Caracas, Venezuela — A few hours before the polls opened in Venezuela on Sunday morning, federal police raided the main Jewish social club here, La Hebraica, ostensibly looking for weapons and explosives.
Though they left empty-handed and no major damage was done, the incident stoked Jewish fears in Venezuela’s capital about the government of President Hugo Chavez.
So when hundreds of voters lined up a few hours later around the corner from a kosher bakery in the affluent Caracas neighborhood of San Bernardino to cast their vote under the watchful eye of soldiers toting machine guns, many said it was the most important political decision of their lives.
When the results of the referendum on Chavez’s package of constitutional reforms finally came in, many Jews here breathed a sigh of relief.
Venezuela’s 26 million people awoke Monday to learn that Chavez’s proposals to make Venezuela a socialist country and allow him to run for re-election indefinitely had been defeated by the slimmest of margins.
“Baruch Hashem,” said Alicia Truzman, the Moroccan-born owner of the kosher bakery in San Bernardino. “All of us are happy. We can breathe easier now.”
Truzman voted ‘no.’
“Originally we were not going to vote because we’re always getting tricked anyway,” said Truzman, 60, who lived in the Israeli city of Kiryat Malachi for eight years before immigrating to the Caribbean island of Curacao and finally Venezuela in 1974. “But at the last minute we decided to vote because there have been many demonstrations by students, so we began to have some hope.”
Chavez’s power grab has been a source of major concern for Venezuelan Jewry. More than half the country’s Jews have fled South America’s leading oil-exporting nation since Chavez came to power, and the regime’s close ties to Iran and occasional antagonism toward Jews has prompted many others to make provisional plans to leave.
While the defeat of Chavez’s broad-ranging referendum Sunday eased Jewish fears in Venezuela, dealting the president’s plans for authoritarian control of the country a major blow, many remain fearful about their future in Venezuela and are making plans to leave.
Roberto Kulka Kohn, the owner of a Caracas textile plant that manufactures woven labels, said his provisional plan to dismantle his factory and relocate it to some other country is now on standby.
“The problem with us in Venezuela is that you could never live like this anywhere else,” Kohn said as he showed a visitor around the lavish Altamira Tennis Club, where he is a member. “Nobody here really wants to go to Israel. You would need to have 10 times as much money to live this way.”
Kulka said he’s happy the referendum came out the way it did.
“This is a turning point for Venezuela,” he said. “Now I’m not thinking of going anywhere under these circumstances.”
The situation, however, remains tenuous. The police raid at La Hebraica was but the latest in a series of incidents intimidating to the country’s Jews.
“I think this was just to scare the daylights out of the Jewish community, to convince us not to vote and to keep a low profile,” Brener said. “But since the Holocaust, we don’t scare easily.”
Only a week earlier, the words “Zionist Assassins” were scrawled at the entrance to Tiferet Israel, a Sephardic synagogue in the Caracas suburb of Mariperez. The perpetrators, two women, were caught on surveillance video.
Last year, Chavez himself indirectly accused the Jews of killing Jesus Christ. Although he didn’t explicitly mention the word “Jew,” his remarks left little doubt among Venezuela’s Jews that their president is an unabashed anti-Semite.
“If you ask me, I think Chavez is anti-Semitic, but not officially and not publicly,” said Rodolfo Osers, a civil engineer and representative of ORT in Venezuela. “As a person he hasn’t done anything yet. But he supports local organizations and people who are anti-Semitic.”
Since a failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002, the Jewish community has maintained an extremely low profile.
Nobody will discuss publicly how dramatically enrollment has dropped at the Colegio Moral y Luces Herzl Bialik, the main Jewish school of Caracas.
Some 30,000 Jews once lived in Venezuela, but with more than half having left since Chavez came to power, estimates of the community’s size range from 14,000 to as few as 9,000.
The official vote tally, announced in the wee hours Monday morning, set off a barrage of fireworks in eastern Caracas, where Chavez is particularly disliked, and energized the country’s remaining Jews, who almost universally had opposed the 69 proposed constitutional changes.
The ‘no’ victory was “the greatest thing that could have happened” for Venezuelan Jews, said Rabbi Pynchas Brener of the Union Israelita de Caracas synagogue, who also is the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Venezuela.
“There was a doomsday scenario here, but now people feel there’s a new chance that wasn’t here before,” said the rabbi, a frequent target of anti-Semitic radio and TV commentators employed by the Chavez government.
Chavez’s referendum, which was defeated by a margin of less than 2 percent of the vote, marked the 53-year-old leftist president’s first major domestic defeat since taking office in 1999.
The past eight years here have been particularly unnerving for Venezuela’s Jews, and Chavez still has six years left in office.
Chavez has built close ties to Iran and its Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, whom Chavez has publicly embraced as his “brother” in the struggle against the United States, imperialism and Zionism.
He also has allowed anti-Semitic expressions on state-controlled media and police raids on Jewish schools and institutions.
For some time now, most Jewish families in Venezuela have had a Plan B.
“If I have to, I will go to Israel,” said Marcko Glijenschi, a retired psychotherapist and former director of the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela, or CAIV, an umbrella group of local Jewish organizations. He currently is the second vice president of the Zionist Federation of Venezuela.
“For me it’s very easy. I also have an apartment in Miami, and also one in New York,” said Glijenschi, who like many Venezuelan Jews lives in a large home behind a high protective wall in Altamira. “The problem is for young people. Our parents always said to us, ‘don’t get involved in politics.’ ”
With Chavez losing Sunday, some put their plans to leave on hold; others did not.
“The decision has already been made,” Truzman, the kosher bakery owner, said in between serving cheese blintzes and chocolate eclairs. “We are moving to Miami.”