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A precarious democracy threatens Venezuelans — Jews and non-Jews
JTA / July 15, 2003

By Larry Luxner

CARACAS — The minaret of Venezuela's largest mosque, the Saudi-financed Mezquita Ibrahim Bin Abdul-Aziz al-Ibrahim, towers over the Caracas skyline, while the country's populist president, Hugo Chávez, rallies against globalization, threatens his critics and praises his heroes — Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Yet what worries Venezuela's dwindling Jewish community isn't anti-Semitism, at least not yet. It's the rapid dismantling of civil liberties in what was once considered one of Latin America's most vibrant, economically healthy democracies.

"It's obvious that everything in Venezuela has been jeopardized," said Rebecca Perli, executive director of the Centro de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), which represents about 4,000 Jewish families. "It's not the way it used to be. And this isn't the case only for the Jewish community, but for the whole country."

Chávez, a former army paratrooper who attempted to overthrow then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, was elected only six years later with the overwhelming support of millions of poor Venezuelans who had never shared in the country's enormous oil wealth.

In 1999, voters in a national referendum approved the adoption of a new constitution that changed the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Yet Chávez soon began antagonizing the business sector with his frequent tirades against the "predatory oligarchs and corrupt servants of international capital."

As anti-Chávez protests mounted and the economy began tanking, the president's popularity fell from a high of 80% shortly after his election around 30%. Relations with the United States took a further dive after 9/11, when Chávez accused Washington of "fighting terror with terror" during the war in Afghanistan and hit bottom last year, after the Bush administration failed to immediately condemn the backers of a short-lived coup d'etat against Chávez.

In 2003 — as a result of continued strikes, work stoppages and often violent protests orchestrated by those hoping to force Chávez out of office — Venezuela's GDP is expected to shrink by 9%, after plummeting 10% in 2002.

And that has frightened the country's Jews, most of whom are middle- and upper-class professionals.

"We want the truth to be known to the American people, not just about how the Jews are suffering but how Venezuelans in general are suffering under this dictatorship we are heading towards," warned Isaac Hochman, secretary-general of both CAIV and a regional human rights group. "This has consequences not only for Venezuela but also for Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and other neighboring countries."

Hochman, in an interview with JTA, said that only 16,000 to 18,000 Jews remain in Venezuela, down from a high of 25,000 as recently as 10 years ago. Most of those who left have resettled in Miami; some also went to New York, Houston, Madrid and Israel.

"The political situation is affecting democracy, because there is no balance of power right now," said Hochman, a petroleum engineer whose company sells specialized equipment to PDVSA, the state oil monopoly. "Strikes are a consequence of the political situation. For the last 90 days, we have had exchange controls in place. The government has not issued one single dollar to industry or commerce."

The Jewish leader, noting that Venezuela's Congress is currently debating several measures that would revise the penal code to forbid strikes and anti-government demonstrations, said that "even if we were extremely rich, it doesn't matter if we don't have freedom and democracy."

Yet when asked if Chávez is anti-Semitic, Hochman said "absolutely not."

"There is no official pronouncement against Jews," he told JTA. "In four and a half years as president, Chávez has never publicly mentioned the words Jew or Israel."

In fact, anti-Semitism has never been a major problem in Venezuela, a country liberated from Spanish rule by Simón Bolívar in 1821 and blessed with immense reserves of petroleum and other mineral resources.

Jews began trickling to Venezuela at the beginning of the 19th century, though the biggest waves of emigration occurred after World War II and the Six-Day War of 1967. At its peak in the early 1970s, the community — split evenly between Sephardim and Ashkenazim — numbered about 25,000, and wealthy Venezuelan Jews would often fly to Miami for weekend shopping trips.

Today, around 90% of all remaining Jews live in Caracas, a sprawling metropolis of 5.5 million. The other 10% are scattered in Maracaibo, Valencia and smaller cities.

Unlike the country's 100,000-strong Arab community — which includes many Palestinians — Venezuela's Jews keep an extremely low profile. Most of the 18 functioning synagogues in Caracas, as well as the offices of B'nai B'rith, CAIV, WIZO and other Jewish organizations, are unmarked and protected by sophisticated security systems, barbed wire and armed security guards.

Part of this, of course, stems from fears of terrorism sparked by the 1994 bombing of Argentina's AMIA. But it's also a consequence of Venezuela's skyrocketing crime rate.

Elieser Rotkopf, director-general of the Instituto Cultural Venezolano-Israeli, says that although the country's Jews were generally well-off before the current crisis, they now suffer economically, along with everybody else.

"Many Jewish families have had to make big sacrifices," he said. "They've taken their kids out of Jewish schools because they couldn't afford the cost, even though more than 30% of the students are on scholarships."

As a result, about 10% of all Jewish-owned businesses have gone bankrupt, putting an additional strain on Venezuela's once-prosperous Jewish institutions.

Suzy Zinn is media relations director for WIZO, which has been active in Venezuela since 1943. She says her organization used to raise money mainly to help non-Jewish hospitals and other institutions, but that more and more funds are now being channeled to needy Jews.

"Two or three years ago, 30% of Jewish high-school students had to be sponsored because they couldn't afford the tuition [of 300,000 bolivares, or about $190, a month]. It seems that the situation is worse now. A large percentage of people who usually paid their tuition on time are overdue for more than a year. And many people who used to go to private doctors can no longer afford it."

Another WIZO activist, Ruth Scher, said that La Hebráica, a major Venezuelan Jewish institution, used to have two buildings — one in San Bernardino and another in Los Chorros. "This year, they closed the primary school here in San Bernardino and moved everybody to Los Chorros to cut costs. And next year, they'll close the pre-school."

For Jews and non-Jews alike, the big issue facing Venezuelans now is whether a referendum on Chávez's continued rule will take place as scheduled on Aug. 19.

"Since he's gotten into power, Chávez has done exactly the opposite of what he's promised," says Hochman. "If the referendum kicks him out, there's a big question mark as to what's going to happen. He's very well-armed."

But many Venezuelans doubt there will be a referendum at all, given the likelihood that more than 80% of the electorate would now vote Chávez out of office.

"I think we're worse off than Argentina," said Scher, who's originally from Buenos Aires. "There the problem is economic; here it's political. Even if Chávez falls and the economy recuperates, the class differences and the hatred he caused won't heal for a very long time."

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