Chavez Stirs Up Anti-Semitism Against Rival

This past weekend, 2.9 million Venezuelans went to the polls to choose a candidate to oppose incumbent (of 12 years) President Hugo Chávez in this October’s general election. The winner of the primary was Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 39-year-old governor of the state that includes most of the capital, Caracas. He took 62 percent of the vote. The surprisingly large turnout and margin allowed him to sweep up the support of his four rivals and present a genuine challenge to Chávez, who maintains a solid base in the lower class and claims to be fully recovered from cancer (credible reports from Spain suggest otherwise).

That was the weekend. By early this week, Chávez had already launched an intensive smear campaign against the young governor, with state media and government officials branding Capriles “bourgeois” and “fascist” and otherwise trying to paint him as the coddled prince of an aristocratic family. On late-night television, they accused him of being caught having sex in a car with another man. And a state radio profile of Capriles was titled “The Enemy is Zionism”—because in the popular imagination, and to some extent from abroad, Capriles Radonski is thought, as his name might suggest, to be Jewish, and Chávez seems to have every intention of keeping it that way.

In fact, Capriles is not Jewish. Capriles is a practicing Catholic, a religion he reportedly adopted in prison, where he spent time on charges related to an attempted coup in 2002. He wears a large wooden cross around his neck—its beads poke out from under his preferred knit or T-shirt top. But his heritage is Jewish—he is the grandson of Polish and Russian Jews who survived the Holocaust—and in the context of a Venezuela where, as I reported recently, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are political wedges, this background is significant. (Tablet Magazine contributor Michael Moynihan noticed that Chávez’s weekly tabloid has affixed a conspicuous Star of David to Capriles’ lapel in its latest cover.)

A side question to that of who will lead the country for the next six years is how the visibility and pressure of Capriles’ campaign will affect the roughly 5,000 Venezuelan Jews who are still living in Caracas, down from a peak of more than 40,000. In 2009, at the height of anti-Semitic activity in Venezuela, Capriles’ government house was surrounded by a mob, led by a pro-Chávez mayor, chanting “Nazi fascist” and spray-painting red Swastikas on the walls. Capriles denounced the action vociferously, not denying his ancestry but using it as proof of his inherited determination and drive. Yet he now finds himself under similar attack, only two days into a campaign to unseat a president with a propaganda machine 10 years in the making and all the weight of state media, untold cash from nationalized oil reserves, and an army of followers who seem to act on the smallest of hints from the top. Indeed, that same wave of anti-Semitic fervor in 2009 led to the profanation of a central synagogue, an act that brought international attention to the Jewish community and prompted even Fidel Castro to scold Chávez. What followed, after a flurry of response, was a general feeling that anti-Semitism was on the wane. But the first few days of a long campaign have put that myth to rest—regardless of how Capriles defines himself.

The Venezuelan Jews I spoke to—those in Caracas and those already gone—all wanted one thing: for Chávez’s presidency to end. For those émigré families that hadn’t yet established themselves fully in Bogotá, Miami, or across the Americas, a Caracas without Chávez is a place they’d consider returning to. But, in a tragedy befitting of the multi-generational tale of the Jewish refugees who landed in Venezuela and built a community of great strength there, the anti-Semitism likely to reawaken with the rise of a Catholic descendant of Holocaust survivors could now spell the end of Venezuela’s Jews.