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Paulina Gamus, one of the directors of Espacio Anna Frank and a former member of the Venezuelan parliament, said the allegations against her and her organization were spurious.
“They accuse [Espacio Anna Frank] of belonging to the Mossad and the Israeli secret services only because we are an institution that promotes respect of different religions and cultures and have a Jewish component, although we are all Venezuelans,” she wrote in an email.
Venezuelan Jews told JTA they were not surprised that SEBIN, the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, has been spying on them.
State security raided Jewish institutions twice, in 2004 and 2007, and Chavez has accused Israel of financing the “counter-revolution” in Venezuela. In 2009, a Caracas synagogue was ransacked by an angry mob – including several police officers – following Operation Cast Lead, the 2009 Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Chavez condemned the synagogue attack and several suspects were arrested.
Combined with a failing economy and a surge in violent crime, the hostility from the Chavez government has led to a Jewish exodus to the United States, Israel and other Latin American countries. Fewer than half the 1999 Jewish population of 22,000 remains.
Rabbi Pynchas Brener is among those who relocated. A vocal critic of Chavez, Brener is identified in the SEBIN documents as the Mossad’s chief spymaster in Venezuela. One chart places him at the head of an intricate web of informants and cover-up operations that report directly to the Israeli intelligence service and the American and Canadian embassies in Caracas.
“I’m not a Mossad agent – you can write that – and I never was one,” Brener told JTA. “Maybe I’ll be one in the future.”
Born in Poland, Brener was raised in Peru and led a congregation in Caracas for 44 years before retiring to Florida in 2011. He said he was labeled a spymaster because he was among Venezuela’s more visible Jews.
“Venezuela is the most tolerant society that I know,” Brener said. “There’s almost zero anti-Semitism. But the government has been cultivating it.”
The leaks come at a potentially pivotal time for Venezuela. Chavez has not been seen in public in months since undergoing an operation related to an unspecified form of cancer. The government vows that the self-proclaimed revolutionary leader will recover and be sworn in for his fourth successive presidential term. But rumors abound that he is terminally ill.
For many members of the Jewish community, the possible departure of Chavez from Venezuelan politics would be a cause for renewed hope. Last month Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, met in Caracas with Nicolas Maduro, the vice president and temporary fill-in for Chavez. The meeting, which included several Latin American Jewish leaders, seemed to hint at a possible rapprochement.
“[Maduro] is not Chavez,” Gamus said. “He does not have his charisma or character, and he is not influenced by the anti-Semitic ideologies like those that Chavez had.”
But one should be careful not to write off Chavez. Like his hero, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has survived countless assassination attempts and suspected ailments, Chavez has regularly proven rumors of his demise to be greatly exaggerated.
On Monday, Venezuelan Defense Minister Diego Molero reported that Chavez was having his “best moment yet” since he underwent surgery.