The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Venezuela, Isaac Cohen, on Wednesday night sent condolences to the family and friends of President Hugo Chavez, who died on Tuesday, saying, “This is pain for the family and for all the people of Venezuela.”
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Cohen had visited Chavez several times at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. On Wednesday night he said, “We were always received with great respect, and our requests and statements were positively received by him.”
But Cohen was evasive when responding to reporters' questions about Chavez's conduct and character, only that he did not know the president well and that their conversations were limited to issues involving the Jewish community, "and he always treated us in a positive manner.” During Chavez’s 14 years as president, Cohen said, Venezuela's Jews enjoyed total freedom of worship and received all necessary permits.
When Chavez became president, on February 2, 1999, Venezuela's Jewish community numbered close to 20,000. More than half of the country's Jews have left since then, mainly to Israel or to the United States. The main reasons cited for leaving were the economic changes in Venezuela, concern for personal safety, high crime levels in Caracas, where more than half of the country's Jewish community is based, and occasional outbreaks of anti-Semitism.
One woman from the Caracas Jewish community, who asked not to be identified by name, described the situation in the capital on Wednesday: “It’s very quiet in the streets. Many people are outside. I was told that there were soldiers and police officers at every main intersection, but I prefer to stay at home. We are now beginning a waiting period, waiting for what’s going to happen next. Anything could happen here. I pray there won’t be violence.”
The Jewish community of Venezuela has had a strained relationship with the Chavez government. In 2009, the government was believed to have been behind at least one attack on a Caracas synagogue, as Venezuelan police officers were among those implicated.
Venezuela severed ties with Israel following Israel's three-week Gaza operation that began in late December 2008, expelling the Israeli ambassador and staff. In May 2010, following a deadly Israeli Navy clash with a Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine Turks dead, Chavez called Israel a “genocidal state” in a national broadcast and said the Mossad was trying to kill him.
“Israel is financing the Venezuelan opposition. There are even groups of Israeli terrorists, of the Mossad, who are after me trying to kill me,” he said.
In the same speech, Chavez sent “greetings and respect” to the local Jewish community. “They know they have our affection and respect," he said. "I doubt very much that a Venezuelan Jew would support such an atrocity.”