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Chavez and the anti-Semitism debate

South American populism has always had a rather unsavory connection to anti-Semitism. For example, the case of Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, whose government tolerated anti-Semitic acts during the 1930s. At the time Brazilian nativism, which included anti-Semitism as one of its major components, was common amongst intellectuals and the elite press. Vargas tolerated an ugly rightist movement called Integralism that was reminiscent of European fascism. The Integralists, led by an intellectual named Plinio Salgado, advocated anti-Semitic positions and republished Nazi propaganda. With a membership of 1 million, the Integralists were an ominous force on the Brazilian political stage. Known for their Green Shirts, the Integralists staged rowdy street rallies and saw Jews, Masons, and Communists as dangers to society.


Though Vargas later banned Green Shirt rallies, the populist leader and his followers seemed to share some of the Integralists' positions. Vargas himself had an anti-Semitic confidant, General Newton Cavalcanti, who in turn was one of the chief military allies of the Integralists and Salgado. In the late 1930s, Vargas' own Minister of Justice Francisco Campos, a sympathizer with the Italian fascist cause, led discussions about the need for a new comprehensive anti-Jewish policy. Under the influence of Campos and others, it wasn't long before the regime adopted restrictive immigration quotas and Jews were denied entry visas into the country.


At its best, South American populism can advance the interests of poor and disenfranchised groups by pushing through popular programs and mobilizing the masses. There's always been a somewhat questionable nationalistic underside to populism however. Populist leaders may seek to cast themselves as the cultural epitome of the nation while railing against ill-defined internal or external threats. Populists, as I explain in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), whip up their own popularity and mythology by emphasizing a personal crusade. Master orators, populists employ fiery, emotional rhetoric to establish a psychological connection with the people. Hardly content to work within conventional political channels, they conduct militant street rallies and mass mobilization of civil society to achieve their long-term objectives.


Because they are ideologically inchoate, populist movements may rely on nationalism to keep their heterogeneous and multi-class coalitions together. In this sense, anti-Semitism can be considered convenient as a kind of unifying glue. While Vargas employed anti-Semitism for political benefit, he was hardly the only populist leader to cultivate such a strategy. Juan Perón, a populist from Argentina, was apparently innocent of anti-Semitism though he tolerated anti-Semites in his entourage and condoned anti-Semitic violence carried out by nationalists whose political support he found essential. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a more recent populist, has not been immune from charges of anti-Semitism. It's a subject that the left is not very eager to address, though the issue has now become impossible to ignore.


Even before he came to power, Chávez maintained a bizarre connection to an anti-Semitic political figure named Norberto Ceresole. An Argentine sociologist and political scientist, Ceresole identified with Peronism and denied the Holocaust. In 1994, Ceresole came to Venezuela and became one of Chávez's mentors. At the time, Chávez had just been recently pardoned by President Rafael Caldera for a botched 1992 military coup. In 1995, Ceresole was exiled from Venezuela by Caldera for the Argentine's alleged ties with Islamic terrorists. Ceresole returned three years later after Chavez's victory in the presidential election. He then authored a book entitled, Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo (Leader, Army, People) about the Chavez revolution. The introductory chapter was titled, "The Jewish question and the State of Israel" and it blamed Israel and the world Jewish community for his exile. In his book, Ceresole claimed that Jews used the "myth" of the Holocaust to control the world. It was up to Latin America, Ceresole argued, to fight against "the Jewish financial mafia." Though Chávez distanced himself from Ceresole after he became president, his association with the Argentine anti-Semite is a big, black mark on the Venezuelan leader's political record.


To get a sense of the Jewish community in Venezuela, I visited a Sephardic synagogue in Caracas in 2006. It was rather difficult to gain admittance to the building: I had to submit a photocopy of my passport to a security guard and convince the staff that I was indeed Jewish. The ceremony itself was rather traditional with the sexes clearly segregated: during the chanting, women sat on the balcony while men and boys remained on the first floor. Afterwards, I approached one man and explained that I was a foreigner in Venezuela and was interested in getting some perspective on the Jewish community. "When would you like to discuss the subject?" he asked. "Why not now?" I answered. "That's impossible," he said, turning abruptly and exiting the building.


I was a little put off by the man's attitude, though his siege-like mentality was somewhat understandable in light of the circumstances. Two years earlier, the police had raided a Jewish club in Caracas that also included a school. The authorities claimed they were looking for weapons and explosives, but none were ever unearthed. The police showed up at the Jewish school at 6:30 in the morning, surprising 1,500 students in the building. The raid coincided with a high profile Chávez visit to Iran, a key Venezuelan geopolitical ally. The following year, Chávez delivered a Christmas speech in which he remarked that "the descendants of those who crucified Christ" owned the riches of the world. "The world offers riches to all. However, minorities such as the descendants of those who crucified Christ" have become "the owners of the riches of the world," the Venezuelan president said. The president's defenders said Chávez was referring to the capitalist descendants of Christ-killers, and not the Jews.


Returning to New York after my Caracas sojourn, I saw Chávez speak at Cooper Union University in Manhattan. The Venezuelan president was in town to deliver his by now infamous broadside at the United Nations, labeling George Bush "the devil." Some people in the audience wore red, Chávez's official color. Interestingly, I also noticed a group of Hassidic Jews dressed in formal attire. In a rather bizarre twist, Chavez at one point turned to the Jews and proclaimed that he had some Jewish friends and that Jews were treated well in Venezuela. The remark struck me as rather paternalistic at best and a little condescending at worst. It was the kind of thing one might expect to hear from Southern whites intent upon proving their supposed tolerance towards blacks, i.e., "I have a lot of black friends."


Right about this time, my first book entitled Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. was released. Because of Chávez's incendiary remarks at the UN, I got a flurry of calls from the media. One right-wing radio host railed against me for defending the Bolivarian Revolution even as its leader was associating with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "a Jew hater." I responded that I was no friend to Iran's political leadership but that it was understandable in a geopolitical sense why Venezuela, a key energy supplier, would seek to cultivate ties to another oil producing nation. My interviewer however, keen to take advantage of this ammunition, kept on bringing the conversation back to Iran. I mentioned many of Chávez's positive social programs in Venezuela but felt increasingly uncomfortable with my assigned role in the discussion.


The right has constantly harked on Chávez's friendship with Iran, while the left shrinks from mentioning the growing diplomatic alliance. That's because Iran has criticized Israel and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It's a moral failure however: Ahmadinejad is a religious fundamentalist and stands against women's rights as well as organized labor. He has little in common with the secular left with its Enlightenment traditions and openness to religious minorities. Like Ceresole, Chávez's former mentor, Ahmadinejad has described the Holocaust as "a myth." Chávez, unbelievably, calls the Iranian leader "one of the great fighters for true peace."


Chávez's provocative behavior continued as the Venezuelan leader blasted Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. While the Venezuelan leader should be commended for his criticism, he used unusually strong rhetoric, accusing the Israelis of behaving like "Nazis." Then, when Israel launched its offensive in Gaza two years later, Chávez once again leapt to the defense of the Arabs. It's a perfectly understandable response, but Chávez's rhetoric went completely over the top when he likened the Israeli occupation to "the Holocaust." Not content to leave it there, Chávez then turned on Venezuela's Jews, remarking "Let's hope that the Venezuelan Jewish community will declare itself against this barbarity. Don't Jews repudiate the Holocaust?"


Chávez made his remarks on state-run television, which has become increasingly hostile to the Jewish community. Like Brazilian media at the height of the Vargas era, Venezuela's TV and Web sites have fanned the flames of anti-Semitic sentiment in recent years. The host of one program entitled The Razor has publicly questioned the loyalty of leading Jewish figures. Aporrea, a pro-government Web site, published a supposed "Plan of Action" which called for "confiscation of properties of those Jews who support the Zionist atrocities of the Nazi-State of Israel and [the] donation [of] this property to the Palestinian victims of today's Holocaust." Shortly afterwards, two dozen heavily armed special police from the Venezuelan Interior Ministry searched a Jewish community center in Caracas, ostensibly searching for weapons or evidence of "subversive activity." Once again, the raid resulted in no arrests or seizure of property. The Venezuelan Jewish community denounced the raid as unjustified and aimed at inflaming anti-Semitism.


Chavez has insisted that he is tolerant of all religions and cultures. Like Vargas and Perón however, some of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish graffiti has increased in Caracas, lending some credence to Jewish leaders' complaints that Chávez's broadsides have created a poisonous atmosphere. Things only got worse when up to 15 people recently attacked a Caracas Sephardic synagogue, possibly the same one I visited in 2006. The assailants damaged Torah scrolls and threw them on the floor. They also painted slurs such as "Death to the Jews" on the walls of the synagogue. Even worse, a guard was held at gunpoint and found the next day on the floor of the building. To this day, the circumstances and motivations of the attackers have not been satisfactorily clarified or explained.


To his credit, Chávez denounced the incident. However, his moves to mollify the Jewish community come too late. Already, Venezuelan Jews are leaving the country in droves; the population has decreased from 16,000 in 1998 when Chávez was first elected to 12,000 today. Moreover, Chávez and his allies have refused to own up to their own irresponsible rhetoric and aggressive posture towards the country's Jews. Far from it: pro-government media has claimed that the attack on the Caracas synagogue was a frame up by the CIA and Mossad. While in theory that's a possibility (during the U.S.-funded Contra War against Nicaragua during the 1980s, President Reagan spread the ugly rumor that the Sandinistas were anti-Semitic in an effort to boost public support for his Central America policy), it seems more probable, in light of recent history, that the attack was launched by Chávez hotheads.


The mainstream media has predictably leapt on the Synagogue attack as yet one more instance of Chávez's drive towards authoritarian rule. The left meanwhile has been completely absent from the debate, hoping the whole issue will simply go away. That's unfortunate. All too often, the left accuses the right of attempting to whitewash the various misdeeds and crimes of regimes that do the bidding of U.S. foreign policy abroad. It would appear however that the left is doing the exact same thing right now in terms of Venezuela, opening itself up to the charge of hypocrisy.


In his attempt to unify Venezuela in a political and cultural sense, Chávez has opened the door to ugly anti-Semitism. In this sense, he is falling in the unfortunate footsteps of previous populist leaders such as Vargas and Perón. For the left, the lesson should be clear: while there's nothing wrong with applauding the many positive social accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, this shouldn't come at the cost of sacrificing one's own critical and analytical faculties or covering up misdeeds when they need to be aired.

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