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Powerful and prosperous: Inside Venezuela’s Syrian community

Up to a million Venezuelans have Syrian ancestry with members of the diaspora reaching the corridors of political power and becoming an integral part of the country's social fabric
Venezuelan-Syrian Tareck El-Aissami (left) serves as President Nicolas Maduro's deputy (AFP)

Nestled in the marina of the port city of Puerto La Cruz in northern Venezuela, the prominent Arabist and author Habeeb Salloum surprisingly claimed to have found “one of the tastiest kebabs [he] had ever eaten.”

“The cook, hailing from Aleppo, had done a superb job,” he wrote upon visiting Puerto La Cruz in 2018.

He continued: “No meal, even in his hometown, could have been more satisfying than this dinner in one of Venezuela’s top resorts.” 

This is by no means an indication that the late Arab-Canadian Salloum might have had a limited culinary palette or exposure to fine kebabs, but more so a reflection of the strength and impact of Venezuela’s Syrian community. 

The Latin American country has historically been home to a prominent Syrian diaspora. Exact figures are hard to nail down, but there are anywhere between 700,000 and a million Venezuelans of Syrian descent, among 1.6 million Arab Venezuelans. 

“The Syrian community in Venezuela is vast and important, not only in terms of population but it holds a great economic importance in the country,” Halim Naim, an Arab-Venezuelan journalist, tells Middle East Eye.

Ottoman exodus

The arrival of the first Syrians to Venezuelan shores dates back to the late 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire that occupied modern-day Syria had fallen on hard times, pushing many of its inhabitants to set sail in search of new opportunities.

“Syria, as the whole of the Middle East, was going through a super tough time,” Naim says.

“In Syria there were battles, there were disputes, there was war, and people had to somehow flee from that.” 

It is estimated that approximately 1.2 million people left the Ottoman Empire between 1860 and 1914 and ventured to the Americas in hopes of a better life. 

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Ottoman military units parade in Syria; many Syrians left their country to seek a break from Turkish rule (Public domain)

“For late 19th and early 20th century immigrants, everything was America. But it wasn't the United States only; the initial immigrants who arrived in Venezuela were very much planning on going to America, which was this hazy general conception of the [Western] hemisphere,” says John Tofik Karam, associate professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Chicago's DePaul University and director of the Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies.

As was the case with all the Levantine migrants fleeing Ottoman rule at the time, the incoming Syrians were initially considered ‘Turks’ in their new Venezuelan home. 

The wave of incoming Syrian migrants generally settled in well to their new Latin American home, with the community setting up shop primarily in the capital city of Caracas, and the states of Nueva Esparta, Zulia or Carabobo. 

Social integration and mobility

Syrians in Venezuela initially got by as simple merchants and peddlers and began working as shoemakers, travelling salesmen, or carpenters before eventually going on to set up their own shops or businesses. 

They initially opted for a more rural lifestyle, shunning the urban metropolis in favour of a quieter life than would enable them to foster greater economic strength and guarantee social mobility. 

“They arrived in small Venezuelan towns because they felt at home there. They sought rural areas and settled in places that didn’t have much business, as it allowed them to get an economic foothold. And it worked, they became a powerful community, economically and in terms of population,” Naim adds. 

The Syrian community’s prosperity in their newfound home was facilitated due to the similarities between Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures, which allowed for a smoother social integration and growth. 

“[Their integration] was almost immediate, it happened in a very natural way,” journalist, diplomat, and writer Diego Gomez Pickering tells Middle East Eye. 

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Famous Venezuelan-Syrians include the beauty queen and former Miss Venezuela, Mariam Habach (AFP)

“The process of adapting to their new realities occurred quite abruptly but also in a very fluid, friendly way for those migrants from the Levant because societal structures across Latin America were not dissimilar to those in Arab societies.”

This was also compounded by a cultural amiability towards Syrians and Arabs which allowed the incoming migrants to settle more easily. 

“When you say ‘Arab’ in Venezuela it invokes someone familiar, whereas in the anglophone North when you say ‘Arab’ it doesn't invoke familiarity. It evokes a kind of foreigner, someone from outside that isn't really a part of the national imagination,” Tofik Karam tells MEE. 

The focus on economic stability among the very first migrants allowed future generations to prioritise education and further bolster their socio-economic prospects in their new home. 

“The first generation was - for the most part - not formally educated, so coming into money they put their children in school,” Tofik Karam says. 

“In Venezuela and elsewhere the main fields of study were medicine and law and engineering, and within the first Venezuelan-born generation you see different notables ascending the social ladder and becoming politically successful.”

Political influence and division

The Syrian diaspora’s political influence in Venezuela peaked at the turn of the century, under the leadership of former president Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. 

“You began to see Syrians participating in national politics, especially during the introduction of Chavismo in Venezuela as it is quite similar to the ideology that many knew from back home,” Naim says. 

A number of Syrian-Venezuelans found success as Chavista politicians. Notable among them were Tareck El Aissami, the former minister of interior and current minister of petroleum; Haiman El Troudi, the former minister of transport; Soraya El Achkar, the former head of the National Police; and former National Assembly member Adel El Zabayar.

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The latter even travelled to Syria to enlist with government forces in the ongoing Syrian civil war. In 2020 he was charged in the United States for his participation in narco-terrorist conspiracies, drug trafficking and a number of arms-related felonies. 

While in power, Chavez established close ties with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad, visiting Damascus on a number of occasions, denouncing Israel and even establishing a direct flight from Caracas to Damascus. 

“The Venezeulan regime has taken refuge in a discourse of defence of minorities, of alliance with Arabs, they antagonise Israel and they antagonise any imperial country as they define it,” Naim explains, continuing:

“That definitely pleases Syrians who have been listening to the same discourse since they were a child and who feel at home and protected [in Venezuela]. That definitely makes them feel comfortable with and supportive of the regime, not all of them, but many do support the Chavista regime in Venezuela.” 

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The Venezualan and Syrian governments have been strong allies since late President Hugo Chavez (left) won power in Venezuela in 1998 (AFP)

This proximity between the Venezuelan state and the Syrian government has driven a wedge in the contemporary Syrian community in Venezuela, as many disagree with the idea of having such close ties with Assad’s regime. 

“The community is divided, like much of the [Syrian] nation,” Tofik Karam says.

In a mirror of the crisis in Syria that has seen millions of people flee the country, Venezuela's devastating economic crisis caused by mismanagement, falling oil prices and US sanctions has seen six million Venezuelans flee the country.

Nonetheless, despite the politically charged situation in their native homeland and the divisions it has fostered in the diaspora in Venezuela, Syrians in the Latin American country have built a prosperous community that has played a key role in the development of modern-day Venezuela. 

“They had a very important influence, that can be seen even at the cultural level. I definitely believe that the population, not only the Syrian but the Arab population in general, has contributed a lot to the advancement of Venezuela,” Naim says. 

This article is part of a series.  To read more, click here.