The Magazine

Hurricane Hugo

From the August 8, 2005 issue: Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is a threat to more than just his own people.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By THOR HALVORSSEN
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Caracas, Venezuela

"IMAGINE OUR JOY at being free and far from a land in which everything threatened us with death." The young refugee's words leap off the tattered clipping from a 1939 edition of La Esfera, a Venezuelan newspaper. "It is such a holy occurrence given that we were expelled from Germany and you have embraced us." The refugee had arrived on one of two steamboats--the Koenigstein and the Caribia--that left Nazi Germany that year with a human cargo that would otherwise have been sentenced to death. The ships eventually docked in Venezuela, and the passengers who disembarked significantly increased the size of Venezuela's Jewish community, which eventually grew to 45,000 people.

Sixty-five years later, an exodus of that community is well underway. The reason is not far to seek. The land that embraced those refugees has become unfriendly. Consider the traumatic morning of November 29, 2004. As parents and school buses delivered children to Colegio Hebraica, a Jewish grade school in Caracas, 25 secret police commandos in combat gear and face masks burst into the main building. Scores of preschoolers were locked in the school as panicked parents tried to retrieve them. The children were eventually freed, but the raid went on.

The government-appointed judge who ordered the raid said the commandos were looking for weapons linked to a bombing that killed Danilo Anderson, a crooked local prosecutor who had made a fortune shaking down the government's political opponents. The raid followed speculation aired on a state-run television station that Anderson's killing was the work of Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence agency; presumably this guesswork justified the storming of a Jewish elementary school.

The Hebraica raid was not an isolated or random act of state-sponsored anti-Jewish violence. Hostility to Jews has become one of the hallmarks of the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez, the radical populist who became president in 1999, and of Chavismo, the neo-fascist ideology named for him. In January, the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released a "Report on Global Anti-Semitism." The report documents how openly anti-Semitic the Venezuelan government now is. Besides the raid on the Jewish school, it noted that "President Chávez cautioned citizens against following the lead of Jewish citizens in the effort to overturn his referendum victory. Anti-Semitic leaflets also were available to the public in an Interior and Justice Ministry office waiting room."

Chávez first ran for president on a reform platform, winning in a landslide. What few understood then was that Chávez planned to revolutionize the country following a plan masterminded by his longtime friend Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian writer infamous for his books denying the Holocaust and his conspiracy theories about Jewish plans to control the planet.

The title of Ceresole's 1999 book on Chávez and Venezuela, Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo ("Leader, Army, People"), eerily recalls the German national socialist maxim, "One People, One Country, One Leader." (The first chapter is titled "The Jewish Question and the state of Israel.") After denying the Holocaust, he explains that the greatest threat to Chavismo comes from the Jews of Venezuela. A self-described Communist and fascist, Ceresole became an expert in national socialism after designing Juan Domingo Perón's electoral platform in Argentina. In Ceresole's hands, representative democracy mutates into "participatory" systems led by cult-like figures; tellingly, Chávez praises the "participatory democracy" of Libya, Syria, Iran, and Cuba. Ceresole's structure channels the people's will through the charismatic strongman; the military functions as the central political body. Ceresole's roadmap for Venezuela suffered some setbacks, including a 2002 coup that displaced Chávez for 48 hours and a national strike that almost toppled the government. But Venezuela's dramatic political metamorphosis was nonetheless complete by the time Ceresole died in 2003.

Chavismo's purpose, however, is not just to create a stable autocracy. At its core is a far-reaching foreign policy that aims to establish a loosely aligned federation of revolutionary republics as a resistance bloc in the Americas. The Chavista worldview sees the globe as a place where the United States, Europe, and Israel must be opposed by militarized one-man regimes.