Students at the Ma’or HaTorah yeshiva in Caracas knew something was afoot Tuesday afternoon when bodyguards driving bullet-proof vehicles started showing up unexpectedly at the gate, whisking teenagers from wealthy families to the safety of their homes.
“After the second and third came, we realized this was serious,” Aron Misadon, a 16-year-old student at the school, told JTA on Wednesday. “At that point they closed the school and we all ran home.”
That something was the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had been gravely ill for months and had recently returned from months-long treatment in Cuba. The announcement sent many in Caracas into panic mode, fearing that the death of this larger-than-life figure – alternately loved or reviled by millions in his country – might lead to chaos in the streets.
Stores were shuttered, meetings were canceled and Venezuelans braced themselves. As the government announced a seven-day national mourning period, Jewish schools and the Jewish community center in Caracas all closed. The only activity in town seemed to be at the military academy, where Chavez’s coffin lay in state. He is to be buried on Friday.
The scheduled opening next Sunday of a new Sephardic synagogue was likely to be postponed. The new shul, a multimillion dollar edifice, had been built to replace an older one located in a part of town that had become unsafe. Under Chavez’s rule, Caracas has acquired one of the world’s highest murder rates, and violent crime is an omnipresent threat.
In the early hours after Chavez’s death, the fear was of the unknown. Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro’s accusation that Venezuela’s enemies had “inculcated” Chavez with his cancer, as unnamed foes had done to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, sent shivers down the spines of many Venezuelan Jews.
“We are very worried that his followers might decide to ‘avenge’ his death,” said Sammy Eppel, a local journalist who is Jewish.
But two days after his death, an eerie calm had taken hold. Driving down the four-lane highway connecting Simon Bolivar International Airport with downtown Caracas, David Bittan noted how quiet things were.