Hugo Chavez has long vowed to turn Venezuela into a laboratory for “21st century socialism.” But if the latest bully-boy tactics of the Chavez government are any guide, the better name for his platform might be 21st century National Socialism.
Most telling in this regard are the ruling regime’s rapidly deteriorating relations with Venezuela’s Jewish community. As reported recently in the Jewish Forward, it was only last month that a goon squad of government police swarmed down on the Hebraica Jewish community center in the capital of Caracas. Officially, the police had been searching for signs of “subversive activity,” the term’s definition having been expanded under Chavez’s ten-year reign to include any and all dissent from the government’s growingly authoritarian line. In the event, they found none, leading Venezuelan Jewish leaders to protest, compellingly, that the raid was little more than an act of state-backed intimidation and harassment aimed at the Jewish community.
Lending heft to the charge is a disquieting recent history. Hardly a unique event, last month’s raid darkly echoes the November 2004 storming of the same Hebraica community center by armed police thugs. Then as now, the pretext for the operation -- a search for evidence supposedly related to the murder of a local prosecutor -- was tenuous. Then as now, the police presence seemed calculated to put the fear of “Chavismo” into the country’s vulnerable Jewish community.
Back in 2004, apologists for Chavez insisted that the police had acted independent of the government. Chavez, it was claimed, could bear no personal responsibility for their actions. Never convincing, the defense is even more strained in the context of the most recent raid. Particularly notable is that the police force that conducted the raid was under the control of the Interior Ministry; the ministry, in turn, is under the direct command of Chavez himself. The idea that he was unaware of its conduct is too preposterous to credit. (In this connection, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the deputy head of the ministry is one Tarek al-Assaimi, an erstwhile leftist student leader whose father had the dubious honor of serving as the Venezuelan representative of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party.)
To dismiss the targeted crackdowns on the Jewish community as isolated incidents is to ignore just how poisoned Venezuelan politics has become against the country’s Jewish residents. On Chavez’s indulgent watch, the state-sponsored press churns out a steady stream of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel invective and conspiracy theories. One television program in particular, called the “The Razor,” has alleged repeatedly that Mossad agents in Venezuela are working in the shadows to undermine Chavez’s government -- a sinister charge that would not have embarrassed the editors of Nazi gazette Der Sturmer. Denunciations of supposedly subversive “Zionist” influences within Venezuela have become routine.
Lest one discount these attacks as the work of marginal extremists and nativists, it bears noting that many originate with Chavez himself. Having ascended to power on the strength of his racially charged populism, with its caustic attacks Venezuela’s largely white economic elite, Chavez has proven all too willing to discriminate against disfavored groups. Thus, in the course of a Christmas speech in 2006, Chavez took a special opportunity to vilify “the descendants of those who crucified Christ,” a “minority” that has “taken ownership of the riches of the world.” Friendly journalists on the Left rushed to contend that Chavez wasn’t necessarily talking about Jews, but the Venezuelan media, seething with contempt for “Zionists… the destructive sect of radical Jews,” weren’t fooled. They knew precisely which despised “minority” the president had in mind.
It little helped his defenders’ case that just a few months earlier, in September of 2006, Chavez openly had declared his solidarity with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pledging to stand beside the man best known for his fanatical promise to wipe the Jewish state off the global map. If that was insufficient to demonstrate which way his sympathies inclined, Chavez also embraced the terrorist cause of Hezbollah, reportedly devoting $1 million of the Venezuelan treasury to print up posters of himself alongside Hezbollah chieftain Hassan Nasrallah, these to be displayed in a “victory” rally in Beirut. (Contrariwise, Chavez deplored Israel’s retaliation to Hezbollah aggression in the summer of 2006, likening the Jewish state to the Nazis and promptly recalling Venezuela’s diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv.)
The hateful message has not been lost on Venezuela’s Jewish community. When Chavez was first elected to office in 1998, that community numbered between 16,000 and 20,000. Since then, it has dwindled to just over 12,000. Within the community itself, moreover, the tone has changed dramatically. Conscious of their minority status, Venezuela’s Jews initially sought to downplay their difficulties with the Chavez government, even chiding American-Jewish organizations for intervening on their behalf. No longer. In the wake of the most recent raid, prominent Jewish leaders in Caracas unabashedly described the Chavez regime as the “first anti-Jewish government in our history.”
And Jews aren’t the only targets of Chavez‘s political thuggery. Incompetent or ideologically unwilling to address any of Venezuela’s systemic problems -- be it runaway inflation, which topped 22 percent for the last year, or food shortages caused by ruinous price controls -- Chavez has embarked on a nationwide search for scapegoats.
Ironically, the latest to incur Chavez’s wrath are the poor farmers and agricultural workers the self-styled populist claims to champion. Last week, Chavez proclaimed that his government will seize the farms and milk-producing plants of Venezuelans who dare to sell their products abroad.
And yet, one of the main motivations for selling products abroad are the price controls instituted by the Chavez government. Artificially reducing the price of foodstuffs, these controls have, as anyone with even a basic economics training might have predicted, ushered in food shortages and fueled food smuggling. But where a wiser leader might have eliminated price controls, Chavez has preferred to denounce small producers as traitors to their country while threatening to dispossess them of their businesses. Banks have been promised similar punishment unless they make government-approved loans at government-approved interest rates. Meanwhile, opposition is not an option. Media outlets that fail to toe the government’s line -- such as the popular but politically independent RCTV, shuttered by Chavez last May -- already have been silenced.
The December defeat of a referendum that would have eliminated presidential term limits, effectively enthroning Chavez as president-for-life, has been widely interpreted as a humbling experience for the aspiring dictator. In reality, it seems to have made him more brazen. And if it is the case that Jews are the canary in the coal mine of civilization, then recent events provide every reason to think that far worse is in store for Venezuela under Chavez’s one-man rule.