CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s usually loquacious leader Hugo Chavez has been uncharacteristically quiet on the unfolding revolt in Libya against his close friend and ally Muammar Gaddafi.
Usually quick to opine on any global crisis, Chavez has Tweeted once but otherwise barely mentioned the uprising against a man he in the past showered with gifts, awards and garrulous praise as a fellow socialist revolutionary.
Some opponents see the Venezuelan president’s attitude as evidence of nerves the wave of protests against authoritarian rulers in North Africa and the Middle East could extend as far as Latin America -- and threaten his own 12-year rule.
Yet there is scant evidence on the ground of a nascent mass resistance movement. On the contrary, the opposition is calmly preparing for primaries at the end of the year ahead of a 2012 presidential election in the South American nation.
Chavez officials are not panicking, though they did move with surprising pragmatism this week to negotiate with student hunger-strikers and grant them concessions rather than let a three-week protest snowball into anything bigger.
And though his ratings have been in decline, the OPEC member’s economy is in serious straits, and opponents portray him as increasingly dictatorial, Chavez remains Venezuela’s single most popular politician by far.
“I do not see the crisis in the Middle East transferring to Venezuela in the short-term. The conditions are not there at the moment,” said Venezuelan analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos, of the international think-tank IHS Global Insight.
Rather than a domino effect from the Arab unrest, next year’s presidential vote looms as Venezuela’s potential flashpoint, analysts and diplomats say.
If an increasingly confident opposition, which won half of the popular vote in last year’s parliamentary poll, considers it has been cheated, it could try to revive the kind of street protests that helped produce a bloody 48-hour coup against Chavez in 2002.
The trauma of 2002 left scars and lessons on all sides: Chavez radicalized afterward and vowed never to expose himself again like that, the opposition’s political immaturity was revealed, and the military was shown to be the crucial factor first in the president’s departure and then his return.
In another scenario, if Chavez loses the 2012 vote, he might resist leaving power.
“I see the election as more of a threat to stability in Venezuela than Libya and Egypt,” a Caracas-based diplomat said. “But we have to be honest -- all of us failed to predict the fall of communism and now the fall of the Arab dictators, so we are in the realm of the unpredictable here.”
Just as the West has faced a dilemma over the Middle East -- caught between support for the clamor for democracy on the street and decades-old alliances with autocratic Arab leaders for the sake of stability -- so does Chavez face a paradox.
The 56-year-old ex-soldier, who led a failed coup attempt before winning power at the ballot box in 1998, has cast himself as a champion of popular movements but also a stalwart friend of Arab leaders, especially Gaddafi.
Chavez actually broke his silence on Libya late on Thursday with a brief message via Twitter, declaring: “Long live Libya and its Independence! Gaddafi faces a civil war!!”
His foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, also chose his words carefully, calling for an end to violence and echoing an accusation by Cuba’s Fidel Castro that the United States was trying to create conditions to justify an invasion of Libya.
“The main objective of the Libyan invasion is the same Bush had - oil. To take its oil, leave Libya in 20 pieces and deprive OPEC of one of its main places,” he said, referring to former U.S. leader George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.
Arab TV stations have reported rumors that Gaddafi and his family could take asylum in Venezuela, prompting denials in both countries but outraging Chavez opponents here who say his friendship with the Libyan is an international embarrassment.
“It’s shameful for Venezuela that he holds the sword and order of our ‘Liberator’,” opposition newspaper TalCual said in an editorial on Friday, referring to Chavez’s gift to Gaddafi of a replica of independence hero Simon Bolivar’s sword.
“It’s a dishonor to us that Venezuela’s name is tainted abroad by being named as his natural place of refuge.”
Footage of Chavez’s presentation of the sword to Gaddafi in 2009 is flying round opposition cyber-circles in a bid to make the Venezuelan squirm and taint him by association.
Although Chavez shows plenty of authoritarian traits, from endless daily speeches and legal pursuits of opponents to surprise nationalizations announced live on TV and a one-man style of leadership, more direct comparisons with the Arab strongmen may be a push, analysts say.
He has, after all, won about a dozen elections in Venezuela and still commands way more support than any of his would-be rivals at next year’s election. Supporters argue Venezuela’s revolution already came when Chavez took office in 1990 and swept away an old elite that cared nothing about the poor.
Venezuelans on all sides are fanatic users of social media, with no overt government moves against Internet access despite opposition claims that the government has Cuban advisers showing it how to cut off or restrict the Internet if and when needed.
If Middle East events are obviously awkward for Chavez, there is one reason for him to smile -- the price of oil.
With Venezuela’s economy wholly dependent on crude exports, and struggling despite the pre-unrest spike in prices, the latest hike above $100 a barrel could help ensure at least a small recovery after two years of recession.
It will also bolster Chavez’s election war-chest.
Royal Bank of Scotland analysts Siobhan Morden and Raza Agha said higher oil revenues would provide a “near-term buffer” for Chavez. “This could actually reduce the political risk with more revenues available for social-oriented transfers and spending,” they said in a report.
“While the domino continues in the Middle East with social unrest unraveling autocratic regimes, there are yet no signs of contagion to Venezuela.”
Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Kieran Murray