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August 19, 2016 8:45 am

In Dire Straits — Lacking Food, Medicine — Venezuelan Jews Receive Clandestine Aid From Relatives in Israel

avatar by Lea Speyer

A line outside a Venezuelan supermarket. Photo: The Algemeiner.

A line outside a Venezuelan supermarket. Photo: The Algemeiner.

Venezuela’s Jews are suffering greatly from the country’s dire economic straits, relying on the black market and Israeli relatives for food and medicine, members of the community told The Algemeiner.

Sammy Eppel, director of B’nai B’rith Venezuela, said the lack of basic necessities “is especially difficult for the elderly.”

Eppel was referring to the state of emergency declared by the Venezuelan government in May, as a result of economic mismanagement, food shortages and low oil prices. To make matters worse, in June, the country’s Supreme Court ruled the receipt of foreign humanitarian aid unconstitutional. 

According to Eppel, the once vibrant Venezuelan Jewish community, which boasted 25,000 members 20 years ago, has dwindled to below 7,000. “Jews were specifically targeted by the regime-controlled media for what can only be called ‘subliminal persecution,’” he told The Algemeiner. “The situation got so bad that the community was forced to employ a group of professionals to monitor government-sponsored antisemitism and produce a yearly report.”

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A Venezuelan-Jewish social-media activist — who spoke to The Algemeiner on condition of anonymity, due to previous threats by the government for his work — described what it’s been like to try to buy groceries.

“People used to line up at the store at two, three in the morning and just wait for it to open,” he said. “Now, you can only go after a certain time on certain days or you will be put in jail. There is no medicine and not enough food. You can’t even find toilet paper, shampoo or tires for your car. Pepsi and Coca Cola are long gone, since there is no sugar. There is nothing.”

Today, he said, goods are obtained in one of two ways. “For people who have money, the black market is the only way to buy things. At grocery stores, one kilo of rice costs 350 bolivar’s ($35), but you can’t find rice. On the black market, the same amount of rice costs 1,500 bolivar’s ($150),” he said, adding that the wealthy also travel abroad to purchase necessities.

Empty supermarket shelves in Venezuela. Photo: The Algemeiner.

Empty supermarket shelves in Venezuela. Photo: The Algemeiner.

He told The Algemeiner that last year he flew to the United States to buy medicine for his son, since “there isn’t even any acetaminophen left.” But, he added, when he tried to smuggle it into the country on his return, “The National Guard wanted to confiscate it all.”

The activist — who lives in the countryside — is the child of Holocaust survivors who settled in Venezuela after the war. He told The Algemeiner that his family “kept their Judaism under the radar,” after dictator Hugo Chavez took control of the government in 1999. As the situation worsened, he said, relatives who had already left the country urged his family to move to Israel.

In Israel, ex-pat Venezuelans are rallying behind their friends and loved ones in need back home. According to Chana — one such Venezuelan-Israeli who requested her last name not be published — the situation is becoming “increasingly worse,” making it “very common for the Jewish community there to ask family members living abroad to bring them medicine. Those with money travel to other places, especially Miami, for that purpose.”

Chana referred to the organization Yajad (the Spanish alliteration of the word “together” in Hebrew), which serves as the main humanitarian umbrella group assisting the Jewish community in Venezuela, saying, “It gathers everything — food, medicine, clothing — and distributes it to those in need.”

She said that Jews who can afford it hire a “bachaquero,” a person who stands on line at supermarkets or scours the black market for them.

“You have to find someone you can trust. They find what you need, but it’s not easy and you have to pay a lot,” Chana said.

When asked why those with means don’t pick up and leave the country, Chana explained: “There are Jews in very good economic positions that still live in Venezuela because the work they do pays them well, and they then use the money to support their children living outside of the country. They are willing sacrifice for their kids, whom they have sent elsewhere, including to Israel.”

Regarding those Jews who barely eke out a living, Chana told The Algemeiner, “They are in such a bad situation that they have no realistic possibility of leaving.”


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