Following the death of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday afternoon at the age of 58, Jewish leaders around the world announced that they would be closely monitoring the country’s political transition and expressed concern for the future of the local Jewish community.
“The passing of Chavez brings Venezuela to a crossroads,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman told The Jerusalem Post. “Will the country continue with the Chavista policies of repression, political manipulation and alliances with Iran, or will there be a new openness and true participatory democracy for the people of Venezuela?” he asked.
“As the transition to a new political leadership progresses, we will continue to closely monitor the situation as it relates to the Venezuelan Jewish community.”
The Venezuelan people now have an opportunity, he said, to “begin to repair the damage Chavez caused to Venezuelan society. We are hopeful they will succeed.”
Foxman noted that the “Venezuelan Jewish community under Chavez was a target of anti-Semitism, permitted and even encouraged by the Chavez regime and its supporters. Intimidation of the Jewish community was commonplace and Jewish religious and communal institutions were desecrated, vandalized and even investigated by the police without justification. Chavez would use the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to accuse the Venezuelan Jewish community of disloyalty to Venezuela if they did not denounce Israel.”
Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, told the Post that “Jewish communities worldwide have two main concerns with the Venezuelan government: One, more symbolic, is the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, something the Jews from Venezuela see as very meaningful. The second one, more essential, is its relationship with Iran.”
The Latin American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress presidents Jack Terpins and Ronald Lauder sent condolences to Chavez’s family and expressed their hopes “that the Venezuelan leadership would continue its dialogue with the Jewish community in order to improve the difficult situation of Jews in the country and internationally.”
“For the Jewish world, President Chavez leaves a mixed legacy. He broke off diplomatic relations with Israel and fostered close ties with the Iranian regime,” Terpins and Lauder noted.
Speaking to the JNS news service in January, Sammy Eppel, director of the Human Rights Commission of B’nai B’rith Venezuela, predicted that “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.”
The Jewish community of Venezuela has had a strained relationship with the Chavez government. In 2009, the government was believed to have been behind at least one attack on a Caracas synagogue, as police officers were among those implicated.
Venezuela severed ties with Israel following Israel’s threeweek operation against Hamas in Gaza that began in December 2008, expelling the Israeli ambassador and staff. In May 2010, following an Israel Navy clash with a Gaza-bound protest flotilla that left nine Turks dead, Chavez called Israel a “genocidal state” in a national broadcast and said the Mossad was trying to kill him.
“Israel is financing the Venezuelan opposition. There are even groups of Israeli terrorists, of the Mossad, who are after me trying to kill me,” he said.
In the same speech, Chavez sent “greetings and respect” to the local Jewish community.
“They know they have our affection and respect,” he said. “I doubt very much that a Venezuelan Jew would support such an atrocity.”
Despite protestations of respect, anti-Semitism became an increasingly common fact of life in Venezuela and since Chavez gained power in 1999, more than half of the Jews then living in the country have emigrated.
Suspicions of Chavez were further inflamed by media reports earlier this year that the state security service SEBIN was spying on Jewish organizations, seeing them as a potential fifth column.
Jewish organizations in Venezuela seem to be trying to maintain a low profile during this period of transition.
Neither the Confederacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela nor B’nai B’rith Venezuela responded to requests from the Post for comment.
Rabbi Isaac Cohen, Venezuela’s chief Sephardic rabbi, did issue a statement on Chavez’s death, calling it a “pain for the family and for all the people of Venezuela.”
“We were always received with great respect, and our requests and statements were positively received by him,” the rabbi said.
Former Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Pynchas Brener of the Unión Israelita de Caracas told Tablet magazine on Wednesday that “one should respect the dead” and that “after a few days, we should evaluate his meaning of Chavez to the Jewish community… Right now is a time to be silent and let time go by and then maybe think about the meaning of Chavez to the Jewish community.”
Brener’s tone was markedly different from that of previous statements. In 2009, he said that “people are being taught to hate” and that “Venezuela has never seen anything like this before.”
All eyes are now on Chavez’s designated successor Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who has has copied his mentor’s hectoring style, grand historical references and vitriolic attacks on “treacherous” opponents.
Lauder and Terpins noted that they had met with Chavez and members of his government several times in recent years, including one get-together last month in Caracas with Maduro.
Terpins recalled that during that meeting, “Mr. Maduro renewed the pledge given to us by President Chavez in 2008 that state-sponsored anti-Semitism would not be tolerated and that ‘a revolutionary cannot be an anti-Semite.’” Terpins said that he hoped that “these words of the late president will be his legacy.”