CARACAS, Venezuela — The eyes of a dead man stare at visitors passing through immigration at Simon Bolivar International Airport. They follow drivers along the tortuous four-lane highway through a mountain range leading to town. And they reappear at public spaces throughout this city.
It’s easy to be spooked by the ubiquitous image of Hugo Chavez, the larger-than-life leftist leader who died last week from an unspecified form of cancer. But in Venezuela, it has been the reality since he came to power in 1999.
“It never used to be this way with presidents before him,” said David Bittan, the owner of a taxi company whose cousin of the same name is the president of the Venezuelan Jewish umbrella group CAIV. “They started putting up these posters everywhere after he was first elected. It’s in line with Communist Party propaganda.”
With Chavez gone, this divided nation finds itself at a crossroads. Will Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, carry on “until victory,” as the posters of his political patron promise? Or might he chart a new path, taking a more conciliatory approach to relations with the United States and with the business community?
Or could opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, surprise everyone by winning the presidential election set for April 14?
For members of Venezuela’s dwindling Jewish community, the political uncertainty is particularly unnerving. During Chavez’s 14 years in power, their numbers have dropped from 25,000 to about 9,000 today, driven abroad by economic instability, anti-Semitism in state-owned media and rampant crime that made Caracas a serious contender for murder capital of the world.
“We have great institutions, we have a great school, we have a wonderful Hebraica,” said Efraim Lapscher, the vice president of CAIV, referring to the sprawling community center that is the heart of Jewish life here. “We, our fathers and our grandfathers, built this with a lot of sweat, ideology and hard work. And it’s painful for us to see them slowly emptying out.”
Jewish life in Caracas revolves around the Hebraica, the compound at the foot of the Avila Mountain that is also home to the Jewish school and a growing number of communal institutions. Past the heavily guarded gate and high walls is the lush campus with a pool, soccer pitch, tennis courts, gym, food court — even a bank. On a warm day, children gambol by the pool while their parents lay on deck chairs.
“It’s a beautiful prison,” said a representative of an international Jewish organization based in Caracas who asked not to be identified. “Members of the community live their entire lives there without leaving because of fear of crime outside. Children are so used to be being cooped up that when they visit Israel, they call their parents and say, ‘Guess what, I’m on a bus!’ That’s an exciting experience for them.”
The sense of siege hinders Venezuelan Jews from publicly criticizing their government, though there is little love lost for the president who severed diplomatic ties with Israel while embracing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The first signs of trouble under Chavez came during the years of the second intifada, when the government sponsored rallies in support of the Palestinian cause. After one such rally in May 2004, the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas was attacked.
But it wasn’t until November of that year that the Jews felt directly targeted by the government, when security forces carried out an armed raid on a Jewish school in Caracas. The incident was described in a report by Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism as “perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community” in Venezuela.
Chavez kept up his anti-Israel and anti-Western talk throughout the 2000s. Meanwhile he nurtured an ever-closer relationship with Iran. The seemingly incongruous friendship between Chavez, a secular socialist, and Ahmadinejad, president of an Islamic theocracy, was built around shared hostility to the United States, the West and Israel. The two leaders sharply increased bilateral trade, inaugurated weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, and frequently visited each other.
As the size of the Iranian diplomatic presence in Venezuela grew, Western security experts accused Venezuela of providing Iran with a Latin American base for illicit activities, including arms trading.
Venezuela’s final break with Israel came in 2009, during the three-week Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that began in late December 2008. Chavez severed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, expelling the Israeli ambassador in Caracas and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. Chavez also insisted that the Jews of Venezuela rebuke Israel for its actions.
Chavez’s constant linkage of Venezuelan Jewry with Israel seemed to give presidential sanction to anti-Semitism, even if Chavez himself said he “respected and loved” Jews.
Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Caracas, equating the Jewish Star of David with the swastika. Broadcasters on state radio recommended the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an insightful read. Jewish institutions and houses of worship in Venezuela were attacked.
To some extent, Chavez watched over the country’s Jews. In 2009, the government gave round-the-clock police protection to the site of a Caracas synagogue that had been attacked.
But Venezuelan Jews also felt that Chavez was watching them — a suspicion vindicated by the publication early this year of documents showing that the SEBIN secret service was spying on Venezuelan Jews. The documents, which were obtained by the Argentinian media outlet Analises24, included intelligence reports, clandestinely recorded photos and videos.
Now, Lapscher talks about the community’s post-Chavez prospects with deliberate caution so as not to be construed as taking sides.
“Sometime in the near future we’ll have elections and we can change the government. Or the same government will stay but we will have the same issues,” he said. “We will try to give the best Jewish life possible and combat anti-Semitism if it comes from the government, its supporters or from the outside.”
Asked about the tense political situation, most Venezuelan Jews direct questions to community leaders, fearing unwelcome repercussions. An exception is Sammy Eppel, a Jewish columnist who writes for the opposition paper El Nacional. Eppel has paid a heavy price for his outspoken critique of Chavismo, Chavez’s particular brand of socialism.
Eppel said government interference led him to shut down a call center he operated and that officials have tried unsuccessfully to isolate him from the community leadership. But still he blamed the Chavez government for economic policies that have led to periodic shortages of food staples, frequent devaluations of the bolivar fuerte and a marked drop in oil output.
“The government that takes over is going to have a difficult situation,” he said. “Politics you can manipulate, but the economy is a science. It’s very hard to manipulate the economy. And when hard times come, they will come for everybody. And unfortunately, those hard times might hit the Jewish community also.”