ON CHRISTMAS EVE, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez's Christian-socialist cant drifted into anti-Semitism. "The world is for all of us," he said, "then, but it so happens that a minority, the descendents of the same ones that crucified Christ, the descendents of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia. A minority has taken possession all of the wealth of the world . . . "
These sentiments were not new and Chávez, for his part, has long associated with anti-Semitic figures. One of Chávez's early mentors was the Holocaust-denying Argentine social scientist Norberto Ceresole. Shortly after ascending to the presidency, Chávez wrote to the imprisoned terrorist known as Carlos (who is a Venezuelan national) calling him a distinguished compatriot. In 2000 Chávez became the first head of state to meet with Saddam since the first Gulf War; he even received a Human Rights Award from Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. In December, Chávez hosted a meeting of the U.N. Committee for the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
But most seriously, Chávez has established an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has long been the leading state sponsor of terrorism internationally and against Israel. When then Iranian President Mohammed Khatami visited Caracas in March 2005, Chávez voiced his support for Iran's nuclear program and awarded Khatami Venezuela's highest honor, the Order of the Liberator. (There is a Simon Bolivar Street in Tehran.) During this visit the two countries signed 20 agreements to cooperate on economic development projects. These warm relations have continued under the new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has explicitly called for Israel's destruction.
Chávez's anti-Semitism is not restricted to rhetorical support for others, though. In late 2004, after a state prosecutor (and Chávez ally), was assassinated in a car bombing, the state-run television darkly referred to Mossad links to the killing. Venezuelan security forces raided a Jewish private school in Caracas as the school day was beginning. No evidence of any connection to the car bombing was found. It surely cannot be a coincidence that the raid occurred while Chávez was visiting Iran.
Carlos Blanco, writing in the leading Caracas daily, El Universal, noted that, "When a Jew is attacked for being such, we enter a zone of total and absolute risk for the free thinking and existence of all, Jews and non Jews alike." His fears have been borne out.
SINCE CH VEZ'S FIRST ELECTION IN 1998, Venezuela's ranking in the Freedom House survey of World Freedom has dropped from Free to Partly Free. The report states that in 2004, "Chávez devoted considerable attention during the year to advancing his influence over the judicial system, media, and other institutions of civil society." Chávez's measures include media laws that could be used to imprison reporters for insulting public authorities and institutions and packing the Supreme Court by expanding its membership from 20 to 32 justices. The Chávez government has also undermined property rights by imposing price controls on staples (leading to the predictable shortages) and seizing "underused" ranches without compensation.
Chávez also expanded on these broader ambitions in his Christmas Eve address. According to Chávez, Jesus was "the first socialist of our era . . . and for that they crucified him." He exhorted Venezuelans to be ready "to sacrifice ourselves for others, for the country, for the collective . . . that is how we will save our country and we will help save the world from here."
Most tellingly, he called for the building of a utopian paradise on earth:
To leave the room of poverty is to arrive at a life of dignity, where there is no misery, nor poverty is the Kingdom of God that Christ came to tell us, the Kingdom of Equality, of love, of justice. We have to build that kingdom here, because it is totally false that this Kingdom is in the clouds and that one goes there when one dies. Lie! . . . No, heaven and hell are here among us.
THE LANGUAGE AND SENTIMENTS are distressingly familiar. But Chávez appears determined to initiate his Utopian revolution and buoyed by record oil prices, he has the resources to pursue this vision in Venezuela and to export his revolution throughout the region. Within Venezuela he has launched numerous initiatives. Some, such as building new medical facilities throughout the country, seem laudable (although Fidel Castro provides the medical staffs). Other initiatives are eccentric, such as the government's printing and free distribution of 1 million copies of the classic novels Don Quixote and Les Miserables. Some programs expand Chavez's authority, such as the establishment of Bolivarian Circles. These armed citizen militias were ostensibly formed to defend the country against a U.S. invasion, but have been deployed for violent confrontations with anti-Chávez protestors.
Regionally, Chávez funds radical groups and buys allies with cash and subsidized oil. He has sticks to accompany these carrots. Chávez is funding a regional satellite TV network--a Latin Al Jazeera--to broadcast his vision. Chávez also provides safe havens for Latin America's largest terrorist organization, FARC. His rhetoric and interference in other nations' internal affairs have sparked several high-profile spats with other Latin American nations, most recently with Mexico and Peru.
Internationally Chávez is seen as a populist loudmouth and while his anti-Semitism is condemned, much of his rhetoric is ignored as braggadocio. But his forays into anti-Semitism are merely symptoms of a broader, dysfunctional worldview. Chávez appears intent on replaying the most disastrous political projects of the last century.
Aaron Mannes, author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations (Rowman & Littlefield-JINSA Press), researches terrorism at the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. Opinions expressed here are his own.