The city of Coro in northwest Venezuela, on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, has a curious history. It was founded in 1527 by Spanish conquistadors but two years later was “given” to the German banking family Welser, along with the rest of Venezuela, by Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V, in recognition of their financial support. The Welsers established the first German colony in the Americas and renamed it “Kleine Venedig” - Little Venice. For the next twenty years Coro served as base for German expeditions in search of the legendary golden city of El Dorado, until Spain decided to take it back.
The fortunes of Coro rose and fell in the ensuing centuries, depending on weather and wars, but the peak of its prosperity came in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Coro served as the main gateway of Spanish colonial authorities to the northern part of South America. Trade with the Dutch-owned island of Curacao also boomed, enticing about 200 Curacaoan Jews to set up shop in Coro, less than 100 miles away. The Coro community prospered, but success would ultimately lead to its demise.
Coro hosts the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Americas that is still in use, though its clients are no longer Jewish. It was established in 1832 by Joseph Curiel and his wife Deborah Levi-Maduro as a burial place for their deceased daughter, Chana Yocheved. Relatives of Curiel and Levi-Maduro went on to establish two separate banking institutions that merged in 1970 to create the Maduro-Curiel bank, which is the largest in the Dutch Antilles.
Among the distant descendants of the Levi-Maduro family, one of the most influential to emerge from Sephardic Amsterdam, one might very well include its controversial President, Nicolas Maduro. In a 2013 interview, Maduro tried to rebuff accusations of anti-Semitism by alluding to his own Jewish roots: His name lends credence to his claim. But while a genius genealogist might find a tangential link with grieving mother Devorah, her 19th Century Jewish community of Coro is impacting Maduro’s fate in a far more profound and dramatic way.
When Venezuela’s War of Independence and subsequent civil unrest ravaged Coro and laid waste to its economy, public anger turned towards the city’s still successful Jewish merchants. The Jews were subjected to growing incitement and violence, which culminated in 1855 in one of the Western Hemisphere’s few anti-Jewish riots that historians describe as a “pogrom”. The response was just as unique: The Dutch dispatched a naval force to evacuate the Jews, most of whom were citizens of Curacao, in what may very well be the only recorded military operation launched by a European power that focused exclusively on saving Jews.
After transporting the 168 Jews of Coro, along with their 88 slaves, to safety in Curacao’s Willemstad, the Dutch pressed the Venezuelan government in Caracas to compensate them. After the end of the Venezuelan Federal War, which broke out in Coro, the Jews began to gradually return to the city, despite the continued hostility of the locals. Their return was short-lived: In 1902 a crisis broke out between Venezuela and the colonial powers over Caracas’ failure to repay debts. Italy, Germany and Britain imposed a naval blockade on Venezuela and the ensuing outbreak of hostility to foreigners compelled the Dutch authorities to once again send a warship to save the Jews of Coro.
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The clash between the superpowers of the Old Continent and Venezuelan President Castro - Cipriano, not Fidel - was the main impetus for President Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to revise the 1823 Monroe Doctrine with what is known today as “Roosevelt’s Corollary”. Fearing that the crisis with Caracas could lead to a full-scale invasion by the three European partners - that might exclude other countries, including the U.S. and Holland, from securing their own repayments - Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine’s opposition to any further European colonization in Latin America by asserting an American role as the Old Continent’s debt collector. The U.S., Roosevelt said, would guarantee, with military force if necessary, that Latin American countries don’t welch on their debts, thus averting the danger of European invasion.
The “Roosevelt Corollary” henceforth served as a base to justify countless American interventions in Central and South America, both military and clandestine, none of which had anything remotely to do with repaying debts to Europe. It underpinned Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send U.S. forces to fight in World War I. It is considered to be the Founding Father of the self-appointed U.S. role as “policeman of the world”, which both Barack Obama and, far more strenuously Donald Trump, have tried to discard.
But the Coro Jewish community’s influence on history didn’t end there. The dispute between Castro and the Dutch over compensation for the Coro Jews remained unresolved and eventually deteriorated. In 1908 the Dutch escalated the conflict, impounding Venezuelan warships and imposing a total naval blockade on the country. Within a few short months of a deteriorating economy and social unrest, Castro was forced into exile and was replaced, with guidance and assistance from Washington, by the U.S.-supported Juan Vicente Gomez.
Gomez ruled Venezuela for 27 years, implementing important reforms but also installing a reign of corruption and terror. By granting U.S. oil companies the right to drill for Venezuelan oil, Gomez secured sufficient funds to repay Caracas’ debts and to fill his own personal pockets and those of his relatives and henchmen. Known by the nickname “Catfish”, Gomez disdained Venezuela’s democracy and destroyed the political opposition, killing as many as 100,000 of his critics and appointments.
The growing outrage at U.S. intervention, in Venezuela and elsewhere, convinced Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to replace America’s policeman role in 1934 with the “Good Neighbor” policy. World War II, however, quickly eroded Washington’s benevolence, and the ensuing Truman Doctrine proclaimed in 1947, the U.S. endeavored to fight Communist expansion everywhere - but especially in its own Latin American backyard.
Over the years, the U.S. has intervened, openly and clandestinely, to undermine left-leaning regimes and to replace them with pro-U.S. leaders in all Central American and most South American countries. Even if the stated cause of the interventions was to help or save citizens from the ravages and oppression of left-wing tyrants, the cure was often far worse than the original malady. Most of the skirmishes were motivated by the capitalistic concerns of big U.S. corporations, including the United Fruit Company, hence the moniker “Banana Wars.”
Among others, the U.S. backed, funded and embraced the harsh military dictatorship imposed on Brazil in 1964, the anti-Semitic junta of generals that seized Argentina in 1976 and the replacement of Chile’s socialist leader Victor Allende by the authoritarian cutthroat Augusto Pinochet in 1973. America’s protégés even banded together to hunt down and liquidate their dissidents and opponents in what is widely known as “Operation Condor”. Israel, which often followed in America’s footsteps and sold weapons and security knowhow to the most murderous Latin American regimes, is rumored to have run the operation.
The decades of Washington’s imperious approach and imperialistic interventions cast a dark shadow over America’s relations with Latin America to this very day. They bear directly on Trump’s considerations as he deliberates whether to use U.S. military force to oust Maduro and install Juan Guaido, the opposition leader now recognized by over 50 countries, including most Latin American states, as Venezuela’s lawful leader. An overt effort to depose Maduro, however, is likely to enrage even his haters, possibly compelling Latin American countries to back away from their support for Guaido.
And then there is the shadow of Cuba and the trauma of the Bay of Pigs invasion and numerous CIA efforts to unseat or assassinate Fidel Castro. Although the situation is completely different, the Kremlin’s increasing support for Maduro spurs faint echoes of the missile crises and nuclear confrontations of the past. Most Americans, of course, have forgotten that Castro’s Cuban revolution in 1959 would never have taken place were it not for public rage against the corrupt and despotic regime of Cuba’s U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista. And most will also ignore the fact that Havana’s increased support for Maduro is directly linked to Trump’s decision to reverse many of the steps taken by Obama to unfreeze U.S.-Cuba relations.
The U.S. President is caught between a rock and hard place. He will be damned by South Americans if he does dispatch the military to Caracas and will be damned by U.S. conservatives and his own supporters if he doesn’t, and Maduro continues to taunt him. Whatever Trump decides, he is learning the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s famous warning: “There is no escape from history.”