Much like Fidel Castro, his ideological soulmate, Hugo Chávez is fond of denouncing his critics as “fascists” and “Nazis,” regardless of whether those critics are U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill, heads of state in Europe, or opposition presidential candidates in Venezuela. Yet in his militarization of society, his promulgation of chauvinistic nationalism, and (above all) his persistent use of anti-Semitic demagoguery, Chávez himself is much closer to 1930s-style fascism than any of his democratic opponents.
Consider the ongoing efforts to smear Henrique Capriles, the man who will represent the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) in Venezuela’s October 2012 presidential election. Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, is a practicing Catholic, but his grandparents were European Jews who escaped Nazism, and his great grandparents were murdered at Treblinka. Immediately after he won the MUD primary vote on February 12, the pro-Chávez state-run media began attacking him with a fusillade of anti-Semitic propaganda.
Prominent Jewish leaders swiftly condemned the bigotry and demanded action from Caracas. “We urge President Chávez to put an end to this campaign that will surely become more threatening as the elections date approaches,” declared Shimon Samuels, director for international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The people of Venezuela should forcefully reject the tactics of the Chávez regime to recycle classical anti-Semitic canards branding Jews as disloyal, as a menace to the values of the country, as capitalists responsible for the misery of others, and as being part of an international Zionist Lobby,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Chávez has yet to issue a public repudiation of the anti-Semitic vitriol being spewed by his government press outlets. No surprise there. The scapegoating of Jews has become a depressingly familiar feature of his Bolivarian Revolution. This phenomenon, along with rampant crime, the erosion of democracy, and a national economic implosion, has contributed to a massive out-migration of Venezuelan Jews.
As journalist Matthew Fishbane writes in Tablet magazine, many of them have relocated to Bogotá, Colombia, a city that was once horrifically violent but is now “an island of safety and peace” compared with Caracas. The Venezuelan capital used to have “tens of thousands” of Jewish residents, notes Fishbane, but over the past decade their numbers have plummeted. The exodus from Caracas reflects a national trend: “As the reality of Chávez’s durability has set in, nearly half of Venezuela’s Jewish community has fled from the social and economic chaos that the president has unleashed and from the uncomfortable feeling that they were being specifically targeted by the regime” (emphasis added).
Here’s a brief list of incidents and remarks that have fostered such an “uncomfortable feeling”:
* In a speech delivered on Christmas Eve 2005, Chávez said that “the descendants of those who crucified Christ” were among the minority groups who had “seized the world’s riches.”
* In December 2007, state police raided the most important Jewish social club in Caracas (La Hebraica). Not coincidentally, they conducted this raid on the same day that Venezuelans were voting in a national referendum on presidential term limits. (“Masked and armed police piled over the walls as elementary-school children arrived for class,” writes Fishbane.)
* Roughly a year later, Chávez described Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Operation Cast Lead) as a “genocidal holocaust against the Palestinian people,” and he made a big show of expelling the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Cohen, one of the most able Israeli diplomats in Latin America.
* A few weeks after Cohen’s expulsion, armed intruders robbed and vandalized the Mariperez synagogue in Caracas, leaving behind a number anti-Semitic graffiti messages, including “Jews out of here.”
* In June 2010, after Israeli troops forcibly boarded a Turkish flotilla headed for Gaza, Chávez blasted “the terrorist and criminal nature of Israel’s government.” Speaking on Venezuelan television, he unleashed a ferocious rhetorical assault, which is quoted by Fishbane: “I take this opportunity to condemn once again, from the depth of my soul and from my guts, the state of Israel. Damn the state of Israel! Maldito sea! Terrorists and assassins!”
* That same month, Chávez met with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in Venezuela and once again described the Israeli government as “genocidal.”
The mass emigration of Jews from Venezuela is tragically similar to what happened in the Caribbean half a century ago. According to Cuba expert Irving Louis Horowitz, a remarkable 90 percent of Cuban Jews fled the island shortly after Castro took power. For decades to come, Havana would faithfully parrot the steady stream of anti-Semitic propaganda emanating from Moscow. As Horowitz explains, “The Soviets provided Cuba with the model of attacking human rights activities and organizations as a necessary extension of the Jewish Zionist conspiracy.” For that matter, Castro hosted the 1966 Tricontinental Conference, which arguably launched the modern era of international terrorism, and he spent many years aiding Yasser Arafat’s PLO.
The anti-Semitism of the Bolivarian Revolution has been inspired not only by Castro, but also by Iran, which now enjoys a robust alliance with Venezuela. It is much more serious than Chávez’s ordinary propaganda. Indeed, back in February 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report warning that government anti-Semitism “constitutes a threat to the life and physical integrity of the Jewish community in Venezuela.” That threat deserves greater attention from the United States. As Capriles grows more and more popular, it’s only going to get worse.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.