- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
Last week, as the world was mulling an American-led attack on the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro sent U.S. President Barack Obama a letter.
In the rambling missive, Maduro pressed the case for peace, quoting Jesus Christ, Simón Bolívar, Hugo Chávez, Robert Fisk, and Susan Sontag. He ended it with a hyperventilated "No to war!!!" while ignoring the issue at the heart of the crisis: Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people.
It is somewhat odd that Venezuela should want to get itself involved in the Syrian conflict. Venezuela is far away from the Middle East, and none of its strategic interests are involved. Syria is neither a large oil producer nor an important client of Venezuela. Nevertheless, both the late Hugo Chávez and Maduro have long made efforts to become strategic allies of Assad.
Chávez courted Assad strongly while he was alive. He visited Damascus on at least three occasions and, while there, wasted no time blasting Israel and siding with Syria and Iran, another of his close partners. Chávez also cut off Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with Israel during his tenure, and Maduro has shown no signs of mending those ties. Chávez even established a nonstop flight between Caracas and Damascus, an air link with little commercial value that has raised more than a few eyebrows in international intelligence circles.
This alliance has proven valuable for Assad. Last year, in defiance of international sanctions, Chávez sent at least three shipments of diesel fuel to Syria’s government. (It is not known if the shipments have continued.)
Where does this empathy come from? It could be from within Venezuela itself.
There is a sizeable Syrian community in Venezuela, and a few prominent members of the Venezuelan government hail from it. Key among them is Tareck El Aissami, a former interior minister and the current governor of Aragua state — an important region close to Caracas. Other notable Syrian-Venezuelan chavistas include the transportation minister and the head of the National Police.
One of the more outlandish members of the Syrian-Venezuelan chavista clique is National Assembly member Adel El Zabayar. In recent weeks, El Zabayar abandoned his job as a legislator to travel to Syria and join the government’s forces in fighting the rebels and the United States. Maduro has since praised El Zabayar’s "dignified" stance. Chavistas have meanwhile taken to the streets in support of Assad. (The photo above shows pro-Assad members of the ruling Socialist Party demonstrating outside the Syrian embassy in Caracas.
The country’s foreign trade structure may also have something to do with Venezuela’s willingness to get involved. Since Venezuelan exports consist, almost exclusively, of oil, it has little to risk in terms of international sanctions by behaving like the enfant terrible of foreign relations. After all, when your commodity is something everyone needs, you can get away with more than other countries that rely on access to markets.
Another part has to do with Venezuelan culture. Venezuelans pride themselves as being outgoing, and so they don’t have the shyness of being a "small country" that one would find in other Latin countries. Furthermore, the mythology of Venezuela’s Independence War, when Venezuelan soldiers traveled to other countries to help liberate them, has left a certain interventionist strain in the Venezuelan psyche. Whether it is working for peace in Central America during the 1980s, or fostering anti-American stances in this century, Venezuela has always equated foreign policy with meddling in other people’s business.
Venezuela’s stance may also have something to do with Maduro’s need to establish an anti-American leftist identity. According to Amherst professor Javier Corrales, Hugo Chávez’s staunch anti-Americanism was as much ideological as it was practical. According to Corrales, Chávez — whose power was based on an uneasy coalition of nationalist military elements and radical leftist groups — used anti-Americanism as a way of keeping his coalition together. By embracing anyone willing to defy the United States, Chávez assured himself an anti-imperialist identity while he pursued other, more pragmatic goals.
Nicolás Maduro seems to be following this pattern. In fact, Maduro has a much more urgent need to forge an identity for himself than Chávez. He is seen as a weaker, less known, less capable version of Chávez, and as such he needs to establish himself as Chávez’s heir by tacking strongly to his legacy. Immersing himself in the Syria crisis partly accomplishes this.
Finally, the Syria discussion serves as a useful distraction from the dynamics within Venezuela itself. Venezuela is suffering from high inflation, scarcity of goods, frequent blackouts, and daily protests. As domestic problems mount by the day, it seems an international crisis is just the diversion Maduro needs.