NEW YORK (JTA) — Hugo Chavez, the longtime president of Venezuela who often spouted anti-Israel rhetoric and befriended Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has died.
Chavez, who ruled the South American country for 14 years, died Tuesday following a long cancer illness, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised speech. Chavez was 58.
An anti-capitalist, Chavez took office in 1999, rising to power with the massive support of the country’s poor. Despite his illness, Chavez was reelected last year. He underwent four surgeries in Cuba, his last one on Dec. 11.
The Jewish community of Venezuela has had a strained relationship with the Chavez government. In 2009, the government was believed to have been behind at least one attack on a Caracas synagogue, as Venezuelan police officers were among those implicated.
Venezuela severed ties with Israel following Israel’s three-week Gaza operation that began in late December 2008, expelling the Israeli ambassador and staff. In May 2010, following a deadly Israeli Navy clash with a Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine Turks dead, Chavez called Israel a “genocidal state” in a national broadcast and said the Mossad was trying to kill him.
“Israel is financing the Venezuelan opposition. There are even groups of Israeli terrorists, of the Mossad, who are after me trying to kill me,” he said.
In the same speech, Chavez sent “greetings and respect” to the local Jewish community. “They know they have our affection and respect,” he said. “I doubt very much that a Venezuelan Jew would support such an atrocity.”
Along with befriending Ahmadinejad, Chavez also was an ally of the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Chavez, who was anti-American, was a socialist leader who was credited with reducing poverty and expanding access to health care, food and education to Venezuela’s poor while undermining the democratic country’s system of checks and balances and repressing its media.
In the later years of Chavez’s presidency, Venezuela’s economy tanked and the country’s crime rate skyrocketed.