Hugo Chávez / Photo by Bernardo Londoy
On January 30, 2009 fifteen heavily armed men stormed the Tiferet Israel synagogue in the Mariperez neighborhood of Caracas. They held down two guards, robbed the premises, and desecrated the temple, throwing the Torah and other religious paraphernalia to the floor and painting graffiti on the walls: Out, Death to All; Damned Israel, Death; 666 with a drawing of the devil; Out Jews; We dont want you, assassins; a star of David, an equal sign, and a swastika.
The event, though shocking, was neither isolated nor unprecedented. Over the past four years, Venezuela has witnessed alarming signs of state-directed anti-Semitism, including a 2005 Christmas declaration by President Hugo Chávez himself: The World has enough for everybody, but some minorities, the descendants of the same people that crucified Christ, and of those that expelled Bolívar from here and in their own way crucified him. . . . have taken control of the riches of the world.
In late 2004 the police stormed Hebraica, a Jewish social, educational, and sports center, ostensibly to search for guns and explosives. No weapons were found. But finding them may never have been the purpose of the raid: it coincided with the beginning of Hugo Chávezs official visit to Tehran. Thus, Sammy Eppel, director of the Human Rights Commission of the Venezuelan Bnai Brith, poignantly interpreted the event: Chávez was showing Iran: This is how I deal with my Jews.
According to the World Conference against Anti-Semitism that took place in London in February 2009, the Chavista media became noticeably more aggressive between October and December of last year. Aporrea, the principal Chavista online journal, published 136 anti-Jewish texts; and since the start of the year, the Conference counted an average of 45 pieces per month. In the 30 days between December 28, 2008 and January 27, 2009, coinciding with the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the number of pieces increased to an average of more than five per day.
This kind of tally may blur the distinction between criticisms of Israeli policies and sheer anti-Semitism, but the prominence of classically anti-Semitic themes, tones, and sentiments is nonetheless staggering and undeniable. Indeed, since the 2006 war in Lebanon, anti-Semitic comments have become commonplace not only in Aporrea, but also in other media outlets either controlled by or ideologically close to the governmentsuch as Vea and Cadena Venezolana de Televisión, especially its program La Hojillaand publicly and community-owned radio stations. Mario Silva, the anchor of La Hojillathe main television outlet of Chávezs ideology, known as Chavismodeclared on November 28, 2007, at a time when a student movement against Chávez was consolidating, that the Cohen family, owners of the Sambil chain of malls
are financing all that is happening. I have said for a long time that those Jewish businessmen who are not in the conspiracy should publicly come forth. . . . And many of those in the student movement that is currently activated have a lot to do with that group.
Another egregious and symptomatic example is a January 20, 2009 article by Emilio Silva in Aporrea, titled How to Support Palestine against the Artificial State of Israel, in which Silva calls for measures to isolate the Jewish population inside Venezuela as well as its supposed allies, ultimately the Venezuelan opposition tout court. It also calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, and associates Judaism with Euro-Gringo imperial interests in such disparate places as Afghanistan, Congo, and Colombia.
Beyond the specifics of Emilio Silvas political program, the idiom of the critique is baldly that of modern anti-Semitism. Thus, Silva characterizes the enemy as those Zionist Hebrews [who] care more for their pocket-books than for anything else, including Jehova and calls on his readers to publicly demand that any Jew in any street, mall, square, etc., take a position [with respect to Israel] by yelling slogans in favor of Palestine and against the miscarried and disfigured state (estado-aborto) of Israel.
Chávez himself has been at the forefront of an effort to equate Israel with Hitler, and then to retroject Jewish conspiracy onto the Venezuelan opposition. On August 25, 2006, while on a state visit to China, Chávez declared: Israel criticizes Hitler a lot. So do we. But they have done something similar to what Hitler did, possibly worse, against half the world. As recently as January 10 of this year, in the days leading up to the plebiscite to validate Chávezs permanent reelection, the Venezuelan leader conflated the Jews, the empire (by which he mostly means the United States), and his internal opposition: The owners of Israel, in other words, the Empire, are the owners of the opposition.
The rhetoric crystallizes under the figure of the Jew, the internal and external enemy of Chavismo. Chávez may dislike Venezuelas 12,000 or so Jews, but what is really at stake in his mobilization of anti-Semitic rhetoric is the characterization of his entire opposition as anti-national.
Anti-Semitism is close to the intellectual heart of Chavismo, best synthesized in the writings of Argentine ultra-nationalist and Holocaust-denier Norberto Ceresole.1 Ceresole, who died in 2003, had close links with nationalist and populist military elements throughout Latin America, most notably the Peruvian President Luis Velasco Alvarado, to whom he served as adviser, and the putschist faction of the Argentine army known as the carapintadas. Through the latter group, Chávez met Ceresole, who first appeared on the Venezuelan scene in 1994 as Chávezs adviser. Ceresole was expelled from the country in June 1995 by Venezuelan intelligence as a propagandist for Chávezs failed 1992 coup against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. He reappeared after Chávez came into power in 1999, and he enjoyed close relations with senior members of the government.
In 1999 Ceresole published Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo: La Venezuela del Comandante Chávez (Caudillo, Army, People: The Venezuela of Commander Chávez), a book that matches Chávezs political ideas and strategies much more closely than the writings of the Libertador, Simón Bolívar, whom commentators routinely cite as Chávezs main intellectual influence. Chávez has repeatedly defended Ceresole, despite Ceresoles controversial position within the Chavista movement, particularly among the more moderate wing, which rejects Ceresole not least on account of his anti-Semitism. On his weekly radio and TV program Aló Presidente in May 2006, Chávez referred to Ceresole as a great friend and an intellectual deserving great respect. Beyond such statements of deference, the imprint of Ceresoles ideas can be found everywhere in Chávezs policies, statements, and strategies.
Ceresoles blueprint for Chavismo privileges a direct relationship between the leader and the people. Thus, Ceresole describes Chávezs electoral triumph in the following terms: The order that the people of Venezuela emitted on December 6, 1998 is clear and final. A physical person, and not an abstract idea or a generic party, was delegated by that very people to exercise Power. Ceresole differentiates Chavismo from fascismwhich he disingenuously refers to as the European nationalisms of the post-WWI periodon the grounds that the former has no predominant party structure. Yet, in Chavismo the immediate relationship between the leader and the people has singular importance, with all other political structures serving merely as channels of transmission between them. Not surprisingly, Human Rights Watch recently declared:
[a] defining feature of the Chávez presidency has been an open disregard for the principle of separation of powers enshrined in the 1999 Constitutionand, specifically, the notion that an independent judiciary is indispensable for protecting fundamental rights.
In the Chavista corporealization of politics, any alternative becomes alien and monstrous, and must be expelled from the body of the nation and annihilated. The figure of the Jew comes in handy in this scheme, and indeed Ceresole indulges in traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, attributing, for example, the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish Center, which killed 85 people, mostly Jews, to Jews themselves. It is no coincidence that the first heading in the introduction of Ceresoles book on Chávez is The Jewish Question and the State of Israel, and Ceresole explains why clearly enough:
The first time that I perceived the Jewish problem was when I discovered, empirically, that the so-called terrorist attacks of Buenos Aires (1992 and 1994) . . . . corresponded with an internal crisis of the State of Israel and not with the action of a supposed Islamic terrorism. From that time onward, the Jews erupted in my life. I suddenly discovered them not as I had known them until then, that is as individuals distinct from one another, but rather as elements for whom individuation is impossible, a group united by hatred, and, to use a term that they like, by ire.
Thus, in Ceresoles view, the Jews act only as a conspiratorial body.
Chávezs immediate reaction to the looting of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue reflects the same kind of conspiratorial outlookhe declared it an attack perpetrated by the opposition against his regime. Before beginning a formal inquest, Venezuelas president had a theory about the identity of the culprits: Like any police investigator, you have to ask yourself: who benefits from these violent acts? Not the government, not the people, not the Revolution. . . . It is they themselves who did it! This is what I say to the nation. Just who they are is ambiguousit may refer to the amorphous oligarchy that Chávez regularly decries, or the Jews themselves, or both. Similarly, Chávez has embraced the idea that the Bush government orchestrated the attacks of September 11 in order to blame Islamic militants and thereby justify the invasion of Iraq.
More generally, despite the romance between Chávez and a string of international leftist superstars (from the Italian Marxist Antonio Negri to the filmmaker Oliver Stone), Chavismo is less a coherent ideology than the sum of its leader and chief evangelists robust gestures and gesticulations. Chávezs performances on Aló Presidente and his risky-but-calculated threats, insults, and other dramatic gestures keep the spotlight on him. In this regard, his media persona is consistent with the fascist strategy: casting aside all forms of protocol and substituting them with the excessive antics of the clown. Chávez is Venezuelas Ubu Roi, constantly shifting the rules of the game to disorient his opponents. Ceresole himself wrote:
The Venezuelan model is not a theoretical constructionit springs directly from reality. It is the result of a convergence of factors that we could define as physical, therefore, that have not been conceived beforehand (in opposition to the so-called ideological factors).
Following Ceresoles blueprint, a decade of Chavista rule has undermined Venezuelas democratic institutions, a process amply documented by Human Rights Watch, which reports, among many other things:
in 2004 Chávez signed legislation that made it possible for his supporters in the National Assembly to both pack and purge the Supreme Court. . . . Since this takeover occurred, the courts response to government measures that threaten fundamental rights has typically been one of passivity and acquiescence.
Discrimination against opposition members in government hiring practices and use of government agencies as bases for political operations are rampant.
Instead of political parties, representative institutions, and, above all, ideologies, Chavismo manifests as a physical relationship between the people and Chávez, with, as Chávez himself describes, love as the potent glue connecting them.Thus during the recent campaign for the referendum to abolish presidential term limits, the widespread slogan, Amor con amor se paga (love must with love be repaid), which captures the notion that Chávezs love for the people comes with a corresponding obligation.
The problem with substituting rights with a language of love is that dissent suggests lack of love, or ingratitude, or a sign of allegiance to a foreign enemy: capitalism, the Euro-Gringo imperialism, or even, for Chávez, Zionist-Fascist-Euro-Gringo Imperialism.
In Chavismo, politics and political life both represent a kind of hand-to-hand combat between the people, united by love, and its enemies, united by hatredthe ire that Ceresole imputes to Jews.
While Chávezs political vocabulary often portrays Jews as inordinately influential and manipulative, he does not restrict himself to the trope of the Jew as master conspirator. Instead, he enacts the classic double move in anti-Semitism, used from the time of the Dreyfus Affair to Nazism and beyond: the powerful, exploitative Jew who is also inherently weak and contemptible. Chávez thus refers to his opponents as escuálidos (squalids), a Spanish term that connotes not only dirtiness and abjection, but also flimsiness, wimpiness, and scrawniness. Not surprisingly, figures conventionally associated with degradation are important in the imagery. Homophobia is a key element in that repertoire; although unlike Cuba (Castro is Chávezs admired father), which bans homosexuality and persecutes homosexuals, Chavismo relies on homophobia as invective rather than state policy.
Most commonly, homophobic sentiments and images are mobilized around the figure of the escuálido. For instance, the Chavista theme in the so-called Battle of Santa Inésthe response to the oppositions 2004 campaign to revoke Chávezs mandatewas Florentino y el Diablo, a story about a handsome Creole cowboy who wins a duel with the devil. Florentino, Chávezs stand-in, appeared in a series of posters, a masculine rider on a tall horse, lance in hand, threatening a squeamish, stereotypically gay devilan escuálido. Florentinos lance points to the devils bottom in a gesture of penetration that Chávez has himself enacted verbally. On La Hojilla sodomy was Chávezs metaphor for dominating the oppositionvamos a jugar el juego del rojo . . . . tu te agachas y yo te cojo; a non-rhyming translation is lets play the game of red . . . . ‚ you bend down and I fuck you. The game does not jeopardize Chávezs gender identity; in much of Latin America the male sodomizer is not regarded as a homosexual.
Perhaps the worst and saddest example of official homophobic censure occurred after a skirmish with the Catholic Church, one of the main institutional opponents of the regime. After a prominent priest was murdered in a Caracas hotel room, Venezuelas Attorney General sought to dispel criticisms of the governments incapacity to combat crime by claiming that the priest had participated in his own death because we found excrement and also injuries in his anus. In another telling case, Mario Silva, after calling a gay social columnist who criticized the bad taste of a military parade pato (queer), jabbed:
You would probably want our armed forces to dress in pink or wear silk uniforms. I can picture you leading the parade all wrapped in feathers. Im not homophobic, by the way. But each of us should accept his true nature. You have no right to talk about the army, the army is very foreign to what you are. You have to show respect.
Pronouncements such as these are often followed by proclamations of alleged love for gays, and a tender commitment to multiculturalism.
What Chavista opponentsbe they escuálidos, patos, or Gringo-Zionist-Imperialistshave in common is shit. Chávez routinely calls his opponents plastas (lumps of shit). Thus, in an aggressive speech the day after a key 2007 referendum, Chávez, dressed in military garb and surrounded by the highest- ranking of his armed forces, referred to the oppositions victory as a victory of shit. The army, described by Ceresole as the third point on the Chavista triangle of fundamental direct relationships, were publicly incarnated as the force of containment: the military brass were present at the speech to warn the opposition against getting overly enthusiastic about its victory of shit. The metaphor is perhaps symptomatic of Chavista hysteria with regard to the opposition. It is not easy to keep shit in its place.
As hard as Chávez tries to reduce all opposition to an internal oligarchy backed by imperialism, his enemies proliferate: workers unions, the student movement, the church, civil society organizations.
The sacking of the Tiferet Israel synagogue produced an outcry from the local and the international press. As criticism turned louder, Chávezs initial position became untenable. Given his tendency to conflate opposition, imperialism, and the Jews, the possibility of a Jewish plot suggested itself. But, under pressure, Chávez backed away from that theory and instructed his minister to find the culprits, which he did within a week. The offenders were prosecuted, and Chávez insisted that freedom of religion was and would continue to be respected in Venezuela.
Reducing anti-Semitism to a form of religious intolerance, however, is a subterfuge. Chávezs focus on religious pluralism drew attention away from his unrepentant attacks on Jews, and his regimes use of the figure of the Jew as the supreme incarnation of abjection, a stand-in for any opposition. These are his real targets. Whether the perpetrators of the synagogue attack were following instructions from above or were merely vandals hiding behind the governments anti-Semitic rhetoric is to a large degree irrelevant. As such gangs thrive, the state itself is increasingly responsible.
From the time of the Dreyfus Affair, modern anti-Semitism has been connected to anxieties related to national integritynot to religious pluralism per se. Indeed, in Venezuela freedom of religion has never been an issue; there are too many Protestants, too many Catholics, and even enough Jews and Muslims to ensure that abolishing freedom of religion is politically inviable.
However, neither can it be said that religion is unimportant. In the war between the people of love and the people of shit, religious symbolism comes in handy. Consider this: to express solidarity with Palestinians during the recent war in Gaza, Venezuelas foreign minister led an official delegation, all members donning a keffiyeh, to a Caracas mosque. Venezuelan leftist opposition leader and editor Teodoro Petkoff pointed out that Chávez has reduced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a war of religion. Chávez identified the Palestinian cause with the cause of Islam (implicitly siding with Hamas over the Palestinian Authority), and identified the Venezuelan nation with Islam, just as he has identified Judaism with the Empire. Chavista graffiti ties the Star of David to the Swastika; it also proclaims that Islam is our Patrimony. Chávezs anti-Semitism is about war, a religious war of sorts. This posture poisons the discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli question, inhibiting a just and productive argument from the left.
For Venezuelas Jews, Bolivarian anti-Semitism casts doubt on their national belonging. After the synagogue attack, the Jewish community got the message, and protesters marched, showing their national identity cards. In recent years, the Jewish community in Venezuela has shrunk some 20 percent.
Presidential indulgence in a politics of denigration also erodes the promise of the Venezuelan progressive movement by making open discussion of the class and race issues that divide the country impossible. Like its distant cousin, Peronism, Chavismos reliance on confrontation and brinkmanship extinguishes the possibility of open dialogue on practically any delicate issue. Indeed, the costs of Bolivarian anti-Semitism are at least as heavy for the broader society as they are for the Jewish community; all oppositional discourse is banished to the terrain of the foreign and the treasonous.
Chavista anti-Semitism is a symptom of the weakness of the regime itself. From its inception, Chávezs government has been unable either to bend the inherited state apparatus fully to its will, or to abolish it and replace it with its own revolutionary design. The Bolivarian Revolution has thus developed within the constraints of certain democratic practices, where the entitlements of consumers, labor unions, government bureaucracies, community organizations, and property owners must be taken into account, if not necessarily respected.
In classic Leninist theory, old regime structures and emerging revolutionary institutions were to coexist for a brief transitional period. In Chávezs Venezuela, on the contrary, the duality has become endemic, compromising state accountability. Paramilitary groups, drug mafias, high crime rates, death squads, and corruption thrive.
This dual structure is the context that frames and explains Chávezs politics of distractionhis verbal antics and his reliance on unpredictable and spectacular policy innovations. The direct connection that Chávez has tried to forge with (some of) the people further undermines structures of administrative mediation. Opposition and dissatisfaction are therefore constant threats to the presidency itself. In such a scenario, a rhetoric that reduces all political friction to a single cause, to a single common enemy, is useful indeed. However, if history is any guide, ideologies of this sort have an elective affinity with dictatorship rather than democracy. When a regime relies on populism, military uniforms, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, it is time to worry.
Update on this article: Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez, A Necessary Critique
1) For Ceresole's Holocaust denial, see Caudillo, ejército, pueblo: la Venezuela del Comandante Chávez, Madrid, Estudios hispanos-árabes, 2000: 14-27.
Claudio Lomnitz, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, is author of Death and the Idea of Mexico and Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism.
Rafael Sánchez teaches in the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. His forthcoming book is Dancing Jacobins: A Genealogy of Latin American Populism.
Update on this article: Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez, A Necessary Critique
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