Inside Venezuela, more than one million citizens are of Syrian descent. Many of them have recently taken to the streets of Caracas to rally against Chávez’s support of Assad. Such public protest is risky business. As Al Jazeera has recently reported, local Syrian diplomats note who gets involved, and when those individuals return to the Damascus airport, they can become targets of the police state. But with their families being gradually destroyed, these protesters are growing louder.
Why is Chávez so willing to support such a global pariah, risking credibility abroad and even instability at home? Some point to a 2010 agreement wherein Venezuela trades diesel for Syrian food. This accord does not accomplish much from a strategic or economic point of view, but has aided Chávez in his quest for photo-ops with leaders of the world’s worst governments. His antics have been the same with Iran, Zimbabwe, and Qaddafi’s Libya. It is all evidence of Chávez’s remarkable track record of admiration for serial rights abusers.
The Venezuelan leader himself argues that the uprising in Syria is a Western conspiracy, not an organic rebellion. Last spring, he even painted Assad as the victim, claiming that “terrorists are being infiltrated into Syria and producing violence and death,” and accusing the international media of jumping to the conclusion “once again” that “the guilty one is the president.”
His own bizarre reasoning aside, the reality is that Chávez simply doesn’t give a damn about human suffering in Syria. In a recent interview with The New York Times, his minister of oil and mining Rafael Ramírez explained Venezuela’s support of the criminal Syrian regime: “If they need diesel and we can supply it, there is no reason not to do it.”
This isn’t blindness or ignorance, as Chávez’s intelligence informs him of what is happening in Syria. Rather, this seems to be intransigence. As one of his critics so incisively observed, Chávez doesn’t just go to the cemetery with his friends — he buries himself with them. With his own elections approaching in October, and with the Venezuelan people growing increasingly confused by his support for a murderous despot, this may turn out to be the case.
Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Alex Gladstein is OFF’s vice president of strategy.