Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez has died of cancer, aged 58, and he won’t be mourned in Israel.
President Hugo Chavez, the fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela, crusaded against U.S. influence and championed a leftist revival across Latin America, died Tuesday at age 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, surrounded by other government officials, announced the death in a national television broadcast. He said Chavez died at 4:25 p.m. local time.
Maduro on Tuesday wasted no time in laying blame for the executive’s deteriorating situation, suggesting he was poisoned and comparing his illness to that suffered by late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat before his death. The PA accused Israel for Arafat’s death, claiming he was killed by the Jewish state.
“We have no doubt that Commandant Chavez was attacked with this illness, we have not a single doubt,” Maduro was quoted as saying by Fox News Latino. “The established enemies of our land specifically tried to harm the health of our leader.”
Chavez was an extremely charismatic leader, for better and for worse, as the ToI report continues:
During more than 14 years in office, Chavez routinely challenged the status quo at home and internationally. He polarized Venezuelans with his confrontational and domineering style, yet was also a masterful communicator and strategist who tapped into Venezuelan nationalism to win broad support, particularly among the poor.
Chavez used his country’s vast oil wealth to launch social programs that include state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs. Poverty declined during Chavez’s presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, but critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country’s economy.
Inflation soared and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world.
Throughout his presidency, Chavez said he hoped to fulfill Bolivar’s unrealized dream of uniting South America.
He was also inspired by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and took on the aging revolutionary’s role as Washington’s chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after Castro relinquished the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006.
Supporters saw Chavez as the latest in a colorful line of revolutionary legends, from Castro to Argentine-born Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Chavez nurtured that cult of personality, and even as he stayed out of sight for long stretches fighting cancer, his out-sized image appeared on buildings and billboard throughout Venezuela. The airwaves boomed with his baritone mantra: “I am a nation.” Supporters carried posters and wore masks of his eyes, chanting, “I am Chavez.”
Chavez saw himself as a revolutionary and savior of the poor.
He insisted all the while that Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied trying to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile.
While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes and an egalitarian society, his soaring rhetoric regularly conflicted with reality. Despite government seizures of companies and farmland, the balance between Venezuela’s public and private sectors changed little during his presidency.
And even as the poor saw their incomes rise, those gains were blunted while the country’s currency weakened amid economic controls.
Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their “comandante” until the end.
“Chavez masterfully exploits the disenchantment of people who feel excluded … and he feeds on controversy whenever he can,” Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka wrote in their book “Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President.”
He defeated a subsequent opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country’s oil industry, and he fired thousands of state oil company employees.
The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who had briefly replaced him. He created political and trade alliances that excluded the U.S., and he cozied up to Iran and Syria in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward the U.S. government.
Despite the souring relationship, Chavez sold the bulk of Venezuela’s oil to the United States.
His political movement, however, was mostly a one-man show. Only three days before his final surgery, Chavez named Maduro as his chosen successor.
Now, it will be up to Venezuelans to determine whether the Chavismo movement can survive, and how it will evolve, without the leader who inspired it.
Speaking from an Israeli viewpoint, I hope the Chavismo movement does not survive. As the JTA reports, Chavez was the bane of Venzuela’s Jewish community as well as considering himself an adversary of Israel who allied himself with our enemies:
There was the police raid of a Caracas school in 2004, allegedly to search for evidence in the high-profile murder case of a prosecutor. There were the demands by President Hugo Chavez when war broke out between Israel and Hamas in December 2008 that his country’s Jews rebuke Israel for its conduct in Gaza. There was Chavez’s warm alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There was the use of state radio to spread anti-Semitic canards.
Most recently, there were revelations that Venezuela’s intelligence service, SEBIN, was spying on the country’s Jewish communty.
While Chavez never explicitly threatened the Jews of Venezuela, his frequent harassment and staunchly anti-Israel positions kept them continually on edge. Afraid to criticize their president, the Jewish community found itself in a predicament that took on a frightening resemblance to the one faced by Jews in another staunchly anti-Western, anti-Zionist country: Iran.
But even with Chavez gone, felled by an undisclosed cancer at age 58 just weeks into his fourth term, Venezuelan Jews aren’t quite ready to exhale.
For one thing, Chavez leaves behind a country wracked by violent crime and mired in economic turmoil. For another, Chavez played such a commanding role in Venezuelan life and politics that nobody is quite sure what will happen to the country.
Perhaps most notably for Venezuela’s Jews, far fewer of them are still around to find out.
Over the past 14 years, Jews have been leaving the country in droves. When Chavez was elected in 1999, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Venezuela. Today the community is estimated to have fallen to less than half that number. During the more challenging years of Chavez rule, Jewish organizations even developed a plan in concert with local Jews for the evacuation of the country’s Jewish community should the need arise. The plan is still on the shelf.
Venezuela’s constitution appears to require that new elections be held within 30 days. In his final months, Chavez made clear his preference that his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, take over Chavez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution. The likeliest opponent to Maduro, who has echoed Chavez’s anti-Western rhetoric, is Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez by an 11-point margin in elections held last October.
Capriles, who identifies as a Catholic, also happens to be the grandson of Holocaust survivors — a fact Chavez exploited in launching anti-Semitic attacks against him.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, state-run media urged Venezuelans to reject “international Zionism” and vote against Capriles, describing him as having “a platform opposed to our national and independent interests.” Chavez also said the Mossad, Israel’s secret service, was out to kill him and accused Israel of financing Venezuela’s opposition. Government media described Capriles as “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie.”
The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned Chavez for his rhetoric.
The campaign was typical Chavez, only the latest in a long series of episodes that left Jews feeling deeply unsettled in a country that before Chavez had remarkably little anti-Semitism.
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 Venezuelan Jews felt directly targeted by the government, when security forces carried out an armed raid on a Jewish school in Caracas, Hebraica.
Meanwhile, Chavez 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.
For now, it’s unclear whether or for how long the anti-Jewish atmosphere Chavez allowed to take root in Venezuela will survive him.
But after 14 years of policies that prompted more than half of Venezuela’s Jews to pick up and leave — and with Venezuela’s economic and security problems now compounded by political turmoil — it’s hard to imagine very many of the Jewish emigres are hurrying back.
For the moment Israel is keeping shtum, hoping to mend fences with Venezuela if an amenable successor comes to power:
Israel remained mum Tuesday and Wednesday on the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, while it examined the possibility of mending ties with a country that cut relations four years ago due to its late leader’s staunch pro-Palestinian positions.
By Wednesday afternoon, while most world leaders from the US to Iran and the Palestinian Authority had reacted to Chavez’s death, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres still refused to comment.
Israeli diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said Jerusalem is currently trying to assess whether Chavez’s departure could offer Israel an opportunity to mend ties.
It is very interesting to note that even the Democratic US Administration didn’t officially regret Chavez’s passing:
US President Barack Obama, in a statement his office released, stopped short of expressing regret for Chavez’s passing, saying merely that his country “reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”
As for our enemies:
In the Muslim world, news of Chavez’s death caused great grief. Iran, one of Venezuela’s closest allies, proclaimed a day of mourning.
A senior official of Abbas’s Fatah movement also expressed regret over Chavez’s passing, praising particularly his anti-Israel stance during Operation Cast Lead and his support for the Palestinians’ bid for nonmember state status at the UN last year.
‘Nuff said. Let us hope that Chavez’s successor will bring Venezuela back into the Western fold.