate struggle of the people for liberty and self-determination.”

But their proximity provides an opportunity to study their variation. Chavez’s stock is falling due to a combination of poor governance and political distractions. Nagging inflation, power outages, and IOU’s for government workers have forced Chavez, at least in part, to start a fire on the Colombian border.

Tensions between the two countries are undoubtedly real, but the length Chavez is going to posture himself suggests a red herring. And the plan collapsed too. Four out of five Venezuelan's opposed conflict with Colombia, according to a poll by Alfredo Keller.

By contrast, Gaddafi is back in business now that US sanctions have been lifted, a reward obtained by good behavior. After scrapping his nuclear program in 2003 and tightening the flow of cash and weapons to militant groups, his reward is the return of foreign investment and tourism.

Libya’s economy is booming, relatively speaking. Maybe Muammar Gaddafi will patch the hole between Egypt and Algeria, maybe it’s a publicity stunt. But he’s trying.

Currently the same cannot be said for Hugo Chavez.


  1. Another interesting thing is that Libya used to be the largest terrorist originating state per capita (ever hear of the LIFG?) and now has an semi-effective program of de-radicalization based on an alternative reading of Islam's source materials.

    Qaddafi's son and heir apparent has created and spearheaded this project, "Corrective Studies" in conjunction with an ex-terrorist and together, they've written, "The Recantation," in which they deconstruct how Islam is wrongfully used to condone violent jihad. They are also paying ex-terrorists, upon their release from prison to give up the lifestyle and giving them some money to start anew. With unemployment in Libya at 30%, it will be interesting to see whether this program has any long-term salience. CNN broke this story.

    Interesting, both of these leaders are using their petrodollars to remain in power and conduct social policy. As oil prices fluctuate, these regimes will have surges in popularity when the price is high (and social spending increases) and falling approval ratings when the price is low (given that social spending is connected with state oil revenues). In that sense, both of them are relatively unstable. Given that the income elasticity of demand for oil is low, (i.e. people still have to buy it whatever the price) despite periodic peaks and troughs of popularity, neither regime is going anywhere fast.

    Humorously, Foreign Policy has Venezuela listed as "In Danger" and Libya as more stable at "Borderline" in their 2009 Failed States Index. Not surprisingly, Venezuela's score has worsened since last year and Libya's has improved.

  2. Humorously and sadly. These games to create lists and move the nations up and down as they please, following the nasty controller tool of "carrot-stick". If they behave as western please, they goes up, otherwise sick down.

    One important aspect to your analysis. Venezuela is not relaying on petrodollars for ever. Chavez is creating a new sort of economy for the near future, moving in advance to the food and energy crisis that is looming in the horizon.

  3. You hit on a main point - that these regimes' popularity rise and fall with oil prices. The most important task of Libya and Venezuela's rulers is reinvesting petro-dollars and evolving their economies past a boom and bust cycle predicated on a single commodity. If they can manage this task even with a moderate performance then Chavez will likely prolong his rule. Gaddafi is in power until death anyway, but he’s outpacing Chavez. Oil is down while Gaddafi is still up.

    Economic power translates to political power. Gaddafi is currently benefiting from this relationship while Chavez feels the reverse effects.