Venezuela is no Syria and Nicolas Maduro is not Bashar Al Assad

The crisis in Venezuela is primarily one made by those who govern it, writes Massimo Di Ricco

Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez speaks at a press conference in Miraflores Palace in 2006. Mario Tama / Getty Images
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In 2005, Hugo Chavez, then Venezuela’s president, started putting together the basis for stronger cooperation with the Arab world through the Summit of South America-Arab countries.

Chavez visited Tehran, Damascus and Tripoli repeatedly, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Al Assad and Muammar Qaddafi travelled to Caracas and toured other Latin American countries. When popular uprisings erupted in Arab countries in 2011, Caracas selectively decided to stand with certain Arab regimes.

When Chavez died in 2013, Nicolas Maduro won the presidential election after securing 50.6 per cent of the popular vote. Since his election, Mr Maduro has taken many steps to solve Venezuela’s economic situation and address political dissatisfaction, but with few apparent results.

He faced protests in 2014 and accused his opponents of plotting a coup, while imprisoning some and barring others from political participation.

His party lost the majority in the parliamentary elections in 2015 and when the Supreme Court recently seized legislative power from the National Assembly, Venezuelans decided to take to the streets.

In turn, Mr Maduro increased public sector wages and proposed to arm the colectivos, the name given to the civilian groups established to defend the Bolivarian revolution. Mr Maduro has characterised the political opposition and people on the streets as “terrorist” forces.

In a recent interview with a South American broadcaster, Bashar Al Assad, Syria’s president, hinted at the similarities between Syria and Venezuelan protests in the streets.

A few weeks earlier, members of the Venezuelan opposition had also accused Mr Maduro of using chemical weapons against his own people.

This is a narrative that bears some similarity to Syria, but not in the way Mr Al Assad hinted at in his recent interview on the Telesur network. He described the situation in Venezuela as a deliberate attempt by the United States to overthrow an elected government.

Mr Al Assad claimed that, just as in Syria, the Venezuelan demonstrations were an attempt to provoke a foreign intervention.

“The United States always seeks to control all the states of the world without exception. It does not accept allies, regardless of whether they are developed states as those in the western bloc or other states of the world,” he said in the interview.

His theory was repeated by Delcy Rodriguez, Venezuela’s foreign minister, who recently described the situation as a product of western media manipulation.

But beside the accusations and the noise there is little evidence to support such a claim.

The majority of the western media has been, arguably, too soft with Venezuela, either in its criticism or focus, although one news organisation has accused the Maduro government of issuing about 10,000 fake passports to Syrians and Iranians.

Opposition forces, among whose ranks still stand many remnants of those implicated in the failed coup against Chavez that fizzled out in 2002, share part of the responsibility.

They gave space to a Syrian narrative with the claim from David Smolansky, the mayor of El Hatillo municipality, about the use of chemical weapons against street protesters.

Mr Maduro may be many things, but he is no Mr Al Assad, and Venezuela is no Syria.

Venezuela’s government may often play at the limit of the constitutional framework, leaning towards authoritarian rule, but elections in Venezuela are still fiercely contested and Mr Maduro hasn’t used chemical weapons on his own people.

It seems easy for some critics to compare Venezuela with Syria, but it is a false narrative for Venezuela and one that does little to serve the interests of the majority of protesters.

The crisis in Venezuela is primarily one made by those who govern it. Just as in Syria, Venezuela’s road to disaster has not been built by an external agency, and just as in Syria protests are real. But the Syrian comparison only exacerbates an already difficult situation and does little to explain the already complex and challenging circumstances at play in Venezuela.

Massimo Di Ricco is a writer on global politics at the Universitat Autonoma of Barcelona

On Twitter: @riportag