Anti-Semitism has formed a key part of Chavismo, Hugo Chávez’s political ideology, and is now maintained by Chávez’s successor Nicholas Maduro. From the early days of his presidency, Chávez targeted Venezuela’s small Jewish community with abuse and sought to push them out of Venezuela. This was despite the absence of any anti-Semitic tradition in Venezuelan culture, which was always welcoming towards its Jewish population. When Chávez came to power in 1999, 30,000 Jews lived in Venezuela. Now only an estimated 5,000 remain after two decades of persecution.
Chávez propagated classic tropes of anti-Semitism, including the notion that Jews controlled world finance and had “taken possession of all the wealth of the world.” Also prominent was the argument that Jews were dangerous fifth columnists, seeking to disrupt Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution. “Don’t let yourselves be poisoned by those wandering Jews,” he urged Venezuelans in one notable address. State owned media outlets promoted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-Semitics hoax. Chávez went beyond demagoguery, going to far as to both incite and directly order violence against Venezuela’s Jews. In March 2009, police officers were caught vandalising Venezuela’s largest synagogue, daubing “we don’t want Jews here!” on the walls and destroying holy books. Chávez also sought to impose bureaucratic restrictions on Venezuela’s Jews. In 2012, the interior ministry required extra permits for the importation of Matzo, the unleavened bread essential to the Passover festival. When the Jewish community sought to make representations about this or other discrimination, they were directed to the foreign ministry, to indicate that the regime viewed them as aliens.
Anti-Semitism was also a tool with which to tarnish political opponents. Chávez extensively deployed anti-Semitism in his 2012 election campaign against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Although a devout Catholic, Capriles had Jewish ancestry, so cartoons in the Chavista press featured him wearing a Star of David and pink shorts, the latter a homophobic reference to the fact that he was unmarried. Chavista propaganda accused him of: belonging to an international Zionist cabal which controlled the media, Hollywood, and global finance; disloyalty to Venezuela and its people; belonging to a group of exploiters responsible for the misery of others; being an “illegitimate” Catholic; and fronting a Zionist conspiracy to take over Venezuela.
Anti-Semitic activity intensified after Maduro took over from Chávez. Over 4,000 anti-Semitic incidents occurred in Venezuela during 2013 according to Venezuela's main Jewish organization, CAIV. Maduro and his regime continue to invoke anti-Semitic tropes to this day, including conspiracies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as a US and ‘Zionist’ puppet. In a February 13th interview with al-Mayadeen, a Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese media outlet, Maduro stated that Guaidó’s inner circle was full of CIA agents serving “American and Zionist” interests.
Why are the Chavistas so anti-Semitic? Firstly, the regime likes to blame alien conspiracies for the dire state of the economy as well as other regime failures, and Jews neatly fit this requirement. Secondly, Chávez himself was strongly influenced by anti-Semitic ideas, partially through his friendship with the Argentinian fascist intellectual Norberto Ceresole. “Ceresole was like the parrot on Chávez’s shoulder,” said Sammy Eppel, the head of the Human Rights Commission of the Venezuelan Bna’i Brith. “He wanted to bring the far left and the far right together, and he persuaded Chávez that he was the man to do that.” The first chapter of Ceresole’s book extolling this model was titled “The Jewish Problem,” and anti-Semitism became the glue that bound together the Chavista government approach in which an all-powerful leader directs the people, unrestrained by tiresome limitations such as an independent judiciary.
Finally, the Chavista regime allied itself with countries and groups strongly opposed to the USA and western foreign policy, such as Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Russia and Libya, and most of these promote anti-Semitism to various degrees. Chávez established a particularly strong political and commercial relationship with Iran, forming at least $20 billion worth of joint ventures with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including a bank and an airline used by Hezbollah. The relationship with Hezbollah is still strong, as revealed by a recent New York Times expose of secret files compiled by Venezuelan intelligence agents which reveal how one of Maduro’s closest confidants, industry Minister and former Vice-President Tareck El Aissami helped Hezbollah establish a drug-smuggling network across Latin America.
The Chavista regime espoused anti-Semitism and wielded it as a political weapon. The regime lies to the Venezuelan people and disguises its own failings under the cover of international conspiracies. Chavez and Maduro’s actions have been reprehensible, and one hopes that successor regimes will draw a line under this ugly period in Venezuelan history.
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