Venezuelan Jew Michal Levy and her three children, along with Debbie Ashkenazi (right), coordinator of aliyah from Latin America for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, after the Levy family arrived in Israel Wednesday. Credit: International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Venezuelan Jews fleeing turmoil get ‘lifeline’ in Israel, encounter new challenges

As the political and economic situation in Venezuela becomes increasingly unstable, Jews are fleeing the South American nation, with many choosing to immigrate to Israel.

Conditions in Venezuela began deteriorating in 2013 following the death of the country’s former president, Hugo Chavez, and the ascension of his chosen successor Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver.

During the past four years, inflation has skyrocketed under Maduro’s rule, leading to shortages in food and basic supplies such as medicine and toilet paper. Venezuelans stand in long lines—sometimes for 12 hours—just to obtain bare essentials.

“There is no value to life right now in Venezuela,” Adele Tarrab, a Venezuelan Jew who moved to Israel with her family in 2015, told “I’ve actually seen people get killed for bread.”

Venezuela was once home to a thriving Jewish community, one of the largest in South America, with around 25,000 members in 1999. The crumbling economy caused many of the country’s Jews to flee, with the vast majority heading to Miami, Mexico and Panama. Some 9,000 Jews are believed to still reside in Venezuela.

“We love Venezuela,” Tarrab said. “It’s a beautiful country. We still have family there, but they want to leave.”

In late July, a group of 26 new Venezuelan immigrants arrived in Israel, with the Israeli government and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) facilitating their aliyah.

The Fellowship says it is the only organization on the ground in Venezuela assisting the Jewish community with aliyah. During the past year and half, the organization has brought 153 Venezuelan Jews to Israel, and has helped the immigrants obtain thousands of dollars in support to get on their feet.

“In the past four years we’ve seen a deterioration in the situation of the people of Venezuela,” The Fellowship’s founder and president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, told “Many of the olim (immigrants) that we have brought to Israel have not been able, literally, to put bread on the table.”

In addition to facilitating aliyah, The Fellowship aids elderly and less affluent Jews who remain in Venezuela, as the majority of wealthy members of the country’s Jewish community “already left for Miami” before the situation deteriorated, Eckstein said.

According to Eckstein, amid the lack of law and order in Venezuela, Jews are increasingly targeted for kidnappings by criminal gangs who hold them for ransom.

“Since the Jewish community has this image of being more affluent due to stereotypes about Jews having money, kidnappings of Jewish community members are more common,” he said.

Tarrab also noted the effects of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money in Venezuela.

“It’s like a jail. You don’t leave your house because it’s very dangerous to go out,” she said, adding that the current trends in Venezuelan anti-Semitism began under Chavez’s rule.

Tarrab recalled a 2009 incident in which 15 armed attackers “broke into the main synagogue in Caracas” on a Friday night “and urinated on the Torah scrolls. It was shocking.” The assailants scrawled anti-Semitic graffiti on the synagogue’s walls and prevented the community from holding Friday night services.

She also detailed an incident in which government forces confiscated the central gold market in Caracas, where many of her family members, including her father Maurice, owned jewelry stores for more than 30 years.

“Chavez knew that many of the stores were owned by the Jewish community. It was shocking and very sad,” Tarrab said.

Venezuela’s Jewish leaders don’t want to present the current economic situation as a crisis, “but it really is,” Eckstein said.

“[The Fellowship] provides [Venezuelan Jews] with a lifeline to come to Israel…and helps every step of the way…most of them are coming literally with the ‘shirts on their backs,’ no luggage,” he said.

Despite the “lifeline” of moving to Israel, Tarrab said the South American immigrants face many new challenges in the Jewish state. They are often “frustrated by the lack of help” from the Israeli government and encounter intense bureaucracy, which “makes it hard” for “people who are trying to work in an honest way to have a better life,” she said.

“The government should make the process smoother,” said Tarrab. “We are not used to the mentality in Israel. In Venezuela, everyone is very laid back…Israelis are very tough and direct.”

For its part, Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption this month announced an increase in aid to Venezuelan immigrants. Total state benefits now amount to $9,700 for couples; $8,200 for single-parent families; $5,100 for singles; $3,000 for children up to age 4; $2,200 for children ages 4-18; and $2,600 for immigrants ages 18-21.

Soon after arriving in Israel, Tarrab and her family settled in the coastal city of Netanya and opened a restaurant, “Rustikana,” that serves home-style Venezuelan food. The family regularly imports fresh kosher meat from South American countries such as Argentina to provide authentic flavors.

The restaurant has become a local sensation and is often packed with Israelis who crave a taste of authentic South American cuisine. Although the restaurant is a very different business from the jewelry stores that the Tarrab family operated for decades in Caracas, the venture is fueled by a similar work ethic.

“My family and I came to Israel with ‘con las ganas,’ the willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed,” said Tarrab.

“You cannot come to Israel with the same mentality we had in Venezuela…every day is challenging,” she said. “Every day I have to fight, I am always on the defensive. It’s tiring, but I love Israel…I feel safe here, and I feel like this is my country.”

Venezuelan president: My grandparents were Jewish

Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro, denying that his government has an anti-Semitic bent, said his grandparents were of Sephardic Jewish descent.

“My grandparents were Jewish, so many of the Maduros, same as the Moors [Muslims], converted to Catholicism in Venezuela,” Maduro told Apporea, a pro-government media outlet, last week. “The mother of the Minister of Communication and Information Ernesto Villegas is of the same tradition.”

During the interview, Maduro rejected allegations he attributed to Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, that his government was anti-Semitic.

“I deeply lament the declarations of Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, who I know and have met with in Venezuela many times, saying that there is anti-Semitism in Venezuela and accusing Chavez and me … if he wants he can accuse me, but he should leave Chavez alone.”

Jews have been leaving Venezuela since Chavez came to power due to a combination of the dramatic rise in violent crime, economic instability and a series of police raids and attacks on Jewish institutions. The Jewish community now numbers about 9,000 people, down from 22,000 in 1999.

Government-sponsored media have frequently used anti-Semitic rhetoric against opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, a devout Catholic whose grandparents were Jewish.

During the interview, Maduro condemned the Israeli air strikes against Syria last week and its “aggression” against Iran, but he said he differentiated between Israel and the Jewish people.

“We reject the campaign [against us],” said Maduro. “We are a humanitarian people. We are not anti-Semites.”

With Chavez gone, Venezuelan Jews look warily to future

The eyes of a dead man stare at visitors passing through immigration at Simon Bolivar International Airport. They follow drivers making the trek along the tortuous four-lane highway through a mountain range leading to town. And they reappear at public spaces throughout this city.

It's easy to be spooked by the ubiquitous image of Hugo Chavez, the larger-than-life leftist leader who died last week from an unspecified form of cancer. But in Venezuela, it has been the reality since he came to power in 1999.

“It never used to be this way with presidents before him,” said David Bittan, the owner of a taxi company whose cousin of the same name is the president of the Venezuelan Jewish umbrella group CAIV. “They started putting up these posters everywhere after he was first elected. It's in line with Communist Party propaganda.”

With Chavez gone, this divided nation finds itself at a crossroads. Will Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, carry on “until victory,” as the posters of his political patron promise? Or might he chart a new path, taking a more conciliatory approach to relations with the United States and with the business community?

Or could opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, surprise everyone by winning the presidential election set for April 14?

For members of Venezuela's dwindling Jewish community, the political uncertainty is particularly unnerving. During Chavez's 14 years in power, their numbers have dropped from 25,000 to about 9,000 today, driven abroad by economic instability, anti-Semitism in state-owned media and rampant crime that made Caracas a serious contender for murder capital of the world.

“We have great institutions, we have a great school, we have a wonderful Hebraica,” said Efraim Lapscher, the vice president of CAIV, referring to the sprawling community center that is the heart of Jewish life here. “We, our fathers and our grandfathers, built this with a lot of sweat, ideology and hard work. And it's painful for us to see them slowly emptying out.”

Jewish life in Caracas revolves around the Hebraica, the compound at the foot of the Avila Mountain that is also home to the Jewish school and a growing number of communal institutions. Past the heavily guarded gate and high walls is the lush campus with a pool, soccer pitch, tennis courts, gym, food court — even a bank. On a warm day, children gambol by the pool while their parents lay on deck chairs.

“It's a beautiful prison,” said a representative of an international Jewish organization based in Caracas. “Members of the community live their entire lives there without leaving because of fear of crime outside. Children are so used to be being cooped up that when they visit Israel, they call their parents and say, 'Guess what, I'm on a bus!' That's an exciting experience for them.”

The sense of siege hinders the willingness of Venezuelan Jews to publicly criticize their government, though there is little love lost for the president who severed diplomatic ties with Israel while embracing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Lapscher talks about the community's post-Chavez prospects with deliberate caution so as not to be construed as taking sides.

“Sometime in the near future we'll have elections and we can change the government. Or the same government will stay but we will have the same issues,” he said. “We will try to give the best Jewish life possible and combat anti-Semitism if it comes from the government, its supporters or from the outside.“

Asked about the tense political situation, most Venezuelan Jews direct questions to community leaders, fearing unwelcome repercussions. An exception is Sammy Eppel, a Jewish columnist who writes for the opposition paper El Nacional. Eppel has paid a heavy price for his outspoken critique of Chavismo, Chavez's particular brand of socialism.

Eppel says government interference led him to shut down a call center he operated and that officials have tried unsuccessfully to isolate him from the community leadership. But still he blames the Chavez government for economic policies that have led to periodic shortages of food staples, frequent devaluations of the bolivar fuerte and a marked drop in oil output.

“The government that takes over is going to have a difficult situation,” he said. “Politics you can manipulate, but the economy is a science. It's very hard to manipulate the economy. And when hard times come, they will come for everybody. And unfortunately, those hard times might hit the Jewish community also.”

If such predictions come to pass, it may send even more Venezuelan Jews to places such as Florida, the destination of choice for Jewish expats. Pynchas Brener, the chief rabbi of Venezuela for 44 years and friends with all its presidents “except this one,” is one of many who now call the Miami area home.

“I could have stayed on for three more years, but there is tremendous personal insecurity,” Brener said. “Besides, I have eight of my nine grandchildren here.”

Brener sees two possible paths for the country: It could become like Cuba, with the Jewish community losing most of its verve and viability, or Chavismo might be defeated at the ballot box. Of the two, he sees the latter as more likely.

“Even though the government has won a few elections — although not fairly because they used government resources — I still see half the population or close to half the population resisting, so I don't think it will turn into Cuba,” he said. “I don't think the government will be able to do whatever they want.”

Despite the uncertainty, some glimmers of hope are visible.

On Sunday, a new synagogue, Tifferet Israel Este, will be inaugurated in Los Palos Grandes, an affluent Caracas neighborhood that is home to a sizable Jewish community. The synagogue offers worshipers a safer alternative to an older temple in a formerly Jewish part of town now considered dangerous.

“As Kohelet said, there is a time for everything,” said Isaac Cohen, who replaced Brener as chief rabbi. “[The new synagogue] shows people seek religion in their lives, and we have freedom of religion here.

“It pains us, it hurts us that there is no Israeli ambassador or embassy, but we hope that day will come and ties will be renewed. When will it happen? Nobody but God knows.”

Long the bane of Venezuelan Jews, Chavez is gone. Now what?

For more than a decade, Venezuelan Jews have been holding their breath, subject to the whims of a mercurial president who used his bully pulpit to intimidate, rail against Israel and embrace Iran.

There was the police raid of a Caracas school in 2004, allegedly to search for evidence in the high-profile murder case of a prosecutor. There were the demands by President Hugo Chavez when war broke out between Israel and Hamas in December 2008 that his country’s Jews rebuke Israel for its conduct in Gaza. There was Chavez’s warm alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There was the use of state radio to spread anti-Semitic canards.

Most recently, there were revelations that Venezuela’s intelligence service, SEBIN, was spying on the country's Jewish communty.

While Chavez never explicitly threatened the Jews of Venezuela, his frequent harassment and staunchly anti-Israel positions kept them continually on edge. Afraid to criticize their president, the Jewish community found itself in a predicament that took on a frightening resemblance to the one faced by Jews in another staunchly anti-Western, anti-Zionist country: Iran.

But even with Chavez gone, felled by an undisclosed cancer at age 58 just weeks into his fourth term, Venezuelan Jews aren’t quite ready to exhale.

For one thing, Chavez leaves behind a country wracked by violent crime and mired in economic turmoil. For another, Chavez played such a commanding role in Venezuelan life and politics that nobody is quite sure what will happen to the country.

Perhaps most notably for Venezuela’s Jews, far fewer of them are still around to find out.

Over the past 14 years, Venezuelan Jews have been leaving the country in droves. When Chavez was elected in 1999, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Venezuela. Today the community is estimated to have fallen to less than half that number.

Jews were not the only ones to take flight from the Chavez regime. Hundreds of thousands of upper- and middle-class Venezuelans left during the Chavez years, seeking to escape Venezuela’s anti-business climate, the government’s nationalization of private companies, economic crises and a soaring crime rate. Jews left for many of the same reasons, with anti-Semitism by all accounts taking a back seat to concerns for economic and physical security.

With Chavez gone, there is an opportunity for change. But it’s far from clear things will improve for the Jews of Venezuela, at least in the short term.

Venezuela’s constitution appears to require new elections be held within 30 days. In his final months, Chavez made clear his preference that his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, take over Chavez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution. The likeliest opponent to Maduro, who has echoed Chavez’s anti-Western rhetoric, is Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez by an 11-point margin in elections held last October.

Capriles, who identifies as a Catholic, also happens to be the grandson of Holocaust survivors — a fact Chavez exploited in launching anti-Semitic attacks against him.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, state-run media urged Venezuelans to reject “international Zionism” and vote against Capriles, describing him as having “a platform opposed to our national and independent interests.” Chavez also said the Mossad, Israel's secret service, was out to kill him and accused Israel of financing Venezuela’s opposition. Government media described Capriles as “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie.”

The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned Chavez for his rhetoric.

The campaign was typical Chavez, only the latest in a long series of episodes that left Jews feeling deeply unsettled in a country that before Chavez had remarkably little anti-Semitism.

The first signs of trouble under Chavez came during the years of the second intifada, when the government sponsored rallies in support of the Palestinian cause. After one such rally in May 2004, the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas was attacked.

But it wasn’t until November of that year that Venezuelan Jews felt directly targeted by the government, when security forces carried out an armed raid on a Jewish school in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. The incident was described in a report by Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism as “perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community” in Venezuela.

Chavez kept up his anti-Israel and anti-Western rhetoric throughout the 2000s, calling U.S. President George W. Bush a devil during a 2006 speech at the United Nations and linking Israeli and American “terrorist” policies. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Chavez accused Israel of perpetrating a “new holocaust” and using Nazi-like methods to kill Lebanese and Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Chavez nurtured an ever-closer relationship with Iran. The seemingly incongruous friendship between Chavez, a secular socialist, and Ahmadinejad, president of an Islamic theocracy, was built around shared hostility to the United States, the West and Israel. The two leaders sharply increased bilateral trade, inaugurated weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, and frequently visited each other.

As the size of the Iranian diplomatic presence in Venezuela grew, Western security experts accused Venezuela of providing Iran with a Latin American base for illicit activities, including arms trading.

Venezuela’s final break with Israel came in 2009, during the three-week Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that began in late December 2008. Chavez severed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, expelling the Israeli ambassador in Caracas and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. Chavez also insisted that the Jews of Venezuela rebuke Israel for its actions.

Chavez’s constant linkage of Venezuelan Jewry with Israel seemed to give presidential sanction to anti-Semitism, even if Chavez himself said he “respected and loved” Jews.

Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Caracas, equating the Jewish Star of David with the swastika. Broadcasters on state radio recommended the anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as an insightful read. Jewish institutions and houses of worship in Venezuela were attacked.

“People are being taught to hate,” then-Venezuelan Chief Rabbi Pynchas Brener told JTA in early 2009. “Venezuela has never seen anything like this before.”

But Chavez was no Hitler. Venezuelan Jews were free to come and go as they pleased, and even many of those who emigrated returned frequently to visit — including Brener, who has since moved to Florida.

To some extent, Chavez watched over the country’s Jews. In 2009, the government gave round-the-clock police protection to the site of a Caracas synagogue that had been attacked.

But Venezuelan Jews also felt that Chavez was watching them — a suspicion vindicated by the publication early this year of documents showing that the SEBIN secret service was spying on Venezuelan Jews. The documents, which were obtained by the Argentinian media outlet Analises24, included intelligence reports, clandestinely recorded photos and videos.

For now, it’s unclear whether or for how long the anti-Jewish atmosphere Chavez allowed to take root in Venezuela will survive him.

But after 14 years of policies that prompted more than half of Venezuela’s Jews to pick up and leave — and with Venezuela’s economic and security problems now compounded by political turmoil — it’s hard to imagine very many of the Jewish emigres are hurrying back.

Documents show Venezuela spying on Jewish community

The Venezuelan human rights group Espacio Anna Frank says its goal is to promote tolerance by teaching the life story of the teenage diarist murdered by the Nazis.

But is there something sinister lurking behind the organization’s benevolent facade?

SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence service, seems to believe so.

According to a dossier attributed to SEBIN, the Caracas-based group is actually part of an Israeli cloak-and-dagger operation aimed at undermining the leftist government of President Hugo Chavez.

“We conclude that [Espacio Anna Frank] operates as a strategic arm of the Israeli intelligence in the country … operating in the field of subversive socio-political influence through representatives of far-right Zionist groups and economic elites,” said the 34-page report.

The document, which includes surveillance photographs of the group’s offices and personal details of its board members, goes on to suggest that Espacio Anna Frank poses a security threat and should be kept under surveillance through hidden cameras and listening devices.

The report is part of a massive cache of material obtained by Analises24, an Argentinian media outlet opposed to Chavez, that includes intelligence reports, clandestinely recorded photos and videos and even personal information on Chavez's family. Nicolas Solano, Analises24’s editor, told JTA that the website received the material from “a former high-ranking SEBIN source.”

On Jan. 22, the website published 50 documents from the cache that focus on Venezuelan Jews, Israel and the Middle East. Many more documents will be released soon.

“This material is absolutely genuine,” Solano told JTA.

Venezuelan officials at the country's embassy in Washington would not comment on the documents, forwarding an inquiry to Caracas, which has not responded.

But if the documents are indeed authentic, it would confirm what Venezuelan Jews have long suspected: That their own government considers them to be a fifth column and is spying on them.

“As part of the security apparatus of the regime, many Venezuelans are under surveillance,” said Sammy Eppel, a Jewish columnist at the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, a leading opposition newspaper. “The Jewish community is obviously perceived as some sort of threat that warrants those actions.”

Paulina Gamus, one of the directors of Espacio Anna Frank and a former member of the Venezuelan parliament, said the allegations against her and her organization were spurious.

“They accuse [Espacio Anna Frank] of belonging to the Mossad and the Israeli secret services only because we are an institution that promotes respect of different religions and cultures and have a Jewish component, although we are all Venezuelans,” she wrote in an email.

Venezuelan Jews told JTA they were not surprised that SEBIN, the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, has been spying on them.

State security raided Jewish institutions twice, in 2004 and 2007, and Chavez has accused Israel of financing the “counter-revolution” in Venezuela. In 2009, a Caracas synagogue was ransacked by an angry mob — including several police officers — following Operation Cast Lead, the 2009 Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Chavez condemned the synagogue attack and several suspects were arrested.

Combined with a failing economy and a surge in violent crime, the hostility from the Chavez government has led to a Jewish exodus to the United States, Israel and other Latin American countries. Fewer than half the 1999 Jewish population of 22,000 remains.

Rabbi Pynchas Brener is among those who relocated. A vocal critic of Chavez, Brener is identified in the SEBIN documents as the Mossad's chief spymaster in Venezuela. One chart places him at the head of an intricate web of informants and cover-up operations that report directly to the Israeli intelligence service and the American and Canadian embassies in Caracas.

“I'm not a Mossad agent — you can write that — and I never was one,” Brener told JTA. “Maybe I'll be one in the future.”

Born in Poland, Brener was raised in Peru and led a congregation in Caracas for 44 years before retiring to Florida in 2011. He said he was labeled a spymaster because he was among Venezuela’s more visible Jews.

“Venezuela is the most tolerant society that I know,” Brener said. “There's almost zero anti-Semitism. But the government has been cultivating it.”

The leaks come at a potentially pivotal time for Venezuela. Chavez has not been seen in public in months since undergoing an operation related to an unspecified form of cancer. The government vows that the self-proclaimed revolutionary leader will recover and be sworn in for his fourth successive presidential term. But rumors abound that he is terminally ill.

For many members of the Jewish community, the possible departure of Chavez from Venezuelan politics would be a cause for renewed hope. Last month Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, met in Caracas with Nicolas Maduro, the vice president and temporary fill-in for Chavez. The meeting, which included several Latin American Jewish leaders, seemed to hint at a possible rapprochement.

“[Maduro] is not Chavez,” Gamus said. “He does not have his charisma or character, and he is not influenced by the anti-Semitic ideologies like those that Chavez had.”

But one should be careful not to write off Chavez. Like his hero, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has survived countless assassination attempts and suspected ailments, Chavez has regularly proven rumors of his demise to be greatly exaggerated.

On Monday, Venezuelan Defense Minister Diego Molero reported that Chavez was having his “best moment yet” since he underwent surgery.

Rival to Chavez, demonized for his Jewish roots, is opposition’s new hope in Venezuela

As someone who has spent his entire political career opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski is accustomed to rough handling.

But even he was taken aback by the viciousness that erupted two years ago outside the yellow walls of the old colonial home that now serves as his government seat.

“They came here and they called me Nazi, when my grandmother was in the Warsaw Ghetto,” he said, his voice rising. “My great-grandparents were killed in a concentration camp. My grandmother’s mother and father were killed by the Nazis in Treblinka.”

By “they” he means the red-clad mob, led by the city’s pro-Chavez mayor, who chanted “Nazi fascist!” and sprayed red swastikas onto the outer walls of the Casa Amarilla (Yellow House) in 2009.

Since taking office three years ago as the governor of Venezuela’s second-largest state, Miranda, Capriles has become a lightning rod for anti-Semitic attacks from the state’s most radical corners even though he says he is a fervent Catholic and subject to what he describes as a campaign of “permanent sabotage” by the government.

Capriles, 38, last month declared his intention to seek the nomination to run as the opposition candidate against Chavez, who will be running for his third consecutive term.

Recent surveys show that the lanky Capriles, a grandson of Holocaust survivors who does not identify himself as a Jew, is the most popular politician in Venezuela.

Sensing its best opportunity to defeat Chavez as the nation struggles with rampant crime, double-digit inflation and deteriorating services, the opposition for the first time has agreed to unite behind a single candidate chosen in a primary scheduled for February.

This makes Capriles the opposition’s most credible chance of defeating Chavez since he assumed power 13 years ago.

“He represents the next generation of Venezuelan political leaders,” Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development and a former Venezuelan minister of planning, said of Capriles. “He honed his political skills during very conflicted times and has been able to garner support from a very heterogeneous voting bloc.”

Capriles is used to confronting the government. He was imprisoned in 2004 for 120 days for charges related to his activities as mayor of a middle-class district of Caracas during the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. After several trials he was exonerated, allowing him to move on from mayor to governor.

In 2008 he defeated a powerful Chavez ally to lead Miranda, which has nearly 3 million people. His victory unnerved the government by finding thousands of new votes in the overcrowded slums surrounding Caracas, which traditionally voted with Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV. Incensed at the loss of such a key state, Chavez immediately ordered the central government to take over Miranda’s hospitals.

By presidential decree, Chavez dismantled the state’s infrastructure, taking over police units, asphalt plants and state employees, slashing budgets and crippling the governor’s ability to effectively administer power.

To many it looked like revenge, an attempt to paralyze a potentially dangerous political foe. However, the effort seems to have backfired: Some polls are showing that as many as three out of four voters are blaming the Chavez government and not Capriles for reduced services.

Capriles notes that while he believes he was targeted by the Chavez government, all of Venezuela’s states, regardless of their political affiliation, have had their powers diminished by the central government.

“Chavez has won through elections, but his daily maneuvering isn’t democratic,” Capriles told JTA. “The challenge is to democratically overcome a government that isn’t democratic.”

Chavez does not usually refer to his opponents individually but has begun telling the nation it must be vigilant against political elements “looking to set the nation on fire.”

Shortly after Capriles announced his intention to run, Chavez warned that the opposition was planning to destabilize the nation. Such remarks harked back to 2002, when the opposition tried to overthrow his presidency and carried out a devastating strike in the national oil industry.

In an interview with a local private station, Chavez said he was sure he would win.

“If they don’t kill me or some other catastrophe doesn’t occur, I’m certain—though there will be much work to do—that I will be re-elected for six more years,” Chavez said earlier this year.

While Chavez’s approval rating has dropped from its peak level of about 80 percent, he still commands the support of about half the electorate. The half that is against Chavez is fractured among the opposition candidates.

Chavez has benefited as well from more than a decade of political organization at the grass-roots level, and he remains popular among many members of Venezuela’s underclasses.

Capriles argues that he can more effectively bring about the social improvements Chavez has promised. Acknowledging that Chavez has brought attention to the vast inequalities that separate Venezuela’s rich and poor, Capriles says Chavez is too ideologically driven to successfully manage the nation.

Capriles’ non-ideological focus on improving lives has found a receptive audience among many who have grown tired of Chavez’s tirades and a seemingly growing list of unfulfilled promises.

In the last few weeks, rolling power outages again have struck the nation, resulting in citywide rationing in Caracas and beyond. In 2009, Chavez claimed the blackouts were due to a drought that severely curtailed the nation’s hydroelectric capabilities. This year, the blackouts are occurring after months of unusually heavy rains have displaced thousands of people throughout the country.

“[Chavez] has in his hands all the tools to make this country function, and if he did so everyone would support him,” said Josefina Arias, 36, a vendor who described herself as a former Chavez supporter.

Arias had gathered with several hundred other people at Casa Amarilla to receive state-funded vouchers worth about $3,000 to repair her rain-damaged cinderblock home.

“There are many people who want this country to change,” Arias said. “Unfortunately, I believe that Chavez has lost his vision of what Venezuela could be.”

While voicing her own disenchantment with Chavez, Arias noted that many in her family still support the president. They fear that if the opposition wins, Chavez’s social programs, like providing subsidized groceries or free clinics, may be reversed.

Many expect an ugly electoral fight ahead, warning that Chavez is unafraid to use the full force of the state’s considerable media and financial resources against his enemies.

“Chavez, of course, has every interest in sowing conflict among the opposition, and he will have considerable resources to do so,” said John Carey, a political scientist at Dartmouth College.

For Jews, this could mean the resurgence of anti-Semitism that many hoped had been put to rest through recent overtures made by the president toward the community.

Despite the fact that he says he’s Catholic, Capriles consistently has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. During the governor’s race in 2008, state media described him as a member of the “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie” and “genetically fascist.”

Though the campaign hasn’t officially begun, the state press continues to refer to Capriles as Jewish. Observers say that may be an attempt to generate opposition against him.

“We have already begun to see a species of feint referring to him as Jewish, which we believe is an attempt to carve out the votes of anti-Semites and especially anti-Israel [voters],” said a Jewish representative who asked to not be identified. “The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, but we’re sure there will be [anti-Semitic] attacks.”

Local Venezuelan Jews say Capriles has “very good relations” with the community, even though he doesn’t identify spiritually with it.

“Because of my mother and grandmother, for Jews I’m Jewish, but I’m Catholic,” Capriles said.

Describing himself as a fervent Catholic, Capriles said he adopted religion in prison, becoming a “strong believer in the Virgin Mary.”

“When you’re in jail, if you attain a spiritual connection, that connection is then very strong,” he said.

While he no longer has a religious connection to the Jewish community, their story of survival affects him deeply, he says.

Responding to whether he believes he will be singled out for personal attacks in the upcoming campaign, he says it doesn’t matter.

“I have the blood of struggle running through my veins,” said Capriles. “My grandparents arrived in Venezuela with just a suitcase full of clothes, fleeing Nazi persecution.”

While he expects an exhausting fight, Capriles says he is ready for whatever lays ahead as he seeks to win the opposition’s endorsement and defeat Chavez.

“I’m not here to be a candidate,” he said. “We are in this competition to win.”

Israeli Official Describes Venezuelan Embassy Ouster

On Feb. 6, Shlomo Cohen, Israel’s ambassador in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, received an unwelcome and distressing phone call. The government of Venezuela was expelling all Israeli diplomats and staff — they had 72 hours to leave the country.

In a country whose government had become increasingly hostile to Israel, the call hardly came as a surprise. President Hugo Chávez was organizing an anti-Israel demonstration the very next day to denounce what he called Israel’s “Nazi-like atrocities” in Gaza. Pro-Arab sentiment in Caracas, also on the rise, was manifest everywhere, with TV images of Parliament members wearing kaffiyehs, Palestinian flags ubiquitously waved in the streets and Muslims praying in mosques. 

Danny Biran, Israel’s Head of Administration for North and South America, flew to Caracas to help close the Israeli Embassy. He provided The Jewish Journal with this account during a briefing in Los Angeles this week.

Venezuelan government rhetoric is not just anti-Israel. It often crosses the line into anti-Semitism, with frequent calls to demonstrate against Israel and its allies — the Jews. Additionally, Chávez is calling on Jews themselves to demonstrate against Israel and its offensive in Gaza. 

Against this backdrop, the local Jewish community has been struggling to understand the depth and breadth of this new anti-Semitic posture in a country that — until Chávez — had been nothing but welcoming. Temples recently have been subjected to violent anti-Semitic attacks, leaving ominous messages in their wake: “Damn Jews,” “Assassin Jews,” “Out of here, Jews.” Now, after the embassy’s inauguration 60 years ago, there will be no Israeli embassy, leaving Jews feeling powerless and stranded.

Closing an embassy is no minor task, Biran said, and proved a formidable one for diplomats more accustomed to building than dismantling them. All kinds of equipment had to be moved, classified materials handled, cars sold, kids pulled out of schools, relationships suspended. Yet the message was sharp and clear. And the clock was ticking.

Embassy staff embarked on closing the embassy at breakneck pace, simultaneously balancing a dizzying array of complicated logistics and the handling of frantic calls from the dismayed community. Careful not to create panic, yet understanding the need for straightforwardness, the message from the embassy was clear: “We will not leave you alone.” 

Amid the frenzy, another piece of bad news was delivered: Chávez now announced that he was cutting off all relations with Israel. Diplomats were now stripped of all immunity, thus deemed illegal aliens, with no protection whatsoever.

Rapidly assessing the gravity of the situation, Consul Biran called his colleagues in Buenos Aires, Panama, New York and Miami, urging them to come immediately to Caracas to help. As diplomats arrived within hours, Venezuelan authorities intercepted them at the airport. The government refused them entry. Officials escorted the Israelis to a room, where they were held for the next nine hours. No one in government returned phone calls. 

After nine hours, the diplomats were released from the airport. Venezuelan army commandos and three civilians escorted them to the embassy. They were allowed only three days in the country and would be followed everywhere they went, at their hotels, in their conversations, in all their movements. 

The sense of precariousness intensified. Without immunity or legal status, Venezuela was an increasingly insecure place. Commandos assigned to the diplomats were everywhere, taking pictures, interrogating all who entered the embassy. Numerous calls to government dignitaries went unreturned. And, atypically, this Jewish community had no connections in the government. Contingency plans began to take shape for the worst-case scenario. If necessary, Biran stated, “Everyone would be taken out of the country.”

On Feb. 22, amid tears and sorrow, the flag and sign of the Israeli Embassy in Caracas came down; the embassy was closed.

The situation in Caracas remains volatile. Consul Biran ascertained that the commandos assigned to oversee the closure of the embassy were receiving direct orders from Chávez and two high ranking officers, one of whom reportedly has close ties to Hezbollah. In addition, Chávez has been cultivating relationships with the Iranian government for years. There are now numerous weekly direct flights from Caracas to Tehran. Additionally, many reports solidly point to a strong Hezbollah presence. 

Expressing dismay and concern at the present state of affairs, Biran adds, “As a Jew, as an Israeli, as a civil servant [traveling the world for years], it is unbelievable to see a community in such an environment — harder than I had seen.” There is general concern that the combination of Chávez’s pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian, pro-Arab support and his anti-Israel propaganda, are creating a propitious environment for terrorist attacks. 

Nonetheless, the Jewish community is not in a state of panic. Amid his anti-Israel propaganda, President Chávez sends frequent messages of support to the Jewish community, assuaging fears. Underscoring the unpredictable nature of his posture toward the community, he issued an order that matzah and kosher wine would not be available for Passover. Under pressure, he reversed the order.

“No one knows where this situation will lead,” Biran said. “The Jewish community would welcome outside shows of support, be it through missions or through connections with governments around the world.”