December 14, 2004,
The human-rights situation in Venezuela under populist president Hugo Chavez has been deteriorating for some time. But last week the proverbial canary in the coalmine died when Venezuelan police raided the Colegio Hebraica, the private Jewish school in Caracas. The raid took place in the early morning, just as students were arriving for the start of the school day.
Ostensibly, the raid was part of the investigation into the November 18 assassination by car bombing of State Prosecutor Danilo Anderson. Anderson (who was initially appointed to prosecute environmental crimes) was handling high-profile political prosecutions including that of the plotters of the April 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. The assassins are unknown, but the Chavez, his allies, and the state-controlled media have blamed the Venezuelan opposition, Venezuelan expatriates in Miami, and various foreign forces including the Mossad. This putative Mossad connection was the excuse for the raid on the Colegio Hebraica.
This raid is only part of Chavez's steady destruction of Venezuela's civil society and democratic institutions. The Venezuelan National Assembly recently passed a new law restricting television and radio content. Officially the law is intended to protect Venezuela's children from pornography and violence, but the vaguely worded statute could easily be used to hinder the expression of political views as well. Chavez is also packing Venezuela's supreme court.
The treatment of Jewish communities has always been a crucial indicator of a government's commitment to freedom and rule of law. In the words of prominent Venezuelan journalist Carlos Blanco:
When a Jew is attacked for being such, we enter a zone of total and absolute risk for the free thinking and existence of all, Jews and non Jews alike. Do not believe the official apologies, they are part of the same set up.
(This translation is courtesy of Venezuela News and Views, a terrific blog that exemplifies how a blog can provide critical but overlooked news and intelligent, informed analysis.)
It is no coincidence that the raid occurred while Chavez was in Iran promoting bilateral trade, the Iranian-Venezuelan strategic relationship, and their shared opposition to a unipolar world (read: the United States). On this junket, Chavez also received a human-rights reward from Libya. Flush with cash from recent high oil prices, Chavez discussed major arms purchases with Russia and criticized the West for interfering with Ukraine's election. Hugo Chavez is clearly angling to become a player on the international stage.
Chavez's internal repression and international ambitions are accompanied by regional belligerence. His purchase of high-performance MiGs from Russia threatens to ignite a regional arms race. While irrelevant to Venezuela's real security concerns, Chavez may have plans for the MiGs. He has ignited dormant territorial disputes with his neighbors Columbia and Guyana. He has also funded far-left movements elsewhere in South America and given sanctuary to Columbian terrorists next door. Crucial to all of Chavez's activities is his key alliance with Fidel Castro. Chavez props up Fidel's tottering regime with oil, and Fidel sends thousands of operatives to Venezuela to help Chavez consolidate his rule.
We have a big and growing problem to our south. But Venezuela's opposition, while disappointed, is not vanquished. With a strong tradition of democratic rule and tolerance, many Venezuelans were deeply shocked by the raid on the Colegio Hebraica. Michael Rowan, a journalist with the leading paper El Universal wrote,
The fact that it was a Jewish school is lost on no one. This was an unmistakable message to the Jewish community, which has heard that loathsome message many times before. Early on, the Nazis used this tactic against the Jews to strike fear in their hearts, as it did. The whole world knows what came after that.... In the deafening silence from the government following this symbolic event, everyone in the community, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and those with mixed ethnic or religious background, must stand up to the authorities, and say with one voice: I am a Jew. We are all Jews.
It is possible that Chavez has reached too far, and the opposition also inspired by the example of Ukraine can be galvanized to act. To do so, they will need American help. The alternative is more Chavez, and history teaches us where that will inevitably lead.