Today, as international Jewish organizations follow the situation of Venezuelas Jews, it is important to place the hardship they are encountering in the context of the countrys situation as a whole. The anti-democratic actions of the government of President Hugo Chavez of which verbal and occasionally physical assaults on Jews are but one example are creating suffering for many other people outside the Jewish community.
Chavezs attempt to attain complete control over Venezuelan society affects the basic fundamental rights of all the countrys citizens. The state-sponsored anti-Semitism has taken by surprise not only the Jewish community, which today has shrunk to some 17,000 people (down from 28,000 in 1998, when Chavez entered the presidency), but also Venezuelas tolerant civil society, which has never experienced discord, despite the many different immigrant groups that have landed on the countrys shores over more than a century.
Today, though, the countrys Jews are just one among many sets of victims of a government policy of hate instigation that takes its inspiration from the time-honored policy of divide and rule. It aims to pit the poor against the well-off, the uneducated against the learned, the followers of President Chavez against his opponents, and people with Venezuelan roots against descendants of immigrants.
The government discriminates against and harasses all who express opposition to the so-called 21st-century socialism that Chavez is trying to impose. Harsh jail sentences have been imposed on political dissenters, who are subjected to hasty trials that give the deceptive impression that justice was done. Expropriation of both land and private companies steps that severely affect the right of individuals to own property are other signs of a growing climate of fear and intolerance sweeping the country.
Chavez is trying to transform Venezuela into a centralized communist state, a la Cuba, and his authoritarianism poses a serious threat to Venezuelan democracy. By the end of 2010, the National Assembly, also controlled by the president, hurriedly passed into law 20 bills that go against democratic values and rights to life, freedom, justice, political pluralism and freedom of expression. (These include measures to close radio and TV stations that express opposition to the regime, promote civil disobedience or broadcast messages that may cause anxiety in society.)
And as if these new laws, which violate such international treaties as the Inter-American Democratic Charter, were not enough, another bill voted into law in December empowers the president to govern by decree for the next 18 months, circumventing the newly elected opposition representatives of the National Assembly, scheduled to take office this month.
In this unstable climate, the anti-Semitic discourse in the official media, the profanation and criminal violation of the oldest synagogue in Caracas in January 2009, and the invasion of the capitals Jewish school and Hebraica club by an armed commando squad (which was said to be searching for a cache of Mossad arms) in late 2004 have wakened ancient fears and a strong feeling of insecurity in the Jewish community.
But it is very important to note that after each episode of government-inspired aggression, Venezuelan citizens have raised their voices in protest. A remarkable example was the action of an association called Radar de los Barrios (The Slums Radar). After the attack on the synagogue, members of the group undertook to remove the anti-Semitic inscriptions from the walls. According to the organization, they wanted to convey a simple and powerful message: to erase the hate.
Local intellectuals, journalists and civil society organizations have always opposed these attacks against the Jewish community and have publicly dissented in the written press and elsewhere, knowing that defending minorities is one of the means of defending democracy in the country.
In these difficult circumstances, Jewish families, as well as numerous other Venezuelan families long present in the country, have chosen to emigrate, since they feel their future is threatened by the governments insistence on imposing a failed and rejected way of life.
Venezuela, long a country of immigrants, has become one of emigration.
The Jewish presence in the country dates back to the 16th century. The first Jews sailed from the then-Dutch colony of Curacao and disembarked in the colonial city of Coro. Several waves of immigration followed one another, but the most important ones were those in the period before and during World War II, when Jews found a welcoming haven in Venezuela at a time when no other country allowed the ships filled with refugees from Nazism to disembark. They were received and lodged in large farms until each family found work and a home.
The righteous men and women of Venezuela gave those immigrants a chance to grow roots in the land and to become full citizens. As a result, the community has lived in peace, worked and contributed to the growth of the country.
The righteous Venezuelans of today are neither fooled nor carried away by hate speeches against their fellow citizens. It is important to transcend the idea of victimization of Venezuelan Jews and transform their plight into part of the struggle for democracy of the people of this generous country.
Lena Soffer, a landscape architect, is a Caracas native living in Paris. She acts as a spokesperson there for Dialogo por Venezuela, a Venezuelan organization in France that works to advance the cause of democracy in Venezuela.
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