Venezuela is no Syria and Maduro is no Assad

Maduro’s government might be partly to blame for the current crisis, but it is still no dictatorship.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro holds up a small copy of the constitution as he speaks during his swearing-in ceremony in Caracas, Venezuela on January 10, 2019 [File: AP/Ariana Cubillos]

Despite what many well-meaning (and some less so) liberals claim, Nicolas Maduro, the current president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, is not Bashar al-Assad, nor is Venezuela Syria, Libya or Iraq.

In fact, applying the lens of Middle Eastern politics to the ongoing situation in Venezuela is absurd if not extremely dangerous. As tensions along Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil are at an all-time high, the US war machine, its allies and their liberal media cheerleaders are beating the drums of war.

The US-backed coup is in now in full swing and a Washington-sponsored military invasion of Venezuela is on the horizon, so we can no longer indulge in lazy and damaging analyses and false equivalences. The historical record shows that coups and military interventions have brought only disaster, and people of conscience should resist and reject them at all cost. 

From the overthrow of Salvador Allende and rise of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 to the kidnapping of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, US-backed coups against leftist and centre-left governments have caused massive and long-lasting damage to Latin American states, institutions and their people. There is little to suggest that such actions undertaken in Venezuela would result in anything different.

In recent years, a narrative based on falsehoods, deliberate omissions and senseless hysteria has come to dominate the international debate on Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution making it far too easy for many to simply shrug at the prospect of Maduro’s removal. 

Venezuela is clearly not a socialist paradise and it is undeniable that Maduro’s government is at least partly to blame for many of Venezuela’s current troubles: from the devastating economic crisis and subsequent mass migration to the ever-increasing crime rate and rampant corruption. 

As Amnesty International has pointed out, both Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, have had a history of authoritarian tendencies, abuses of human rights and meddling in the judiciary. In recent years, there have also been incidents of political violence involving the state security apparatus which have resulted in the deaths and imprisonment of protesters.

Furthermore, the Bolivarian government has maintained close relations with some autocratic states and voiced support for the regimes in Syria and Libya after the eruption of the popular uprisings there in 2011.

While all of these problems should be exposed and criticised, they don’t make Maduro a dictator comparable to Assad, Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein.

Maduro did not come to power in the same way that any of these dictators did. He did not lead a military coup, nor did he inherit a country run like a family estate from his father. He was democratically elected twice. There is little similarity between the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, which Chavez founded and Maduro now represents, and the forces that backed and maintained these Arab tyrants in power.

Chavismo is a democratic, left-wing, popular movement that has sought to invest the riches of the state to empower and uplift the poor. It emerged in the context of historic marginalisation and exploitation of Venezuela’s impoverished, black and indigenous populations by the white Venezuelan elite of Spanish descent, the continuing malignant effects of US intervention and the disastrous economic policies that Washington has sought to impose on Latin America.

Since the early 2000s, successive Chavista governments have made huge strides in improving healthcare, education, employment, income, food security and social support and services for millions of marginalised Venezuelans. Meanwhile, outside of the country, they have also assisted states in Central America and the Caribbean with subsided oil, embraced long-isolated Cuba, promoted political and economic independence in Latin America and offered strong and unwavering solidarity and support to the Palestinian people.

To push forward these policies, Chavismo relied on the ballot box. Chavez himself was hugely popular and was elected four times, his government also winning various referendums. Before passing away, he selected Maduro as his successor who won his first election albeit by a small margin. The 2018 presidential vote for all its problems and complexities (none of which have been covered by mainstream media outlets) was not run uncontested, with roughly 30 percent of the vote going to the other two specifically anti-Chavista candidates. 

Throughout these two decades, the Venezuelan opposition continued to organise politically and was represented in parliament, in the media and in the streets. Its anti-government rallies and activities today have nothing to do with the 2011 popular uprisings that swept through Middle Eastern countries, where, for decades, there had been no political space for opposition whatsoever.

Admittedly, many of the advances of the Bolivarian revolution have been greatly set back with the ongoing economic crisis, yet despite this, supporters of Maduro know that they still have too much to lose should the revolution be defeated. This is one of the reasons why the Venezuelan opposition will never be able to vanquish the Bolivarian movement through democratic means.

Unable to stop these revolutionary processes, opposition leaders have sought to delegitimise the Bolivarian government from the start through failed coup attemptswaging economic war, and calling for election boycotts.

In the past, all of these have failed. However, the opposition’s use of economic warfare, combined with mismanagement by the Maduro administration and the drop in oil prices, is now giving it the perfect opportunity to accomplish what has thus far been impossible

While the economic crisis has pushed Venezuelans to the brink, Washington’s use of aid as a political tool (something condemned by both the United Nations and the Red Cross) is hypocritical and shameful, especially as US sanctions have greatly worsened an already dire situation. 

The US foreign policy objectives in Venezuela have nothing to do with human rights, democracy promotion or fighting corruption. A cursory glance at its regional partners Brazil, led by fascist Jair Bolsonaro and Colombia, led by Ivan Duque, the young protege of warmonger Alvaro Uribe, attests to this.

Indeed, Maduro’s government has its faults, but it is no dictatorial regime and Chavismo is not Baathism. Chavismo still has popular support in the country and has helped many marginalised Venezuelans. We should show solidarity with its supporters and reject US interventionism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.