Will Venezuelan anti-Semitism Die With Hugo Chavez?

Under Chavez, Venezuela became a source of incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric that spilled over into open hostility towards the dwindling Venezuelan Jewish community, and his successors seem likely to continue to stoke anti-Semitism as a useful political tool.

Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
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Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen

Over the several months that preceded yesterday's announcement by the Venezuelan government of the death of Hugo Chavez, there was one overarching theme in the discussion of the country's political future: to what extent will Chavismo – a term that encapsulates both Chavez's authoritarian governing style and his radical ideology – survive into the post-Chavez era?

It's a question that is especially pertinent for Venezuela's Jewish community as well as the State of Israel. During his fourteen years in power, Chavez's foreign policy was grounded on alliances with some of the world's most bellicosely anti-American states, like Cuba, Iran and Syria. Inevitably, given the close relationship between America and Israel, Venezuela became the source of some of the most incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric heard during the last decade and a half. Just as inevitably, this antagonism towards Israel spilled over into open hostility towards the dwindling Venezuelan Jewish community, which found itself cast in the role of a fifth column seeking to undermine Chavez's Bolivarian revolution.

Now that Chavez has departed from this world, will the Jew-baiting tendencies of Chavismo persist or subside? At the moment, sadly, there is little reason for optimism on this front.

Those Jewish organizations in the United States who maintain close contact with the Venezuelan Jewish community point out that, bar some major unforeseen developments, there is unlikely to be a further mass exodus now that Chavez is dead. The current size of the community is estimated at between 7-9,000, an enormous dip from the peak of 30,000 at the start of the Chavez era. The remnant that has stayed put will, for the time being, watch political developments closely, in the hope that Chavez's successors might adopt a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach.

"It's difficult to predict the future of anti-Semitism in Venezuela," Daniel Duquenal, the author of Venezula's leading dissident blog, told me. Should Nicolas Maduro, the current Vice-President and Chavez's chosen successor, become Venezuela's next leader, Duquenal argues, there is little reason to believe that anti-Semitism will dissipate. Maduro, a former bus driver, is an orthodox follower of Chavez, but he lacks the late Comandante's charismatic touch. Against that weakness, "the pro-Iran, knee jerk anti-American and anti-Israel currents may want to use anti-Semitism as an 'argument,'" Duquenal said.

Sammy Eppel, a leading Venezuelan Jewish human rights activist, feels similarly. Those state-controlled Venezuelan media outlets that have promoted anti-Semitism in the past will continue to do so "unless they get a clear directive to the contrary," Eppel said.

Eppel is particularly concerned by Maduro's statement that the cancer which claimed Chavez's life was deliberately implanted. In making this bizarre declaration, Maduro, who told reporters that a "scientific commission will prove that Comandante Chavez was attacked with this illness," explicitly invoked the death of the PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Echoing the insistence of many Palestinians that Arafat was poisoned, Maduro said that like Chavez, Arafat was also "inoculated with an illness." Said Sammy Eppel: "The canard that Chavez's cancer was induced by some foreign conspiracy is troubling."

Thus far, Maduro has not linked the poisoning allegations to Israel or the local Jewish community. However, fears that he might do so can't simply be dismissed as paranoia. Especially over the last ten years, a clear pattern of anti-Jewish harassment has become visible. In 2004 and again in 2007, Venezuelan security services raided Jewish institutions, among them the Jewish school in Caracas and the Hebraica Jewish Community Center. Just last month, an Argentine website revealed that SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence agency, had been spying on the Espacio Anne Frank, a non-profit center that uses Anne Frank's experiences under the Nazis as the basis for its human rights and tolerance programs.

A SEBIN dossier asserted that the center "operates as a strategic arm of the Israeli intelligence in the country...operating in the field of subversive socio-political influence through representatives of far-right Zionist groups and economic elites." In an email the JTA Jewish news service, Paulina Gamus, the director of Espacio Anne Frank, candidly responded that, "[T]hey accuse us of belonging to the Mossad and the Israeli secret services only because we are an institution that promotes respect of different religions and cultures and has a Jewish component, although we are all Venezuelans."

Venezuela's opposition parties, vilified by the regime on a daily basis as agents of foreign powers, could also provide further raw material to sustain the anti-Semitic trend. At the moment, Henrique Capriles, a devout Catholic who proudly notes his family's Jewish origins, is seen as the likely opposition candidate should elections be called. Capriles, who faced off against Chavez during last October's presidential election, in which he garnered an impressive 44 per cent of the vote, was the subject of a feverish anti-Semitic whispering campaign throughout the contest. Just last week, while Capriles was visiting relatives in New York, Maduro declared, "I have all the data, exactly where he is in Manhattan, in New York, at this moment." It doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to speculate that Maduro will accuse Capriles of having had ulterior motives in traveling to the United States.

On the other hand, said blogger Daniel Duquenal, should Maduro's principal rival Diosdado Cabello, a wealthy businessman with strong ties to the Venezuelan military, prevail as the government's preferred candidate, "we may see the end of the formal anti-Semitism that we see now in some state media." However, any power struggle between Maduro and Cabello is certain to be bitter, and therefore vulnerable to all kinds of conspiracy theories, including anti-Semitic ones.

Most of all, the stoking of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism has been a critical element of the Chavez regime's bid to become the ideological center of the world's radical states. With other Latin American countries like Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia now jockeying for the position of guardian of the continent's revolutionary elements, the Chavistas who have outlived Chavez may decide that lowering the volume on anti-Jewish rhetoric is, for the time being, a compromise too far.

Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer on Jewish and international affairs. His articles and commentaries have been published in, amongst others, the Wall Street Journal, Commentary and Tablet.

In this undated photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Hugo Chavez, center, looks at the camera during a military exercise in Venezuela.Credit: AP

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