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.

In an interview with Voice of America in 1999, the late Constantine Menges of the Hudson Institute predicted that "Chávez will stir up revolution and violence throughout Latin America. The longer he is in power, the more he can use the oil wells of Venezuela to do so." When Menges spoke, the price of oil had briefly dipped below $10 per barrel. Since then, oil prices have quintupled, making the Chávez government the richest in Venezuelan history and vastly multiplying the damage it can do.

There is now incontrovertible evidence, for instance, that Chávez has financed, harbored, and supplied weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's narcoterrorists. Last December, high-ranking FARC terrorist Rodrigo Granda was arrested in Caracas. Granda had been living in baronial splendor under the protection--and at the expense--of the Chávez government. Bounty hunters kidnapped Granda and drove him to Colombia, where he is now imprisoned and awaiting trial. Days after the arrest, El Salvador president Antonio Saca announced plans to investigate ties between Chávez and his country's FMLN terrorist organization. In Nicaragua, Chávez has funded Daniel Ortega's Sandinista party; in Bolivia, he funds Evo Morales, the leader of the coca-growers' movement.

But Chávez's ambitions extend beyond the Americas. He has signed treaties for "technological cooperation" with the dictators of Libya, Iran, and Syria. He has numerous business interests in those countries, and has publicly described the terror-sponsors who rule them as his "partners" and "friends." The feeling is mutual. Iran and Libya have hundreds of millions invested in Venezuela. Significantly, Chávez was the only foreign leader to visit Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf war. During his visit he embraced Saddam and called him "brother."

There is no sign that these alliances proceed from anything other than Chávez's deepest convictions. Less than a month after taking office, Chávez wrote a fan letter to Illich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan-born terrorist imprisoned at La Santé maximum-security prison outside Paris. Popularly known as "Carlos the Jackal," Sanchez began his long, bloody career by shooting Joseph Sieff, a Jewish businessman in London. He committed terrorist bombings in France, hijacked airliners, and kidnapped the OPEC ministers in Vienna. After retiring to the Sudan, he was captured and sent to France to stand trial for murdering two Parisian police officers. Yet Chávez addressed Sanchez as "Distinguished Compatriot" and lavished praise on him. He described himself as "swimming in the profundities expressed in [Sanchez's] letter," and signed off "with profound faith in the cause and the mission." When the letter was leaked, Chávez dismissed all criticism and said he was simply expressing solidarity with a fellow Venezuelan.

THAT EXPRESSION OF SOLIDARITY IS CHILLING. During the last six years, Chávez has restructured Venezuela's institutions and policies to extend his rule; he has concentrated his power, and he has disabled the democratic opposition. Always proceeding with the patina of popular support and the pretense of legality, he has used a constituent assembly to establish a new constitution giving him wide powers. He has packed the courts with loyal judges and purged the military of anyone who might oppose his orders. The Chávez government has severely restricted freedom of the press, most recently banning any public or private expression of opposition to the government. After winning a Jimmy Carter-endorsed August 2004 referendum marred by accusations of fraud and voter harassment, Chávez revved up his revolutionary project. The raid on Colegio Hebraica was a significant shift in the politics of intimidation.

Predictably, the storming of Hebraica turned up nothing and the police publicly acknowledged that the search had been "unfruitful." Of course, the raid was fruitful insofar as it sent a message to the Jewish community. Venezuela's chief rabbi denounced the raid's "economy of intimidation," noting that "there is not a single Jewish family in Caracas that was not affected. Many of us have children in the school, grandchildren, great-grandchildren--or friends. An attack on the school is the most effective way of jolting the entire Jewish population."

And, as it happened, on the same day Hebraica was raided, Chávez was on a state visit to Iran. Just that morning, the Tehran Times had quoted his praise of President Khatami and the Iranian theocracy. Analysts in Venezuela suspect the true purpose of the raid originated in Chávez's eagerness to display solidarity with the Iranian mullahs. Chávez had traveled to Iran by way of Tripoli, where he described himself as "bathed in honor" after receiving the fantastically named Muammar Qaddafi Prize for Human Rights. In his acceptance speech Chávez was unequivocal: The "time is right to unite and face the imperialist challenge. Like Yasser Arafat, I now have only the revolutionary's gun since the olive branch has fallen."

Days afterward, Chávez accused Washington of unleashing "real terrorism" in Iraq and called for a "jihad" on American imperialism. Appearing on Al Jazeera, he described President Bush's foreign policy as vigilante violence: "It is not a war on terrorism, it is terrorism itself." From Iran, Chávez traveled to China, where he announced that China would replace the United States as the principal beneficiary of Venezuelan oil. By the end of his trip, Chávez had signed agreements with President Hu Jintao granting the China National Petroleum Corporation control of 15 Venezuelan oil fields, thereby securing for China a billion barrels of Venezuelan crude. Shortly after, Chávez declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in a speech in Calcutta. He then signed petroleum agreements with the Indian government while again indicating his desire to cut off Venezuelan oil exports to the United States.

In addition to his ideological alliances, petro-politics, and support for guerrilla terror throughout Latin America, Chávez has begun expanding Venezuela's military capability. In the past year he has more than tripled the Venezuelan military budget, purchasing 20 high-performance MiG fighter jets and 100,000 AK-47 machine gun rifles from the Russian government as well as an unprecedented number of helicopter gunships, surface-to-air missiles, and Onyx missiles (which can sink aircraft carriers). This spring, Chávez defended Iran's nuclear development program after warmly receiving their president in Venezuela and signing new "technological" treaties. In March he announced the creation of a two-million man reserve army to defend the revolution "against the American invasion."

THE VENEZUELAN OPPOSITION is a loose-knit, underfunded network of individuals and small organizations powerless to offer much more than moral opposition to Chavismo. The military hierarchy is incapable, after six years of demoralization, rampant corruption, and regular purges, of restoring any semblance of constitutional order. Any effective response to Chavismo will have to be, in part, international.

Most important for now is persistent public exposure of Chávez's increasing militarism, assaults on democracy, human rights abuses, and free speech violations, as well as his involvement with terrorist groups in South America and terror sponsors in the Middle East. Such exposure will ideally arouse international public opinion against Chávez and nurture new leadership inside Venezuela that will provide democratic alternatives to Chavismo.

Under Chávez, more than one million Venezuelans have voted with their feet in the largest political exodus in Latin America since the Cuban migrations of the 1960s. Venezuela's Jewish community has been halved over the past six years. Many of the children and grandchildren of those who arrived on the Koenigstein and Caribia have now left the country. Fortunately, there are no exit restrictions--yet.

Thor Halvorssen, a civil liberties advocate, is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.