JTA / August 9, 2006
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON — Last month, shortly after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Israel should be wiped off the map and that the Holocaust was mostly Zionist propaganda, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez embraced Ahmadinejad in Tehran, calling him a "true friend and brother."
Last week, Chávez equated Israel's aerial bombardment of Lebanon with Nazi war crimes and recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv. The next day Israel's Foreign Ministry retaliated by calling home its envoy in Caracas, Shlomo Cohen.
On Wednesday, Chávez announced he was about to break diplomatic relations with Israel altogether.
This escalating war of words between Israel and Venezuela — traditional allies and trading partners — is causing concern among Venezuela's dwindling Jewish community as well as in Washington, where U.S. officials now view Chávez as Latin America's greatest threat to democracy.
But Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, defends his president's actions.
"We don't have any problems with Jews," Alvarez told JTA in an interview Tuesady at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. "We have a large Jewish community, and we have had relations with the state of Israel for a long time. But Venezuela's position is that we should do something, because this massive bombardment and killing in Lebanon is morally unacceptable. We are waiting for the international community to put a stop to it."
Venezuela, with an estimated 15,000 Jews, is home to the largest Jewish community in Latin America after Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, yet it's the only countrys to recall its ambassador in Israel in protest over the current fighting.
"We thought we should tell the Israeli government that this is not the way to do things — no matter what happened — and that you cannot resort to such violence," said Alvarez, who not once criticized Hezbollah's continuing missile attacks on Israeli civilians or its kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah is supplied and financed by Iran, though Alvarez claims Venezuela's anti-Israel position "doesn't have anything to do" with Chávez's trip to Tehran.
"We have a long relationship with Iran that goes back for many years, and is based on many common interests starting with oil," he said. "This strategy goes back even before Sept. 11. The first trip Chávez made as elected president took him to Russia, China, India, Iran and the Middle East. We are also playing a more important role in OPEC. Venezuela recently sponsored the first summit of OPEC heads of state in 25 years."
In an interview last week with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV network, Chávez said Israel's air strikes against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon were an "unjustified aggression that is being carried out in the style of Hitler, in a fascist fashion."
Earlier this year, Chávez was accused of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism after he gave a speech that referred to "minorities, descendants of those who crucified Christ" who today control the world's economy.
Alvarez tried to distance Chávez from some of Ahmadinejad's more inflammatory statements, explaining that "we have relationships with many countries around the world, and it doesn't mean we support all of them. Venezuela's position is very clear: we don't agree with that statement made by the president of Iran [calling for Israel's destruction].
He added: "We have also had good relations with Libya, and we now have observer status at the Arab League. This is part of our strategy of reaching out to the world."
This strategy has infuriated the Bush administration, which has watched as Chávez travels around the globe, embracing not only Iran's Ahmadinejad and Libya's Moammar Qaddafi but also other dictators such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Alexander Lukachenko of Belarus.
Ironically, the United States remains Venezuela's most important customer, buying 60% of the country's total exports. The biggest component of this trade is oil; Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA oil monopoly ships 1.2 million barrels of crude a day to the U.S. markets and also operates refineries in Louisiana, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, it has 100% ownership of the Citgo gas-station chain.
Bilateral relations took a turn for the worse after Chávez — who had led failed coup attempts against the Venezuelan government in the early 1990s— himself became president in 1998. Washington prevented Israel from selling Venezuela spare parts for its aging F-15 fighter jets.
Thanks partially to record-high oil prices that allow the country to spend lavishly on social programs, Chávez remains wildly popular. Presidential elections are scheduled for Dec. 3, though if the election were held today, say pollsters, Chávez would win 55 to 60 percent of the vote, thanks to his years of pumping oil revenues into new housing projects, community clinics and road construction.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's political opposition is fractured, with one presidential andidate — prominent Jewish economist Teodoro Petkoff — withdrawing his candidacy only a few days ago.
At least one Latin American expert cautions against overreacting.
"Remember that in dealing with Chávez, he's far more bark than bite," said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "He also has no self-censoring capacity. After he says something, his most seasoned diplomats rush in and engage in damage control."
Birns says he doubts Chávez will actually follow through on his threat to break diplomatic ties with Israel.
"Part of his statements on Israel have a lot to do with the fact that Venezuela is primarily an oil-based economy," Birns told JTA. "He identifies with poor, downtrodden countries, and looks at Israel as a Western state exploiting a poor Arab nation. But I doubt very much whether this situate will detetoriate any further. As soon as there is some sort of peace agrement with Lebanon, this whole issue will quiet down."