If you’ve worked with left-wing activists, you have probably met many caring and intelligent people who genuinely believe in democratic values. Until it comes to foreign policy, when many leftists begin sounding more like Alex Jones than democratic socialists. “Today, the discourse of fascists and these ‘anti-imperialist leftists’ is virtually indistinguishable,” notes Leila Al Shami, a Syrian activist and writer. Anti-imperialist leftists and their fascist counterparts would have you believe, for instance, that Assad enjoys popular support, that he is saving Syria’s sovereignty, and that every Syrian who opposes him is a terrorist. And, in Venezuela, pro-democracy demonstrators are likewise reduced to mere pawns of US imperialism.
The left has shown a confounding contempt for democratic uprisings in both Syria and Venezuela. The manner in which they have turned their backs on oppressed people sets a dangerous precedent—with potentially disastrous consequences in a world sliding toward authoritarianism.
Venezuela is now beset by the world’s largest economic collapse outside of a war zone in decades. The authoritarian government of Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, has left the country with fatal shortages of food, water and medicine. Last month’s report by UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, highlighted the abuse and systematic violence carried out by state forces, which has left Venezuelans with little confidence that they can overcome Maduro’s tightening grip on the besieged country.
All this has triggered a refugee crisis that rivals Syria’s. There has already been an exodus of some four million Venezuelans—as per the UN’s refugee agency—and the numbers are expected to grow and now threaten to destabilize the entire Latin American region.
Despite the country’s descent into full-blown chaos, many on the hard left—particularly self-described anti-imperialists—continue to defend the dictatorship in Caracas. They have failed to offer solidarity to Venezuelans trying to overcome a brutal dictatorship and either blame the humanitarian crisis on US sanctions or deny it altogether. Much like the Hands Off Syria demonstrations that glorified Assad’s mass slaughter regime, the “anti-imperialism of idiots” was certainly evident in Hands Off Venezuela rallies, during which anti-war organizations, such as Code Pink, ANSWER and International Action Center, took to the streets to lend their support to the Maduro regime, while strongly condemning US interference in Venezuela’s affairs.
These left-wing, pro-dictator anti-imperialists, who were recently honored by the regime in Venezuela, portray Maduro as a “democratically elected” leader victimized by US imperialism, while Juan Guaidó—who has been recognized by more than 50 countries as interim president—is relentlessly smeared as a “far-right puppet of the US.”
This, of course, is utter nonsense. Guaidó’s political party, Voluntad Popular, is extremely liberal and a member of the Socialist International. Guaidó is also the head of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s equivalent of Congress. “The democratic world must recognise the national assembly as the only legitimate government of Venezuela, and work with it to draw up a plan towards democratic transition. The assembly was elected in December 2015, in a vote that was universally recognised as free and fair, and the opposition controls 67% of seats,” writes Venezuelan journalist Reynaldo Trombetta.
Maduro reacted to this historic defeat by stripping the National Assembly of its powers and creating an illegitimate parallel legislature—the National Constituent Assembly—to undermine the democratically elected legislative body. Maduro then proceeded to win a sham election in 2018, the electoral process of which did “not in any way fulfill minimal conditions for free and credible elections,” according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. Opposition candidates were thrown in jail and political opponents were banned from running.
Maduro apologists point fingers at the Americans, blaming them for Venezuela’s collapse. But this is wildly misleading and dishonest—a cynical attempt to give Maduro a free pass. The US was, prior to this year, Venezuela’s number one buyer of oil. The targeted sanctions that began in 2015 could not have caused a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude: targeted sanctions against specific individuals do not cause hyperinflation and mass starvation. And the Trump administration’s oil sanctions, which began in January of this year, were imposed well after Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis had spiraled out of control.
Yet these facts are either ignored or downplayed by Maduro’s cheerleaders in the west, who include leaders of the biggest socialist organization in the US, the Democratic Socialists of America. In April, when Guaidó’s approval rating was at 60% and Maduro’s was just 14%, the DSA wrote: “DSA stands with the people of Venezuela against the US-sponsored coup attempt led by Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López.”
How can left-wing activists so easily dismiss the democratic uprising led by Guaidó’s supporters as a coup attempt when there are provisions within the Venezuelan Constitution that allow for an interim president? What is the rationale for balking at the opposition’s calls for free and fair elections? These democratic socialists have, ironically, sided with the autocracies that back Maduro, whose dictatorship would have likely fallen by now without Russian and Cuban intervention. Russia has loaned billions of dollars to Venezuela’s embattled government and remains their biggest supplier of weaponry; Putin has even sent troops to help Maduro maintain his iron grip. Cuba provides security and military specialists in exchange for oil. Just as the Russian and Iranian intervention rescued Assad’s brutal dictatorship, Russia and Cuba are keeping the Maduro regime afloat. Despite this, dictatorships that are perceived as anti-US are routinely heralded as bastions of anti-imperialism by the misguided left.
It has been nearly eight months since Guaidó used constitutional procedures to replace the dictator, but the military still remains in Maduro’s hands. Negotiations and protests have led nowhere, and the Trump administration—hoping for an “easy foreign policy win,” which would help it secure key states like Florida—is now expanding sanctions into an economic embargo against Venezuela. These new sanctions are unhelpful and will almost certainly exacerbate the crisis.
But promoting inaction is also unhelpful. To be sure, the US has a history of intervening in Latin America and elsewhere on behalf of tyrannical dictators, so it’s easy to see why leftists would think that history is repeating itself. But knee-jerk reactions do nothing to help oppressed people struggling for democracy. And recognizing the head of Venezuela’s last remaining democratic institution so that free and fair elections can be held does not constitute a coup.
Leftists must reassess their stance on Venezuela. The ignominious failure of chavismo must be acknowledged, regardless of one’s position on the ideological spectrum. Ideology should never subvert facts and discount human lives. Moreover, the left needs to take a hard look at the kinds of governments with which it aligns itself. It is unfathomable that dictators in Syria and Venezuela should come to be viewed as the good guys. Support for Assad and Maduro is not an anomaly: we’ve witnessed leftists rally behind murderous tyrants, such as Milošević and Gaddafi, before.
It is time for leftists to realign their values with the harsh truths of the world. Support for tyrannical dictators must never become normalized. If left-wing anti-imperialists are to be taken seriously, they must oppose western imperialism and non-western dictators alike.