Op-Ed: Interview with Sammy Eppel: The Jews of Venezuela
“When Hugo Chavez was elected President of Venezuela in 1998, there were about 25,000 Jews in the country including non-members of the community. Presently, the Jewish community has shrunk to 9,000.
“The major emigration of Jews over these years is in part a reaction to the anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism of Chavez’s regime. Jews have left the country, primarily for the United States. Others have gone to Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico and Israel.”
Sammy Eppel is a member of the governing body of the Venezuelan Jewish community (CAIV). He is Acting Director of the Commission of Human Rights of B’nai Brith in Venezuela.
He continues: “Chavez came to power with populist rhetoric, promises of equality, assurances of strengthening democratic institutions, and undertaking to fight corruption. He convened a Constitutional National Assembly which voted in a new constitution. Thereafter, this constitution was greatly violated.
“With an ongoing divisive discourse, he crushed all democratic institutions. Chavez increasingly concentrated power into his own hands. Even legislative and judicial powers followed his orders. Elections mainly served to make the world believe that he was democratic. The electoral council was meant to be run by independents, but was packed with government supporters.
“The rampant corruption created a large number of new millionaires.
Paramilitary groups were trained and armed to ‘defend the revolution.’ Crime is currently at an all-time high. Caracas is a serious contender for being the world’s murder capital.
“Chavez’s relations with the Jewish community were problematic from the onset. During the 1998 presidential campaign, all candidates were invited to speak to the community. Chavez was asked to explain his close relations with anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian sociologist. Chavez replied that he only advised him on issues concerning rivers and borders.
“However after Chavez became president, Ceresole published a ‘bible’ for all revolutionaries. It was titled, ‘”Caudillo, Ejercito, Pueblo” La Venezuela del comandante Chavez,”’ which translates as ‘”Boss, Army and People,” the Venezuela of Commander Chavez.”
The first chapter began with ‘The Jewish Problem.’ Due to its anti-Semitic nature, it only had one printing. Yet the text remained available on government-sponsored websites until 2009. It was downloaded by hundreds of thousands of Chavez’s followers. Not surprisingly, relations between the Jewish community and the Chavez government remained difficult throughout.
“There were also anti-Semitic incidents which were unprecedented in Venezuela’s history. In 2004, the political police raided the Caracas Jewish school and community center ‘Hebraica’ looking for weapons and explosives. Nothing was found. Then-Interior Minister Chacon explained that this occurred because of an anonymous tip by phone. The raid caused local Jews to start considering emigration. A similar raid took place again in 2007.
“In 2009, the oldest Caracas synagogue Tiferet Israel was invaded by a gang consisting mainly of police officers. Hierarchically, they depended on then- Interior Minister Tarek Al-Aissami.
There is no record of street violence against Jews in this country where anti-Semitism had been historically low.
"With the accusations after Chavez’s death about him being poisoned by his ‘enemies,’ there is fear in the Jewish community that some radical elements or even a lone lunatic could ‘avenge’ the commandant’s death by attacking Jews. Graffiti to this effect have already appeared.
“The regime controls over 700 media outlets in Venezuela, including TV and radio stations, the printed press, and the Internet. Since 2004, state media have kept up a constant barrage of false accusations, intimidation, and incitement against Jews.
"The Jewish community hired four professionals to monitor and document these attacks. The thousands of reported media assaults were only a small part of the overall onslaught, due to limitations in monitoring.
“Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 2009. Chavez’s anti-Semitism was in essence political. He strengthened his close relationship with Iran by attacking Israel, Zionism, and the Jews.
"These sentiments were exported to Bolivia and Nicaragua.
"He also sponsored a worldwide circle of ‘intellectuals,’ media and politicians who promoted an anti-Israeli discourse.
“Chavez also opened the doors of Latin America to some of the world’s worst human rights offenders. In addition to the Iranians and their terrorist proxies, these included Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir, Qaddafi, Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, and the Assad family.
"Venezuela also became a hub for international drug trafficking.
“The Jewish community in Venezuela was always very attached to Israel. After 2009, there were visa restrictions for Israeli passport-holders which made family reunions with Israelis difficult. This became a further incentive for Jewish emigration.
“The oldest Jewish school had to be closed. All students are now concentrated into one facility. The two original main synagogues are located in high crime areas and barely have enough worshippers to hold services.
"When Venezuelan Jews were a numerous and prosperous community, we built major institutions including schools, synagogues, old age homes, community centers, cemeteries, and even a medical center. Nowadays, maintaining the existing Jewish institutions has become very difficult.”