Behind the Headlines: Anti-israel Overtones in Venezuela’s Election Campaign

When Venezuela goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new President, its choice might hold significant implications for the nation’s 20,000 Jews. In a year which saw passions on the Middle East issue exacerbated as a result of the latest war and the importance of oil politics rise along with the level of hostilities, the current electoral campaign in this petroleum-rich land has not been totally free of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic overtones. None of these have come from the two major candidates–in a field of 14–one of whom, observers generally agree, will become the next chief executive of some 11 million Venezuelans.

Both Carlos Andres Perez of the Democratic Action Party (AD) and Lorenzo Fernandez of the ruling Christian Democrats (COPEI) have steered clear of pronouncements on the Yom Kippur War. The current head-of-state. President Rafael Caldera (of COPEI), probably expressed the feelings of most responsible leaders here when, in the wake of renewed fighting, he made a plea for good will between the country’s Arabs and Jewish communities and stated that Venezuela maintained “friendly relations” with all Middle east nations. The reserve and moderation which characterized Perez, Fernandez and Caldera have not been matched by others. Most vocal in his anti-Israel stand–aside from the Communist Party whose members and newspaper tow the standard Russian line–is Jorge Dager, a politician of Lebanese descent, who. has gained prominence in this year’s campaign because his small Popular Democratic Force-Party (FDP) has formed an alliance with COPEI, throwing its support behind Lorenzo Fernandez.

A former president of the Chamber of Deputies. Dager in the past was not especially unfriendly to Jews or vociferous in his opposition to Israel. (One of the FDP’s congressional candidates in the 1968 elections was a local Jewish businessman.) But after the Six-Day War and several visits to the Arab world, Dager’s tone changed. His column in the prestigious Caracas daily “El Nacional,” featured articles praising Nasser and Qaddafi. while not neglecting to fustigate the “imperialist, expansionist clique” ruling the Jewish State.

Dager’s writing took on an even more anti-Israel turn after last October’s war. Although he is careful to point out that he is not an anti-Semite and that he harbors no ill-will towards Venezuelan Jews, but is only opposed to the current Israeli regime, his possible influence in governmental circles in the event of a COPEI victory has, no doubt, injected an element of uncertainty about the future in the mind of many a local Jewish voter. COPEI’s answer to these doubts has been that Dager will make no difference at all in Venezuela’s foreign policy, which has usually followed the philosophy reflected by President Caldera in his aforementioned statement. In spite of its position as a founding member of the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Venezuela both under AD and COPEI governments has tried to steer a neutral course in the stormy seas of the Arab-Israeli situation. On the local scene, Venezuela–like the United States–prides itself on being a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society, where all–Jews and over 50.000 Arabs included–can live in freedom and harmony.

The Democratic Action Party, which was the midwife of modern Venezuelan democracy, coming to power in 1945 after over a century of dictatorship, holds a sentimental debt of gratitude on the part of Jews here because it was under its rule that President Romulo Gallegos gave recognition to the new State of Israel. In 1959, President Romulo Betancourt, also of AD, agreed to establish the Venezuelan Embassy-in Jerusalem–not Tel Aviv–despite strong American pressures to the contrary. Under Betancourt’s successor, another AD man, Raul Leoni, cordial relations continued, and the government vigorously and successfully put down a rare anti-Semitic outbreak, organized by a former Nazi.

When COPEI and Dr. Caldera assumed power in 1968, there were some who were wary of the party’s Catholic roots, but no great changes in policy occurred. On the contrary, President Caldera has visited Israel, several of his ministers have been outspoken admirers of the State, and one even participated in a forum for Soviet Jewry before he assumed his post. Israeli technical assistance programs have been continued and expanded under COPEI, and in the 1968 elections the only Jew elected to the Venezuelan Congress was a Christian Democratic deputy. (There are no Jews running in the current elections, which are for the two houses of Congress as well as for the Presidency.) Local Jewish leaders point out that there is no “Jewish vote” and that each member of the community is free to vote for the candidate of his choice. Whatever results December 9th brings, Venezuela, as one of the few remaining Latin American democracies, and-the world’s third largest exporter of oil, is a country worth watching.

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