The numerous obituaries and eulogies being written for the recently deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez all seem to agree on one thing: the man was polarising.
On one pole was the global extreme left. These supporters saw Chavez’s rise to power through championing a strongly socialist and anti-American message as the beginning of the global revolution that they hoped for — and, of course, cracks about George W Bush being “the devil” and making the UN General Assembly podium smell of sulphur will always go down well in those circles. This camp includes such Australian figures as Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, journalists Phillip Adams and John Pilger, and numerous other signatories to a 2007 petition inviting Chavez to visit Australia.
On the flipside are those who see him as a fierce autocrat, bent on enhancing his own power at the expense of the Venezuelan people. As the Australian notes in its editorial, Chavez befriended and strongly supported some of the most odious figures on the international stage — including Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Furthermore, as Francisco Toro describes in the Atlantic, his career was characterised by harassment of domestic opposition, consolidation of control over Venezuela’s press, and the cultivation of a Stalin-esque cult of personality.
One group that was driven relentlessly towards the hostile pole is Venezuela’s Jews. In addition to his generally poor rights record, Chavez had an ugly and long-standing habit of fostering enmity towards the Jewish community of Venezuela for his own political advantage.
In his statements, he was generally careful to refer to Israel and Zionists. rather than Jews. He nevertheless repeatedly employed such thinly-veiled dog-whistling as his allegation that: “Israel finances the Venezuelan opposition, the counter-revolution. There are groups, even Israeli terrorists, the Mossad, that are after me, trying to kill me.”
He was, however, occasionally quoted making overtly antisemitic statements. For example, there was his 2005 Christmas speech, in which he said that:
“The world has enough for all. But it turned out that some minorities, descendants of those who crucified Christ, … took the world’s riches for themselves.”
Then there was also his reported reaction to the 2009 looting and vandalism of Venezuela’s Tiferet Israel synagogue:
“Like any police investigator, you have to ask yourself: who benefits from these violent acts? Not the government, not the people, not the Revolution. … It is they themselves who did it! This is what I say to the nation.”
While these statements would no doubt have curried favour with Chavez’s allies in Iran, Libya, and Syria, they also served a purpose at home. Chavez used his antisemitism as a tool to delegitimise his domestic opponents. His regime’s propaganda attacked all of Chavez’s enemies for supposedly being part of a conspiracy created in Israel, driven by Jewish “oligarchs” in Venezuela, and aimed at assassinating Chavez and bringing down his regime.
One striking example is an article published on 13 February 2012 profiling Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski — seen to be Chavez’s strongest rival, and tipped by many as his possible replacement. The article, entitled ‘The enemy is Zionism: A cliff as an underlying promise’, was published in numerous state-controlled press outlets and accused Radonski — who has Jewish ancestry but is a practising Catholic — of representing the “enemy”: Zionism and being in league with the the “Confederation of Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV) [Jewish Community]”.
The article essentially ascribes the label “Zionism” to the classical antisemitic conspiracy of Jewish power and its evil influence on the world:
[Zionism] is, without doubt, the ideology of terror, the most rotten feelings representing humanity; Patriotic impulses based on greed, which complies with the logic that “all nationalism without homeland is, by necessity, a reason to conquer”. … Zionism is the owner of most of the financial institutions in the world, controls nearly 80 percent of the world economy and the communications industry almost in its entirety, in addition to holding key decision making positions within the U.S. State Department and European powers.
In fact, the manner in which Radonski was introduced belies any pretence that the criticism of him was in any way related to his supposed support for Israeli policies. The article falsely accused his father of having Jewish ancestry, as well as accusing Radonski himself of being a Zionist/Nazi/CIA agent – the kind of bizarre allegation that only makes sense in the minds of antisemitic conspiracy theorists:
Capriles Radonski, is son of Henrique Capriles García, descendant of a family of Sephardic Jews of Curaçao, and Monica Cristina Radonski Bochenek, a Russian-Polish Jew. Both families linked to the corporate oligarchy of the country … [Radonski] was part of the fascist and paramilitary sect called “Tradición, Familia y Propiedad (Tradition, Family and Property)”, where perverse religious rites were practiced and selective crimes were planned to attack everything that did not represent the national Aryan race and the high Venezuelan bourgeoisie. This organization was directed by Alejandro Peña Esclusa, confessed agent of the CIA.
This article was illustrative of a well-documented trend pervading Chavez’s official propaganda apparatus. Inevitably, this message inspired Chavez’s often fanatical followers into action – leading to a series of repeated and ongoing attacks against Venezuela’s Jews.
This was also coupled with harassment of the Jewish community by Venezuelan authorities. As Matthew Fishbane reported in Tablet:
On Dec. 2, 2007, the day a constitutional referendum was held to abolish term limits, the Chávez government raided the undisputed hub of Jewish life in Caracas, the Colegio y Centro Social, Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica, the site of the main Jewish school and club. It was the second such invasion. This time, masked and armed police piled over the walls as elementary-school children arrived for class. The government claimed it was acting on a vague, anonymous tip that the club was harboring weapons, or was a front for Mossad. In both cases, the raids were officially declared “unfruitful.”
Fishbane goes on to chronicle the sad situation of Venezuela’s Jews under Chavez and, in particular, how the majority of the country’s once strong community have been forced to flee elsewhere.
As Chavez’s remaining apologists are wont to point-out, his policies did have a positive impact for some Venezuelans, and he did maintain a large amount of genuine popular support. That said, Chavez left a legacy encompassing far more than reduced poverty and improving healthcare. Regrettably, his positive achievements will be forever eclipsed by his ruthless intimidation of the press and his political opponents, his contempt for democratic institutions, his unwavering support for the world’s most oppressive tyrants, and his demonisation and harassment of Venezuela’s Jews.
It is not yet clear who will be succeeding Chavez. Hopefully, whoever ends-up as Venezuela’s next leader will be able to close this dark chapter in the country’s history.