With Chavez gone, Venezuelan Jews look warily to future

A vendor hawks a newspaper featuring a front-page headline that says "A Sea of Sadness for Chavez," March 7, 2013.  (Gil Shefler/JTA)

A vendor hawks a newspaper featuring a front-page headline that says “A Sea of Sadness for Chavez,” March 7, 2013. (Gil Shefler/JTA)

A pedestrian walking underneath a poster showing the eyes of the late leftist leader Hugo Chavez in downtown Caracas. The sign reads, "We are all Chavez."  (Gil Shefler/JTA)

A pedestrian walking underneath a poster showing the eyes of the late leftist leader Hugo Chavez in downtown Caracas. The sign reads, “We are all Chavez.” (Gil Shefler/JTA)

CARACAS, Venezuela (JTA) — The eyes of a dead man stare at visitors passing through immigration at Simon Bolivar International Airport. They follow drivers making the trek along the tortuous four-lane highway through a mountain range leading to town. And they reappear at public spaces throughout this city.

It’s easy to be spooked by the ubiquitous image of Hugo Chavez, the larger-than-life leftist leader who died last week from an unspecified form of cancer. But in Venezuela, it has been the reality since he came to power in 1999.

“It never used to be this way with presidents before him,” said David Bittan, the owner of a taxi company whose cousin of the same name is the president of the Venezuelan Jewish umbrella group CAIV. “They started putting up these posters everywhere after he was first elected. It’s in line with Communist Party propaganda.”

With Chavez gone, this divided nation finds itself at a crossroads. Will Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, carry on “until victory,” as the posters of his political patron promise? Or might he chart a new path, taking a more conciliatory approach to relations with the United States and with the business community?

Or could opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, surprise everyone by winning the presidential election set for April 14?

For members of Venezuela’s dwindling Jewish community, the political uncertainty is particularly unnerving. During Chavez’s 14 years in power, their numbers have dropped from 25,000 to about 9,000 today, driven abroad by economic instability, anti-Semitism in state-owned media and rampant crime that made Caracas a serious contender for murder capital of the world.

“We have great institutions, we have a great school, we have a wonderful Hebraica,” said Efraim Lapscher, the vice president of CAIV, referring to the sprawling community center that is the heart of Jewish life here. “We, our fathers and our grandfathers, built this with a lot of sweat, ideology and hard work. And it’s painful for us to see them slowly emptying out.”

Jewish life in Caracas revolves around the Hebraica, the compound at the foot of the Avila Mountain that is also home to the Jewish school and a growing number of communal institutions. Past the heavily guarded gate and high walls is the lush campus with a pool, soccer pitch, tennis courts, gym, food court — even a bank. On a warm day, children gambol by the pool while their parents lay on deck chairs.

“It’s a beautiful prison,” said a representative of an international Jewish organization based in Caracas. “Members of the community live their entire lives there without leaving because of fear of crime outside. Children are so used to be being cooped up that when they visit Israel, they call their parents and say, ‘Guess what, I’m on a bus!’ That’s an exciting experience for them.”

The sense of siege hinders the willingness of Venezuelan Jews to publicly criticize their government, though there is little love lost for the president who severed diplomatic ties with Israel while embracing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Lapscher talks about the community’s post-Chavez prospects with deliberate caution so as not to be construed as taking sides.

“Sometime in the near future we’ll have elections and we can change the government. Or the same government will stay but we will have the same issues,” he said. “We will try to give the best Jewish life possible and combat anti-Semitism if it comes from the government, its supporters or from the outside.“

Asked about the tense political situation, most Venezuelan Jews direct questions to community leaders, fearing unwelcome repercussions. An exception is Sammy Eppel, a Jewish columnist who writes for the opposition paper El Nacional. Eppel has paid a heavy price for his outspoken critique of Chavismo, Chavez’s particular brand of socialism.

Eppel says government interference led him to shut down a call center he operated and that officials have tried unsuccessfully to isolate him from the community leadership. But still he blames the Chavez government for economic policies that have led to periodic shortages of food staples, frequent devaluations of the bolivar fuerte and a marked drop in oil output.

“The government that takes over is going to have a difficult situation,” he said. “Politics you can manipulate, but the economy is a science. It’s very hard to manipulate the economy. And when hard times come, they will come for everybody. And unfortunately, those hard times might hit the Jewish community also.”

If such predictions come to pass, it may send even more Venezuelan Jews to places such as Florida, the destination of choice for Jewish expats. Pynchas Brener, the rabbi emeritus of Union Israelita who lived in Venezuela for 44 years and was friends with all its presidents “except this one,” is one of many who now call the Miami area home.

“I could have stayed on for three more years, but there is tremendous personal insecurity,” Brener said. “Besides, I have eight of my nine grandchildren here.”

Brener sees two possible paths for the country: It could become like Cuba, with the Jewish community losing most of its verve and viability, or Chavismo might be defeated at the ballot box. Of the two, he sees the latter as more likely.

“Even though the government has won a few elections — although not fairly because they used government resources — I still see half the population or close to half the population resisting, so I don’t think it will turn into Cuba,” he said. “I don’t think the government will be able to do whatever they want.”

Despite the uncertainty, some glimmers of hope are visible.

On Sunday, a new synagogue, Tiferet Israel Este, will be inaugurated in Los Palos Grandes, an affluent Caracas neighborhood that is home to a sizable Jewish community. The synagogue offers worshipers a safer alternative to an older temple in a formerly Jewish part of town now considered dangerous.

“As Kohelet said, there is a time for everything,” said Isaac Cohen, the chief rabbi of the Sephardic community. “[The new synagogue] shows people seek religion in their lives, and we have freedom of religion here.

“It pains us, it hurts us that there is no Israeli ambassador or embassy, but we hope that day will come and ties will be renewed. When will it happen? Nobody but God knows.”

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