Venezuela’s opposition won control of the National Assembly by a landslide on Sunday, with at least 99 seats in the next 167-seat legislature, compared to the ruling socialist party’s 46 seats. The victory may change radically the future of President Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded the late president Hugo Chávez in 2013. The change may also bring a hopeful future to the Jews of Venezuela, who have been living in fear of the populist regime. In the last 15 years more than half of the country’s Jews have left Venezuela, with the local community’s numbers dropping from about 25,000 Jews in 2,000 to only 7,000 today.
Andres Beker, a Venezuelan Jewish expatriate in the United States whose parents still live in Caracas, told the Jerusalem Post last year: “There’s less hope about the future. My parents are huge fans of Venezuela. Until last year I thought they would stay no matter what. Now, for the first time, they’re talking about Plan B: leaving Venezuela.”
President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday night acknowledged his party’s defeat — the first one for the ruling socialists in 17 years. Maduro vowed to continue the socialist policies of his mentor, Chávez, despite the country’s triple-digit inflation and two-year recession, caused by economic policies that were only feasible as long as oil prices hovered around $100 a barrel. The sharp drop in oil prices pulled the rug from under the Socialists’ feet. As the post-election night wore on, the militant Maduro softened his tone. “In Venezuela, peace and democracy must reign,” Maduro said, adding, “I’ve said we’ll take the fight to the streets, but maybe I was wrong. We can’t go where we’ve always been.”
According to the AP, some opposition voices are proposing a recall referendum to kick Maduro out of office before his term ends in 2019. They could possibly do it if it turns out they’ve won a two-thirds majority of 112 seats. There’s also talk that the outgoing majority might pass a law granting Maduro special powers to effectively reverse the election’s outcome, before the new congress is sworn in next January.
The Jewish community of Venezuela was established in the 19th century, when Sephardic Jews from the Dutch colony of Curaçao began to migrate to the Venezuelan city of Santa Ana de Coro in 1824. David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote 10 years ago: “They have developed an impressive communal infrastructure built around a central umbrella organization, La Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV) … Fifteen synagogues (all but one Orthodox), and, perhaps most striking of all, a Jewish all-in-one campus, Hebraica. Combining Jewish nursery and day schools, a country club, cultural center, a verdant setting, and wide-ranging sports activities, Hebraica serves as the focus for much of the community.”
“The community is close-knit, an overwhelming majority of Jewish children attend Jewish schools, the level of participation is high, identification with Israel is intense, and intermarriage rates are low compared to the United States or Britain,” Harris continued, noting that “What is equally striking in talking with Venezuela’s Jews … is an obvious pride in being Venezuelan.”
However, as can be seen in a US State Dept. report on religious freedom in Venezuela, “in November 2004, after the assassination of well-known prosecutor Danilo Anderson, the Government used satirical comments made by journalist Orlando Urdaneta on a US television program to allude to possible Israeli participation in Anderson’s killing. The Israeli Embassy in Caracas denied any Israeli involvement in the assassination and warned that such representations by the Government were misleading. On November 29, 2004, members of the country’s investigative police searched the Hebrew Center of Caracas at the beginning of the school day as part of the Anderson investigation. Jewish community leaders expressed outrage and indicated doubt regarding the authorities’ explanation for the search. Newspaper reports suggested that rumors of Israeli involvement in the assassination might have been behind the investigation.
“In August 2004, several incidents of anti-Semitism occurred during the time of the presidential referendum. The pro-government daily newspaper VEA published an article containing accusations that Jewish leaders in the country had participated in the 2002 coup against the Government. During a political rally, graffiti labeling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon an assassin and condemning the Zionist movement was painted on a Caracas synagogue. A few days after his electoral victory, President Chavez gave a speech in which he compared the opposition to wandering Jews.’”
Michael Kaminer, writing for the Forward in 2014, reported on a government-run bookstore in Caracas that sold “Los Protocolos de los Sabios de Sion” — a Spanish translation of the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” — next to the cash register. Another store sold “Mi Lucha” — Spanish for “Mein Kampf.”
Kaminer reported that when the clerk behind the counter found out he was Jewish, he “started ranting about how Jews control the media and Hollywood, how the six-million-dead Holocaust figure was an exaggeration, and how he was actually opposed to Zionism, not Jews. He continued railing about ‘finding the truth through dialogue’ as we inched out the door.”