When scores of armed police showed up early on Monday, November 29, at the Hebraica community center and Jewish school in Caracas to search for evidence related to the murder of a prosecutor, several years of quiet anguish over the deteriorating situation of Jews in Venezuela finally boiled over.
Venezuelan and American Jewish leaders blasted the government of firebrand President Hugo Chavez for forcing the evacuation of some 1,500 children and for appearing to link the Jewish community to a high-profile murder. The raid, which was ordered by a judge on the suspicion that explosives and documents related to the killing of the prosecutor might be hidden in the center, eventually proved “fruitless,” police said.
A local Jewish leader said that while this was the first time the Chavez administration had acted directly against the 18,000-member Jewish community, the climate had in fact been steadily worsening in the past several years, with anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli rhetoric appearing in the pro-government media and demonstrations.
“This has been growing, little by little,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “Even though we cannot draw a direct line to the government, there is an obvious tolerance towards aggressive attitudes towards the Jewish community.”
While the mainstream media and various politicians quickly protested after the police operation, the administration was slow to react publicly. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel contacted two community leaders to voice his opposition to the raid, adding that the decision was made solely by the investigating judge. But no official statement came until the next Monday, when Communication and Information Minister Andres Izarra said “emphatically” that the operation should not be seen as aimed at the Jewish community.
Meanwhile, unnamed government officials were quoted as saying the operation showed that no one was “untouchable” in Venezuela. Several days before the raid, an article in the pro-government daily VEA said that the method used in the murder was similar to one used by Israeli security forces to eliminate Palestinian leaders, prompting rumors of possible Mossad involvement.
The slain prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, was killed November 18 in a car bombing. At the time, he had been looking into the opposition’s role in an aborted 2002 coup against Chavez. The killing prompted a national outcry and vows by the Chavez administration to hunt down the culprits.
Venezuela, with 24 million people, is South America’s fifth most populous nation and has a tradition of stable democracy.
Chavez, first elected in a landslide in 1998, is a fiery leftist and anti-globalist at odds with the business community and with much of the hemisphere’s leadership. Government leaders regularly express solidarity with the Palestinians, most recently issuing a laudatory statement after the death of Yasser Arafat. Chavez himself was visiting Iran at the time of the school raid.
Anti-American sentiments have run high since the Bush administration appeared to support the short-lived 2002 coup. Recently declassified CIA documents show that Washington knew about coup planning by opposition leaders and disgruntled military officers but shared little with Chavez.
More recently, Chavez won a recall referendum last August. Several Jewish observers said that some government resentment was fueled by the perception that a sizable number of Jews sided with the opposition.
Local Jewish leaders now describe a rash of harshly anti-Israel and sometimes antisemitic articles published by far-left media outlets since the vote. Antisemitic and anti-Israeli graffiti were scrawled on the walls of the main Sephardic synagogue in Caracas during pro-government demonstrations this year and last. Groups connected to Chavez signed several of the slogans, according to pictures seen by the Forward.
More disturbingly, Jewish officials said that suspected casing of several Jewish institutions had been caught on tape by security cameras over the past several years –– some predating the Chavez era.
For the past few months, communal officials refused to go public, arguing that since the community’s relations with the government had not reached the stage of confrontation, airing accusations could prompt retaliation.
They changed their stance after the school incident. The main Jewish representative body, the Confederacion de asociaciones israelitas de Venezuela, issued a statement voicing indignation about the raid. American Jewish groups quickly followed suit. B’nai B’rith International sent a letter to the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, asking for an explanation and assurances that such acts would not reoccur.
Venezuelan Jewish leaders privately fret about lack of government oversight in crucial areas such as immigration. They note that the son of the Ba’ath Party representative in Venezuela now is the deputy head of the immigration department. The man, Tarreck al Assimi, is a former student leftist leader affiliated with Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.
An American official said those security lapses were causing fears of potential abuse by terrorist organizations. Over the last decade, particularly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, American officials have warned about the presence of Islamic terrorist cells in Venezuela, especially in the free-trade zone of Isla Margarita. As relations with Chavez soured, U.S. officials have questioned Venezuela’s commitment to fighting terror, at times implying possible cooperation between the far left and Islamic radicals.
Some observers say that the strained relations between Washington and Caracas have seriously reduced America’s leverage over the Chavez government.
“The American Jewish Committee is dismayed by the fact that there is not a strong and coherent U.S. policy towards Venezuela that makes very clear to Chavez that there are certain lines he can’t cross,” said Dina Siegel Vann, AJCommittee’s Latina American affairs director.
The State Department did not return calls.