The number of people who have died on the streets of Libya remains a mystery, as is the degree of Muammar Gaddafi's direct responsibility for their deaths. No one knows how long Gaddafi will last or how much blood will have to be spilled before he departs or, perversely, saves his skin.
But we know what occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunis, the army did not open fire, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali finally fled, and the total number of casualties in a country with roughly the same population as Libya barely topped 200. In Cairo, the army fraternized with demonstrators for 18 days practically without firing a shot. In the skirmishes and bouts of aggression with regime thugs, some 350 Egyptian citizens died, in a country with 12 times Libya's population. Hosni Mubarak finally fled, without a bloodbath anywhere near that of Libya's unending tragedy.(See the Latest Scenes from the Unrest in Libya.)
So paradoxically, Mubarak, the U.S.'s unconditional ally for decades, and Ben Ali, the Tunisian friend of France, both departed because of pressure from the street and vigorous condemnation from the international community. What many in the world have called imperialism for the past century has wreaked all sorts of havoc, but this time around, it didn't cozy up to the dictators; indeed, it rather welcomed the fall of the strongmen. Even nations such as China and Russia that have not shown great enthusiasm for the universal defense of human rights have taken a strong stance against violence.
But not everybody has. Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua and a friend of Gaddafi's since the early '80s, declared, "I have been in touch by phone with Gaddafi ... logically he is waging once again a great battle. How many battles has Gaddafi had to wage! ... I offered him the solidarity of the Nicaraguan people, of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas." Fidel Castro was more careful, accepting that one could agree or disagree with Gaddafi, asking, "How much truth or lies, or combination of both, has actually occurred in Libya?" But he was unflinching: "The United States does not care at all about peace in Libya and will not hesitate to order NATO to invade that rich country ... Any honest person will always be against injustice anywhere in the world, and the worst injustice, at this moment, would be to remain silent about the crime which NATO is about to commit against the Libyan people." In other words, for Castro, the problem is not the dead and dying on the streets of Libya but the supposedly imminent American invasion of the country. Castro would never think of condemning the repression, the executions, the beatings and the detentions in Libya, only "imperialism."(TIME's Complete Coverage: The Middle East in Revolt.)
Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez was initially discreet; his Foreign Minister expressed his "hopes that Libya would find, with full respect for its sovereignty, a peaceful solution to its difficulties that will preserve the integrity of the Libyan people and their nation, without any interference by imperialism."
Subsequently, Chávez stated his position: "Let's not get carried away by the drums of war, because the United States, I am sure they are exaggerating and distorting things to justify an invasion ... Those who immediately condemn Libya say nothing about the Israeli bombardments of Fallujah and the thousands and thousands of dead. They remain silent about the bombing and massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan; they have no moral standing to condemn anyone. Gaddafi has been our friend for a long time ... Regarding Libya, a campaign of lies is being woven." The issue is not to stop the strafings, beatings, repression and killings, nor is it Gaddafi's departure; rather it is imperialism's misdeeds, past and present.
As one might expect, the radical wing of the Latin American left is much more concerned about Gaddafi's survival and U.S. interference than the welfare of the Libyan people. While Gaddafi massacres the latter, Latin American leaders defend him. The friend of Ortega's, Castro's and Chávez's in North Africa is sticking it out to the bitter end, and his allies are standing by him. Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy eventually prodded their friends in Egypt and Tunisia to leave, and they did, later than they should have but sooner than expected.(See TIME's Gaddafi covers.)
If anyone thought Obama's election would make no major difference in U.S. foreign policy, they are wrong, though we had to wait longer than we would have wished. If anyone expected Latin American despots, some more authoritarian than others, to speak out against human-rights violations in Libya or to distance themselves from their corrupt allies of the past, they are also wrong. This is not the smallest lesson of the current upheaval in the Arab world.
Castañeda is Mexico's former Foreign Minister and a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University