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.