The closest I ever came to Venezuela, many years ago, was a transit connection at Caracas airport. I noticed a lot of soldiers in red berets and a clutch of goons, and it reminded me, vaguely, of the Middle East.
Now, sitting in the rain squalls of the wintry Levant, I flick through my newspaper clippings of our recent local autocrats – Saddam, Assad, al-Sisi, Erdogan, Mohammed bin Salman (you can fill in the rest for yourself) – and I think of Nicolas Maduro.
The comparisons are by no means precise. Indeed, it’s not the nature of the “strongmen” I’m thinking about. It’s our reaction to all these chaps. And there are two obvious parallels: the way in which we sanction and isolate the hated dictator – or love him, as the case may be – and the manner in which we not only name the opposition as the rightful heir to the nation, but demand that democracy be delivered to the people whose torture and struggle for freedom we have suddenly discovered.
And before I forget it, there’s one other common thread in this story. If you suggest that those who want presidential change in Venezuela may be a little too hasty, and our support for – let us say – Juan Guaido might be a bit premature if we don’t want to start a civil war, this means you are “pro-Maduro”.
Just as those who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq were “pro-Saddam”, or those who thought the west might pause before it supported the increasingly violent opposition in Syria were labelled “pro-Assad”.
And those who defended Yasser Arafat – over a long period a super-terrorist, a super-diplomat and then a super-terrorist again – against those who would oust him as leader of the Palestinians, were abused as “pro-Arafat”, “pro-Palestinian”, “pro-terrorist” and, inevitably, “anti-Semitic”. I recall how George W Bush warned us after 9/11, that “you are either with us or against us”. The same threat was made to us about Assad.
Erdogan has used it in Turkey (less than three years ago) and it was a common line in the forgotten 1930s used by none other than Mussolini. And now I quote Trump’s US secretary of state Michael Pompeo on Maduro: “Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side … either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”
You get the point. Now is the time for all good people to stand alongside the United States, the EU, the nations of Latin America – or do you support the Russkies, Chinese, Iranian headbangers, the perfidious Corbyn and (of all people) the Greeks? Talking of the Greeks, European pressure on Alexis Tsipras to conform to the EU’s support for Guaido – proving that the EU can indeed bully its smaller members – is a good argument for Brexiteers (though far too complex for them to understand).
But first, let’s take a look at our favourite tyrant, in the words of all who oppose him. He’s a powerful dictator, surrounded by generals, suppressing his people, using torture, mass arrests, secret police murders, rigged elections, political prisoners – so no wonder we gave our support to those who wish to overthrow this brutal man and stage democratic elections.
Not a bad precis of our current policy towards the Maduro regime. But I am referring, of course, word-for-word, to the west’s policy towards the Assad regime in Syria. And our support for opposition democracy there wasn’t terribly successful.
We were not solely responsible for the Syrian civil war – but we were not guiltless since we sent an awful lot of weapons to those trying to overthrow Assad. And last month the notepad of US national security advisor John Bolton appeared to boast a plan to send 5,000 US troops to Colombia…
And now let’s tick the box on another Maduro-lookalike – at least from the west’s simplistic point of view: the military-backed elected field marshal-president al-Sisi of Egypt, whom we love, admire and protect. Powerful dictator? Yup. Surrounded and supported by generals? You bet, not least because he locked up a rival general before the last election. Suppression? Absolutely – all in the interest of crushing “terrorism”, of course.
Mass arrests? Happily yes, for all the inmates of Egypt’s savage prison system are “terrorists”, at least according to the field marshal-president himself. Secret police murders? Well, even forgetting the young Italian student suspected by his government to have been allegedly tortured and bumped off by one of Sisi’s top Egyptian cops, there’s a roll call of disappeared activists.
Rigged elections? No doubt about it, although al-Sisi still maintains that his last triumph at the polls – a cracking 97 per cent – was a free and fair election.
President Trump sent his “sincere congratulations”. Political prisoners? Well, the total is 60,000 and rising. Oh yes, and Maduro’s last victory – a rigged election if ever there was one, of course – was a mere 67.84 per cent.
As the late sage of the Sunday Express, John Gordon, might have said: it makes you sit up a bit. So, too, I suppose, when we glance a bit further eastwards to Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers were routed in 2001 by the US, whose post-9/11 troops and statesmen ushered in a new life of democracy, then corruption, warlordism and civil war.
The “democracy” bit quickly came unstuck when “loya jurgas”, grand councils, turned into tribal playpens and the Americans announced that it would be an exaggeration to think that we could achieve “Jeffersonian democracy” in Afghanistan. Too true.
Now the Americans are negotiating with the “terrorist” Taliban in Qatar so they can get the hell out of the Graveyard of Empires after 17 years of military setbacks, scandals and defeats – not to mention running a few torture camps which even Maduro would cough to look at.
Now all this may not encourage you to walk down memory lane. And I haven’t even listed the sins of Saddam, let alone our continuing and cosy relationship – amazing as it still seems – with that Gulf state whose lads strangled, chopped up and secretly buried a US-resident journalist in Turkey.
Now just imagine if Maduro, tired of a journalist critic slandering him in Miami, decided to lure him to the Venezuelan embassy in Washington and top the poor guy, slice him up and bury him secretly in Foggy Bottom. Well now, I have a feeling that sanctions might have been applied to Maduro a long time ago. But not to Saudi Arabia, of course, where we are very definitely not advocating democracy.
“Now is the time for democracy and prosperity in Venezuela,” quoth John Bolton this week. Oh, yes indeed. Maduro runs an oil-soaked nation yet its people starve. He is an unworthy, foolish and vain man, even if he’s not Saddamite in his crimes. He was rightly described by a colleague as a dreary tyrant. He even looks like the kind of guy who tied ladies to railway lines in silent movies.
So good luck to Guaido. Palpably a nice guy, speaks eloquently, wise to stick to aid for the poor and fresh elections rather than dwell on just how exactly Maduro and his military chums are going to be booted out.
In other words, good luck – but watch out. Instead of pleading with those who will not support him – the Greeks, for example – he might take a closer look at who his foreign friends are. And do a quick track record on their more recent crusades for freedom, democracy and the right to life. And by the way, I haven’t even mentioned Libya.