Between devils and angels in Damascus and Caracas

Both the Chavez and Assad regimes have “antagonistic relationships with the US”, but the similarity ends there.

Hugo Chavez, Bashar Assad
"Under Hugo Chavez, poverty levels and wealth inequality in Venezuela have decreased dramatically - under Assad, the opposite has happened," writes author [AP]

When moral proclamations enter politics, inconsistency and confusion are bound to follow. The difficulty lies in making sense of these tensions. Take, for example, Hugo Chavez’s passing. Reducing him and his movement to nothing but a rhetorical vehicle for arguing about Syria (not Venezuela), many sympathisers of the Syrian uprising reacted to his death by declaring him a mirror image of the Baathist dictators of Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his deceased father, Hafez. “Chavez, Chavez, you are joining Hafez,” was one refrain Syrians shared.  

Syrians have no reason to be charitable to Chavez after he continued to provide a regime that murders and tortures them with oil shipments and ample moral support. (Chavez’s pointed retort: “Have we by any chance asked the United States what it does with the fuel we sell to [it]?”). But neither charitable hagiography nor hyperbolic demonisation is required here; honesty and ethical-political clarity would be nice, both from Chavez’s detractors and defenders.

True, both the Chavez and Assad regimes have antagonistic relationships with the US, but the similarity ends there. The Assad regime resembles more the Latin American dictatorships of decades past than it does Chavez’s populist support base. Unlike Syrians, Venezuelans have not flooded the streets to uproot their leader, nor have they taken up arms to depose him. Quite the contrary, they have emerged en masse to mourn his death, after electing him democratically in elections three times over the course of 14 years, and, on two other occasions, comfortably defeating an attempted recall election and coup. 

Under Chavez, poverty levels and wealth inequality in Venezuela have decreased dramatically. Under Assad, the opposite has happened. While vastly more Venezuelans were made to feel that they had an important role to play in their country under Chavez, becoming more involved in various forms of local politics, under Assad, all political participation was tightly monitored and curtailed by security and intelligence forces.

However, these achievements do not make it any easier to defend Chavez’s support for the Assad regime with oil and rhetoric after it declared war on its people. To those who expect moral perfection, the apparent discrepancy is a source of tension.

One might be tempted to blame such contradictions on personal defects, the broken, hypocritical morality of one person. That fate has also befallen Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah. Once revered, he is now despised by Syrians for his uncritical declarations of support for Assad against the uprising. It would have been one thing if Nasrallah had condemned the regime’s barbarism while also opposing interference by his foreign adversaries, but he opted instead to give the regime wholesale cover (and, now, perhaps military assistance).

Those who refuse to criticise Nasrallah essentially maintain that “resistance” and anti-imperialism require oppression of the people, rather than their liberation, robbing those ideologies of their most commendable attribute. Although Chavez’s importance to developments in Syria pales in comparison to Nasrallah’s, his relative insignificance has not spared him similar attacks.

Is there something more to be said about this, though, than resorting to the simplistic charge of hypocrisy? An evaluation of Chavez’s behaviour should not ignore the complexities of international relations. Institutional pressures, rather than personalised failures, probably go a long way in explaining the choices made by people like Chavez (or Nasrallah) – and whether he had a meaningful choice in the first place. But acknowledging that reality is very different from pointing to Chavez’s good works.

Sympathisers with the Syrian revolution do not fare much better with their cartoonish sketch of Chavez when they overlook those pressures. In holding out Chavez as the mirror image of Assad, they not only indulge in ignorant distortions, but also affirm a false and troubling claim that those who support their uprising are automatically angels, and those who oppose it devils. Surely there is room in this affair for characters of more ambiguous moral quality.

We must instead be cognizant of the devilish qualities of the angels we follow. When the National Coalition for Syria’s (NCS) representatives laud the House of Saud, for example, apparently thinking that Syrians rising against Assad would be willing to live under Saud’s repressive rule, they demonstrate that they are, ironically, also subjected to the kinds of pressures that constrained Chavez. These pressures, in both cases, are grounded in self-interest, not reliable principles. 

Social movements need to be credible vanguards for the values they proclaim, but when they fail to maintain a critical distance from the institutions with which they engage, they risk becoming nothing but stooges.

Syrians should look to Palestinian civil society’s grassroots Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions model as one way in which a people suffering from oppression can uphold its moral claims despite the politicking of official bodies. Wouldn’t it be a feat if one of the Syrian delegations trotting around Paris or Istanbul had travelled instead to Caracas to convince Venezuelan oil or dock workers to take a stand in solidarity with Syria’s people by protesting shipments to the Syrian military?

Such a movement has yet to fully emerge, although there is no shortage of a need for one: the enfeebled NCS, beholden to its sponsors, cannot house the full spectrum of activity necessary to win support for Syria’s uprising across geopolitical lines – from peoples directly rather than their governments.

Yaman Salahi is a civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles, California. He is a graduate of the Yale Law School.