The trouble with Chavismo


Posted on Tue, Jul. 20, 2010

The trouble with Chavismo

By Abraham Cooper
and Harold Brackman

With Americans worried about unemployment, the deficit, immigration, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and more, it's not surprising that some are looking abroad for other approaches to governing. Even Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is being touted by some as having figured out a better way to take care of his people. During a particularly frigid winter in the Northeast, Chávez even worked with former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy to sell cheap oil to poor New Englanders.

But a look at the Chávez regime's first decade should disabuse everyone but Oliver Stone - the director of a new documentary fawning over the strongman - of the notion that today's Venezuela should be regarded as a role model.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report last winter that tracks Venezuela's descent into authoritarian rule. The costs to date include fair elections, an independent judiciary, uncensored media, and freedom of religion.

The beneficiaries: narco-terrorist FARC rebels, whom Chávez has been accused of financing; an aggressive military, which is threatening Venezuela's democratic neighbor Colombia; and a ruthless secret police force that tortures political prisoners. And then there's Chávez's new ally Iran, whose Revolutionary Guardsmen regularly disembark in Caracas from jets that then take Venezuelan officials to Iran.

What about Chávez's nationalization of the country's lucrative oil industry? Despite their cheap, subsidized gasoline and oil reserves rivaling Iraq's, Venezuelans deal with periodic shortages of refined petroleum products. And families frequently face store shelves without bread or milk.

Chavismo has also had repercussions for Venezuela's Jews, a historically prosperous and stable community that has been scapegoated by the despot. With roots going back to Simon Bolivar's time, Venezuelan Jews managed to survive the Nazi era relatively unscathed by the fascist eruptions that scarred much of Latin America. But since coming to power in 1998, Chávez has revealed himself to be less the latter-day Bolivar he claims than a reincarnation of the fascist Argentine leader Juan Perón. In fact, the inspiration for Chávez's plans to do away with Venezuela's traditions of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance is the late Argentine Peronista and Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole.

In 2004, uniformed hooligans invaded Caracas' Hebraica center, allegedly to search for smuggled Israeli arms, terrorizing children taking Hebrew classes. During a Christmas broadcast that year, Chávez identified the "descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ" as exploiting Venezuela's peasantry as well as innocent Palestinians.

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center denounced Chávez for deploying the "two central arguments of anti-Semitism: the canard of the deicide and the association of Jews with wealth," the head of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela felt obligated to defend el presidente, saying he wasn't targeting Jews, but rather the "white oligarchy."

But in 2007, when Chávez's thugs again invaded the Hebraica center, disrupting a wedding party, no one in the Jewish community rose to his defense. By then, the state-controlled media were airing calls for boycotts and expulsions of Jews to punish Israel.

Chávez's frightening mutual admiration society with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad parallels his special relationship with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, which Interpol blamed for a murderous 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Chávez's strident criticism of the Jewish state culminated in the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the severing of relations with Israel. Shortly thereafter, Congregation Tiferet Israel, located a mile from Chávez's presidential palace, was vandalized.

A state-sponsored orchestra also abruptly withdrew from the Caracas premier of "Fiddler on the Roof." The conductor put his reasons bluntly: "We receive financial aid from the government, and given the current situation, we prefer not to participate in a play that has Jewish content."

Is it any wonder that a third of Venezuela's Jewish population has left the country?

As Americans struggle with the worst financial crisis of our generation, it's reasonable to look for new paradigms that might help nurse our economy back to health. But history is replete with despots who leveraged economic trouble into unchallenged power by promising full employment and trains that run on time. Hugo Chávez's autocratic medicine would kill the patient, along with the democracy, freedom, and tolerance that are the lifeblood of our society.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where Harold Brackman is a historian and consultant. For more information, see

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