Like one of those telenovelas that are so popular on Latin American television stations, the slow yet inexorable deterioration of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, has been soaked in drama and cloying sentimentality.
For almost two years, Chavez has been fighting cancer. And for most of that time he has been claiming – falsely – to have been cured. But less than two months after winning a fourth term in last October’s election, Chavez was spirited back to Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s doctors have been treating him.
Chavez’s vice president and designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, is urging the Venezuelan people to pray for Chavez’s recovery. Maduro knows, though, that the end is nigh and that Venezuela consequently stands on the cusp of a political crisis.
If Chavez was unable to make his presidential inauguration on Thursday this week, a constitutional requirement for elections within 30 days will have kicked in. However, infighting in the Chavez camp, as well as an understandable reluctance on the part of the country’s opposition to fight an election campaign that will be dominated by Chavez’s legacy, doesn’t bode well for elections in the near term.
The current situation affords the opportunity for a critical reassessment of the Chavez era. In his 14 years in power, Chavez turned Venezuela into the Latin American hub of a global network of anti-American, authoritarian rogue states. There is scarcely a fellow dictator he didn’t befriend. Some, like the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, are no longer with us. Others – among them the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko; the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad; and the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe – remain alive and in power.
The closest relationship of all is the one forged with the Castro brothers in Cuba, Fidel and Raul, whose ailing economy is kept afloat by heavily subsidized oil from Venezuela, which is Latin America’s biggest producer.
With allies like these, it should come as no surprise that Chavez became an arch-foe of the state of Israel. In one of the last foreign policy statements he made before returning to the hospital in Cuba in December, Chavez denounced what he called the “savage” Israeli attack on Gaza. In 2009, on the previous occasion that Israel responded militarily to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, Chavez told the French newspaper Le Figaro that the Israel had launched a “genocide” against the Palestinians.
“The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians,” he said. “They’re doing it openly.”
Such incendiary statements won Chavez the admiration of the Arab street. In 2006, during the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera praised Chavez for beating Arab leaders to the punch when he became the first head of state to condemn Israel’s actions. Similar gasps of admiration greeted his decision to expel the Israeli ambassador to Caracas in 2009.
In attacking Israel, though, Chavez inadvertently undermined the arguments of those who say anti-Zionism is one thing, anti-Semitism something else entirely. In many ways, Chavez’s attitude to Israel mirrored that of the Soviet Union. Just as the USSR marked its own Jews out as a fifth column during its decades-long propaganda campaign against Zionism, so did Chavez.
Before Chavez came to power in 1999, there were 30,000 Jews in Venezuela. Now that population has dwindled to fewer than 9,000. Venezuela’s Jews had experienced virtually no anti-Semitism in their history, but the Chavez years ushered in a set of new and frightening experiences for them, from cartoons in the press that could have been lifted from the notorious Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer to the vandalism of the main synagogue in Caracas in 2009.
As a depressing summary by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism noted last September, “Recent years have witnessed a rise in anti-Semitic manifestations, including vandalism, media attacks, caricatures, and physical attacks on Venezuelan Jewish institutions.”
Members of the Venezuelan opposition I’ve spoken with over the last year have all remarked on the virulence of Chavez’s anti-Semitism. In 2012, Israel was temporarily displaced by the emergence of a domestic Jewish target in the form of the rival presidential candidate to Chavez, the youthful and energetic Henrique Capriles. While Capriles is a practicing Catholic, his mother’s family, the Radonskis, arrived in Venezuela after surviving the Holocaust in Poland. Other members of the family perished in Nazi concentration camps.