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Meanwhile, Chavez nurtured an ever-closer relationship with Iran. The seemingly incongruous friendship between Chavez, a secular socialist, and Ahmadinejad, president of an Islamic theocracy, was built around shared hostility to the United States, the West and Israel. The two leaders sharply increased bilateral trade, inaugurated weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, and frequently visited each other.
As the size of the Iranian diplomatic presence in Venezuela grew, Western security experts accused Venezuela of providing Iran with a Latin American base for illicit activities, including arms trading.
Venezuela’s final break with Israel came in 2009, during the three-week Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that began in late December 2008. Chavez severed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, expelling the Israeli ambassador in Caracas and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. Chavez also insisted that the Jews of Venezuela rebuke Israel for its actions.
Chavez’s constant linkage of Venezuelan Jewry with Israel seemed to give presidential sanction to anti-Semitism, even if Chavez himself said he “respected and loved” Jews.
Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Caracas, equating the Jewish Star of David with the swastika. Broadcasters on state radio recommended the anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as an insightful read. Jewish institutions and houses of worship in Venezuela were attacked.
“People are being taught to hate,” then-Venezuelan Chief Rabbi Pynchas Brener told JTA in early 2009. “Venezuela has never seen anything like this before.”
But Chavez was no Hitler. Venezuelan Jews were free to come and go as they pleased, and even many of those who emigrated returned frequently to visit – including Brener, who has since moved to Florida.
To some extent, Chavez watched over the country’s Jews. In 2009, the government gave round-the-clock police protection to the site of a Caracas synagogue that had been attacked.
But Venezuelan Jews also felt that Chavez was watching them – a suspicion vindicated by the publication early this year of documents showing that the SEBIN secret service was spying on Venezuelan Jews. The documents, which were obtained by the Argentinian media outlet Analises24, included intelligence reports, clandestinely recorded photos and videos.
For now, it’s unclear whether or for how long the anti-Jewish atmosphere Chavez allowed to take root in Venezuela will survive him.
But after 14 years of policies that prompted more than half of Venezuela’s Jews to pick up and leave – and with Venezuela’s economic and security problems now compounded by political turmoil – it’s hard to imagine very many of the Jewish emigres are hurrying back.