Like one of those telenovelas that are so popular on Latin American television stations, the slow yet inexorable deterioration of Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, has been soaked in drama and cloying sentimentality.
For almost two years, Chavez has been fighting cancer. And for most of that time, he has been claiming—falsely—to have been cured. But less than two months after winning a fourth term in last October’s election, Chavez was spirited back to Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s doctors have been treating him.
Chavez’s vice president and designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, is urging the Venezuelan people to pray for Chavez’s recovery. Maduro knows, though, that the end is nigh, and that Venezuela consequently stands on the cusp of a political crisis. If Chavez is unable to make his presidential inauguration on Jan. 10, there is a constitutional requirement for elections within 30 days. However, infighting in the Chavez camp, as well as an understandable reluctance on the part of the country’s opposition to fight an election campaign that will be dominated by Chavez’s legacy, doesn’t bode well for elections in the near term.
The current situation affords the opportunity for a critical reassessment of the Chavez era. In his 14 years in power, Chavez turned Venezuela into the Latin American hub of a global network of anti-American, authoritarian rogue states. There is scarcely a fellow dictator he didn’t befriend. Some, like the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, are no longer with us. Others—among them the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe—remain, sadly, alive and in power. The closest relationship of all is that forged with the Castro brothers in Cuba, Fidel and Raul, whose ailing economy is kept afloat by heavily subsidized oil from Venezuela, which is Latin America’s biggest producer.
With allies like these, it should come as no surprise that Chavez became an arch-foe of the State of Israel. In one of the last foreign policy statements he made before returning to hospital in Cuba in December, Chavez denounced what he called the “savage” Israeli attack on Gaza. In 2009, on the previous occasion that Israel responded militarily to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, Chavez told the French newspaper Le Figaro that the Israel had launched a “genocide” against the Palestinians. “The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They’re doing it openly,” he said.
Such incendiary statements won Chavez the admiration of the Arab street. In 2006, during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera praised Chavez for beating Arab leaders to the punch when he became the first head of state to condemn Israel’s actions. Similar gasps of admiration greeted his decision to expel the Israeli ambassador to Caracas in 2009.
In attacking Israel, though, Chavez inadvertently undermined the arguments of those who say that anti-Zionism is one thing, anti-Semitism something else entirely. In many ways, Chavez’s attitude to Israel mirrored that of the Soviet Union. Just as the USSR marked its own Jews out as a fifth column during its decades-long propaganda campaign against Zionism, so did Chavez.
Before Chavez came to power in 1999, there were 30,000 Jews in Venezuela. Now, the community has dwindled to just less than 9,000. Having experienced virtually no anti-Semitism in their history, the Chavez years ushered in a set of new and frightening experiences for Venezuela’s Jews, from cartoons in the press that could have been lifted from the notorious Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer, to the vandalism of the main synagogue in Caracas in 2009. As a depressing summary by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism noted last September, “Recent years have witnessed a rise in anti-Semitic manifestations, including vandalism, media attacks, caricatures, and physical attacks on Venezuelan Jewish institutions.”
Members of the Venezuelan opposition that I’ve spoken to over the last year have all remarked on the virulence of Chavez’s anti-Semitism. In 2012, Israel was temporarily displaced by the emergence of a domestic Jewish target, in the form of the rival presidential candidate to Chavez, the youthful and energetic Henrique Capriles. While Capriles is a practicing Catholic, his mother’s family, the Radonskis, arrived in Venezuela after surviving the Holocaust in Poland. Other members of the family perished in the Nazi concentration camps.
In their attacks on Capriles, Chavez and his press lackeys referred to him with an array of derogatory terms—”gringo,” “bourgeois,” “imperialist,” and, above all, “Zionist.” Moreover, there was no doubt that by “Zionist,” the regime meant “Jew.” Perhaps the ugliest headline during the election campaign appeared in a muckraking magazine, Kikiriki, which read, “We are F–ked if the Jews Come to Power.”
Why, then, did anti-Semitism become such a potent force in a country that eschewed it for so long? Some analysts, like Daniel Duquenal, the author of a vibrant dissident blog, regard it as the inevitable outcome of Chavez’s alliance with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Yet there is another factor. The main ideological influence on Chavez was a relatively obscure Argentinian sociologist, Norberto Ceresole. An ardent admirer of Peronism in Argentina, Ceresole was living proof of what happens when the obsessions of the far left overlap with those of the far right. A Holocaust denier and all-round conspiracy theorist, Ceresole’s theories became the basis for what Venezuelans know as Chavismo, the matrix of social institutions and values created by the Chavez regime. The first chapter of a book in which Ceresole extolled the virtues of such a system, in which the relationship between the “leader” and the “people” is privileged, was entitled “The Jewish Problem.”
As Chavez’s acolytes ready themselves to preserve his system after his death, there are few reasons to believe that antagonism towards Jews will disappear. Nicolas Maduro is an orthodox Chavista who, as foreign minister, enthusiastically pushed for even closer relations with Israel’s enemies. Maduro’s main rival, the National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, is viewed as less ideologically motivated—yet he too is unlikely to mend fences with Israel and the U.S.
Moreover, even after he is buried, Chavez’s figure will loom large in the political life of Venezuela. Should Henrique Capriles challenge Chavez’s successor, it is probable, according to Sammy Eppel, director of the Human Rights Commission of B’nai B’rith Venezuela, that the “shocking anti-Semitic” caricatures used against him last year will emerge again.
As for Chavez himself, Eppel does not hold back. “Chavez will probably be remembered as the one who made Venezuelan Jews feel that for the first time they were not welcome in their own country, a chilling reminder of past tragedies,” he told me in an email.
For the Venezuelan people, facing economic chaos and political meltdown, the tragedy continues.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.