Why Does Latin America’s Left Care About Syria?

Raul Gallegos is a Bloomberg View contributor, who covers Latin American politics, business and finance. He was a columnist for Reuters and a correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. He grew up in El Salvador and is based in Colombia.
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The potential for a U.S. military response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against the opposition is the type of opportunity Latin America's radical leftists seize.

The region's anti-American leaders have a history of blaming U.S. foreign policy and its economic model for most of the developing world's problems. It's easier to denounce the checkered history of overseas incursions by a world superpower than to examine one's own recurring mistakes.

So, it comes as no surprise that on Aug. 27, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro commented that an attack against Syria could set offa "disastrous war." The next day he took to Twitter to call for "No More Imperial Wars of conquest against the people of the world, capitalism always imposes a war to get out of its crises ..." Such concern for human life is commendable considering that the public-safety record of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, allowed rampant crime in Venezuela to take more civilian lives than the Iraq War did during the same 9-year period.

Some Venezuelans have gone beyond supportive rhetoric. Abdel el-Zabayar, a lawmaker of Syrian descent for the Chavista party Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela apparently asked for and received leave from Congress to fight with the Syrian army to defend Assad's regime. He'sreportedlycurrently in Syria.

Fidel Castro, Cuba's ailing former president, would not be outdone by Maduro. In an op-ed published on Aug. 28 on Cuba's newspaper Granma he declared that "patriotic forces of a heroic Syria" and the Arab people in general are facing "genocide" at the hands of "the empire and its allies." Castro described Assad as a doctor who merely "assumed a political role when his father, Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000." That certainly brings to mind another man without democratic credentials who ruled Cuba for 49 years and still holds the record for the world's longest-running mandate.

Under the rule of the Castro brothers, Cubans are literate and have seen achievements in health statistics, but only after surrendering economic freedoms, freedom of speech and basic human rights to the will of a dictatorship. Patriots who complained too loudly fill jails. Plus, the capitalism that the Castros love to hate is making a comeback. Raul Castro is gradually, if reluctantly, pushing the island to embrace capitalist logic, hoping to revive an economy after decades of inefficiency and non-existent productivity.

Venezuela's so-called "21st Century Socialism," Chavez's economic experiment, has also failed to deliver. Populist giveaways helpedthe poor in the short run. But theystunted the middle class over the past decade, even as the middle class in Latin America grew 50 percent in that same period. Chavismo -- the political movement supportive of Hugo Chavez -- has also aided the very rich who have cozied up to the regime and the dollar-earning expats who benefit from continued bolivar devaluations.

Castro and Maduro's spirited defense of Syria is notable not for its concern for others but as proof that the region's left continues to define itself by opposing what the U.S. stands for rather than proposing sustainable alternatives. Vying for peace may be commendable for a leader but not as a way to distract citizens from the failings of their own government.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.