Sunday, October 23, 2005

Hugo Chavez Iis Not Yet A Household Name Throughout The United States...

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Hugo Chavez Iis Not Yet A Household Name Throughout The United States...

In a 'Letter from Caracas' published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), executive director, David A.  Harris writes: Hugo Chavez is a household name throughout Venezuela, the oil-rich nation at the northern tip of South America, and increasingly throughout Latin America.

If his is not yet a household name throughout the United States, it ought to be, if perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

Harris continues: Chavez took office as President of Venezuela in 1999, after his election in December 1998. Since then, to put it mildly, he has proved himself a controversial figure, and not only in his own country.

To his defenders, he is a forward-looking leader, difficult to define in a word or two -- a combination of nationalist, populist, preacher, socialist, pragmatist, and Robin Hood.

To his critics, he is using democracy and a social agenda as tools to attain authoritarian goals. In the process, the traditional watchdogs of democracy -- the media, advocacy groups, and other actors in civil society -- have been weakened by a bullying government.

He has emerged, according to the school of admirers, as a staunch defender of the nation's poor and disenfranchised, who form the overwhelming majority of the country's 25 million inhabitants. He has placed health care, land reform, literacy, education, and affordable food at the center of his political agenda. Drawing on Venezuela's bonanza in oil wealth, he has launched a long overdue political and social revolution. By reaching out to the marginalized in what had been a typically bifurcated South American nation -- concentrated power and wealth in the hands of the minority, at the expense of the vast majority of impoverished urban and rural, largely black and mestizo citizens -- he has charted a new path, one that will serve as a model for other nations afflicted by the legacy of colonialism, the long arm of imperialism, and the most recent menace, American-inspired economic "neoliberalism," as he dubs it.


Along the way, his supporters proudly note, he has deftly outflanked his formidable adversaries, who've been unable to unseat him over the past nearly seven years, despite two national elections (1998, 2000), a short-lived coup d'etat in 2002, a crippling nine-week strike in the oil industry a few months later, and, most recently, a national referendum seeking his ouster (2004). He has raised his sights high, so high in fact that his ambitions go far beyond the borders of his sizable country, which is twice the area of California and has a 1,500-mile coastline on the Caribbean.

Drawing on the inspiration of Caracas-born Simon Bolivar, who, nearly two centuries ago led the independence struggle against Spain and dreamed of South American integration, Chavez seeks to link left-of-center regimes and movements all across the continent.

Described by his fans as charismatic and a fiery orator, who, they acknowledge, never says in a word what he can say in ten, he builds on an oft-expressed solidarity with Fidel Castro's Cuba, periodic assaults on US "hegemony," and an influx of petrodollars that permits influence-seeking, at times tantalizingly irresistible, offers of subsidized energy, barter arrangements, arms purchases, and medical assistance to countries in Central and South America.

Chavez' aims go far beyond the Western Hemisphere. He has forged close ties with Iran and Libya, fellow OPEC members. In fact, Venezuela was the only nation among the thirty-five member countries on the governing board of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency to reject, last month, a European resolution critical of Iran's nuclear intentions. And Chavez was a recipient in Tripoli last year -- prepare yourself -- of none other than the Muammar Qaddafi Human Rights Prize.

  • Until Saddam Hussein's downfall in 2003, the Iraqi leader could count on the support of Chavez, who, in 2000, became the first national leader to break the international isolation imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War by traveling to Baghdad.

More recently, Chavez has focused his attention on India, and even more so on China, which has itself been showing interest in boosting its reach in South America, including substantial investments in Venezuelan oil fields.

In other words, Chavez is seeking to create a new international alliance built on the strength of those nations he believes either have, or need, key natural resources and, for one reason or another, resent America's -- and, to some extent, Europe's -- dominant role in the world.

Global dependence on oil, coupled with sky-high prices, has given Chavez the means to advance his goals. After all, he leads a country that is the world's fifth leading producer of oil, may have the largest oil reserves in the world, has the second largest gas reserve in the Western Hemisphere, and, incidentally, is the fourth leading supplier of oil to the United States (in addition to owning 14,000 Citgo gas stations and eight oil refineries in the US).

Editor's note: CITGO does NOT own 14,000 gas stations in the United States.  They are independently owned and operated units under the CITGO supply franchise.

Chavez works on the assumption that, both literally and figuratively, he has countries like the United States -- I can't resist -- "over a barrel." Oil, and the revenue and influence it generates, are his weapons of choice in what he views as an asymmetrical battle with otherwise more powerful countries.

There's been an escalating war of words with the Bush administration. Chavez sees this as a big boost to his popularity, given his view that America fails to grasp the widespread resentment throughout Latin America, never far from the surface, that its "strong-armed" methods generate. At the same time, he claims to separate the US government from its people, emphasizing his love of Americans, especially the downtrodden, to whom he's also offered financial assistance, and his ability to get along with Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Chavez loudly asserts that George W. Bush has secret plans to invade Venezuela and assassinate him. He told Ted Koppel's Nightline last year that the US code name for the project is "Balboa," and he offered to share with Koppel documentary proof about it. He added: "What I can't tell you is how we got it, to protect the sources, how we got it through military intelligence."

More recently, he cited Pat Robertson's call to "take him out," referring to Chavez, as additional evidence of American intentions. After all, Robertson, who later retracted his comment, is viewed in Caracas as a right-wing Evangelical, representing a key constituency of the Bush administration.

In response, he has brandished the oil weapon. "Ships filled with Venezuelan oil, instead of going to the United States, could go somewhere else," he declared. He has dubbed President Bush as "Mr. Danger" and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "Mr. War," while dismissing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a "true illiterate" for her views on Latin America.

Talking tough and standing up to the yanqui, he believes, win him friends at home and beyond.

Then there are his detractors.

They see a demagogic leader who figured out that attaining power was more easily accomplished through the democratic process than by revolutionary means, and thus made the switch from seeking, as a military officer, to overthrow the democratically elected government led by Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, which landed Chavez in jail for two years, to leading a political party to victory in the 1998 election. (Incidentally, Perez was ousted on charges of corruption in 1993, and imprisoned in 1996 after being found guilty of embezzlement.)

Once in power, they assert, Chavez has incrementally set about consolidating authority, rewriting the constitution, packing the courts, limiting the media's right to criticize, intimidating opposition groups, and planning to expropriate private property. Meanwhile, contrary to his stated goals, poverty has actually increased since he took office over six years ago.

He has invited as many as twenty thousand Cuban doctors and other medical personnel to come to Venezuela, together with Cuban teachers and sports trainers. They are ostensibly there to provide needed services to previously neglected communities across the country, but also to win friends for his mentor, Fidel Castro.


He is helping fund left-wing movements throughout Latin America that could bring to power potential allies in Bolivia, which has the Western Hemisphere's third largest reserve of gas, and Nicaragua, while supporting Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the notorious terrorist group at war with neighboring Colombia's pro-American regime, and seeking to find common cause with left-of-center governments in Argentina and Brazil, South America's two largest countries.

To further extend his influence, earlier this year Chavez launched Telesur, a round-the-clock South American Al Jazeera wannabe, to combat what he called the "cultural imperialism" of the Western electronic media.

  • Further complicating matters, and underscoring his mercurial thinking, Chavez also drew inspiration in the past for what he calls his "Bolivarian Revolution" from some extreme right-wingers, most notably an Argentine Holocaust denier, Norberto Ceresole.

Ceresole, according to a study by the Madrid-based think tank Real Instituto Elcano, believed that "the [political] leader guaranteed power through a civil-military party, based on a model denominated 'post-democracy.' In the long term, 'Bolivarian' integration of the continent would lead to a Confederation of Latin American States in which the armed forces would hold the reins of economic, social and political development and the security of the continent." In also calling for closer Arab-Latin American cooperation against the US, Ceresole warned that "the Jewish financial mafia" posed a potential challenge to the success of the Chavez movement. Ceresole died in 2003.

By aligning himself with some of the world's nastiest regimes, President Chavez is putting Venezuela in an untenable position, his critics contend. Are Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria the natural global partners for a country aspiring to greater progress and development?

And, conversely, why put the country on a collision course with the United States, Venezuela's leading trading partner (59% of Venezuelan exports go to the US, 33% of imports come from the US), a major source of tourism and investment, and a reference point for many Venezuelans, especially these days when the Venezuelan-born manager of the Chicago White Sox has led the team into the World Series and generated excitement throughout Venezuela?

The Venezuelan leader has visited Tehran frequently, and the bilateral relationship is deepening. Iranians have established a beachhead in Venezuela, with growing investments and joint ventures, supposedly for peaceful, civilian purposes, though rumors of more pernicious goals are rife. As one foreign diplomat commented, when an Iranian embassy starts expanding in any capital, there's reason to worry, and, guess what, the staff of the Iranian embassy in Caracas has been growing.

There is also fear in some quarters that Chavez' deep-rooted sympathy for "anti-imperialist" forces and unbridled antipathy for the Bush administration, as well as a major Arab presence in Venezuela, might have led him to provide funding, training camps—Venezuela's Margarita Island is often named in this connection—and even Venezuelan passports for Middle East terrorist groups, though government spokesmen heatedly deny these charges.

And finally, domestic foes of Chavez worry that he has established such an iron grip on the country that changing political course may be difficult, if not impossible, in the near term.

Whether because of disarray and division within the political opposition, or because Chavez has successfully appealed to the majority on a platform of what is in essence class warfare, or because he is strangling the democratic process, adversaries don't see much light at the end of the political tunnel. Their main hope seems to be that one day oil prices will fall, which in turn would limit Chavez' ability to deliver on his far-flung promises and spark widespread disenchantment with his leadership. After all, according to the CIA's World Factbook, the petroleum sector accounts "for roughly one-third of [Venezuelan] GDP, around 80% of export earnings, and over half of government-operating revenues."

Meanwhile, among those trying to sort out these starkly contrasting views of the current situation and seeking to understand what the future is likely to hold are Venezuela's Jews.

It is in many ways a remarkable community. Largely centered in Caracas, with a smaller concentration in Maracaibo, most of its current members are either first or second generation. But the earliest Jews settled in the first half of the nineteenth century and came largely from Dutch-controlled Curacao, where Bolivar found refuge among the settlement's Jews during the struggle for independence against the Spanish occupiers.

Some Curacao Jews went to Coro, located on the Venezuelan coast northwest of Caracas, but in 1855 the entire community there, 168 people, was forced to leave due to intolerance and returned to Curacao. As the Jewish Virtual Library notes, "It was the first time that Jews had been driven out of an independent nation in South America." Later, a few returned, but today the city, as least as far as Jews are concerned, is best known for housing the oldest Jewish cemetery in South America.

The Jewish community is roughly evenly divided between those of Ashkenazi and Sephardi origins. Their overarching sense of unity could well serve as a model for other Jewish communities fragmented along ethnic or other lines. They have developed an impressive communal infrastructure built around a central umbrella organization, La Confederacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), with which the American Jewish Committee signed an association agreement last year, 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 results of these communal efforts speak for themselves. 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.

What is equally striking in talking with Venezuela's Jews, to the extent that generalizations are ever possible, is an obvious pride in being Venezuelan. Not only do they continue to appreciate the refuge the country provided—the Jews having come in search of safety and opportunity -- but they also recognize the country's postwar record of tolerance and relative absence of anti-Semitism, as well as its support of the 1947 UN resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state.

On the whole, Jews have done well in Venezuela -- and for Venezuela. They have built successful careers in a range of fields and have served as government ministers and ambassadors.

In meeting with a number of Venezuelan Jews during a recent American Jewish Committee fact-finding and solidarity visit to Caracas, we heard the same comments over and over; "We love this country." "We feel welcome and at home." "There is little prejudice here." "There is no better climate anywhere in the world." "You must visit the magnificent beaches -- better than those of any Caribbean island -- and see the lush jungle." "Look at the magnificent mountains surrounding our beautiful city of Caracas. Can you imagine a more perfect setting for a city?" "We have an unparalleled community life here."

But intermingled with these comments were others, far less upbeat, essentially centered on three themes.

Crime and violence are serious problems. I was shocked at a dinner table to learn that of the three Venezuelan couples with whom I sat, two had suffered from what has been labeled secuestro express, a kind of mini-kidnapping, where an individual might be grabbed for a few hours and taken to his home and a few ATM machines before being released, always without the car he began his journey in. In fact, a local movie entitled Secuestro Express has been a box-office hit in Venezuela and was recently released in the United States to critical acclaim. By the way, in the case of the third couple, robbers had recently entered their home. The young adult daughters were in the house at the time, and they locked themselves in a bedroom with guns at hand, but due to a stroke of luck didn't have to use them.

Traveling through any reasonably nice neighborhood in Caracas, it's impossible not to notice the high -- and I mean high -- walls and fences, concertina wire, gates, bars, windows, cameras, and sometimes bodyguards meant to protect private homes. Apartment buildings can also resemble fortresses. And in less affluent areas, the bars and gates on windows and doors are also quite ubiquitous.

Job opportunities for young people are another problem. Many of the children of Venezuelan Jews go abroad, often to the United States, for undergraduate or graduate studies. Upon completion of their degree, they may feel that their education is best put to use in a dynamic, technologically advanced country like the US more easily than in Venezuela. And, in the current climate, the fear of nationalizing businesses, expropriating property, eliminating private medicine (there are quite a few Jewish physicians), stifling creative expression, and replacing meritocracy with quotas all put a damper on thoughts of a future in Venezuela.

And this brings me to the third point.

There have been some disturbing incidents affecting the Jewish community. The most notable one took place last November 29, when the police launched an early morning raid at the elementary school on the Hebraica campus, ostensibly in search of a weapons cache linked to the assassination of a federal prosecutor and, to boot, with an alleged Israeli connection. The three-hour search produced nothing, but did send shock waves through the community. Was this simple bumbling on the part of law enforcement? Or was it more calculated and intended to intimidate? Eleven months later, no one knows the answer for sure, though theories abound. It must be added that Venezuelan civil society reacted almost as one in expressing outrage at the incident.

There have been some worrisome political and government-controlled media references to Jews and Zionism, which of late seem to be growing both in intensity and frequency. The fear is that this could rapidly accelerate at any time.

For one thing, the administration is on friendly terms with governments and groups hostile to Israel and the Jewish people, including Iran and Islamic extremists, and Chavez himself wrote an admiring letter shortly after taking office to "Carlos the Jackal," the notorious terrorist imprisoned for life by a French court. At the same time, strange as it may seem in light of everything else going on, there is an active Israeli embassy in Caracas and modest but growing bilateral trade.

For another, there is a lurking concern that anti-Semitism is, if you will, being held in reserve, to be used to cast the Jews in the historically familiar role of scapegoat should things turn sour in the Bolivarian Revolution and an easy explanation be needed by its supporters to mobilize the collective wrath of the nation.

Surprise of surprises, there isn't a uniform assessment about the situation among the Jews with whom we met, but, needless to say, all are closely monitoring developments and trying to keep their options open. In most families we met, among the adult children at least, a few are now abroad. Whether they return home remains uncertain. In fact, population estimates for the Jewish community, as well as day school enrollment, reveal a steady recent decline -- perhaps by as much as one-quarter in the past six or seven years.

The thought of possibly leaving was wrenching for those with whom we spoke, all the more so because this is a relatively young community. Many members still harbor memories of their journey as refugees -- or their parents' journey -- from Egypt, Bessarabia, Morocco, Hungary, and other places of origin.

In their view, replicating elsewhere the life the Jewish community has led in Caracas would be next to impossible. There is a deep love of country. And there's also vibrant, intergenerational family interaction. The extended family forms the foundation of the social network. Some Americans might view this as claustrophobic or limiting, but not in Caracas. There's a sense that this closeness could well be lost in another country, such as the United States, where families tend to drift apart over a vast territorial expanse.

The same is true for communal life. My jaw dropped when I first saw Hebraica. I've been to a lot of Jewish settings around the world in my travels, but this one takes the gold medal. It would be hard to find anything remotely approaching this breathtakingly beautiful soup-to-nuts center of Jewish educational, cultural, and social life.

Leaving all this -- and so much more -- behind would be excruciatingly painful.

History has a mind of its own. As we know, it doesn't necessarily move in a linear direction. That's why it makes eminently good sense, in thinking about Venezuela and its Jewish community, to be ambidextrous -- on the one hand, preparing for tough sledding ahead, while, on the other, ensuring that we don't create, or contribute to, self-fulfilling prophecies.


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