Venezuela: Is Chavez Responsible for Pre-Referendum Violence?

by Dan Aspan*
Special to iVoryTowerz

The tensions rising against religious groups in Venezuela could cause a violent clash in the near future. Just over a week ago, a group of armed men vandalized the biggest synagogue in Caracas. Days later, unidentified people on a motorcycle lobbed tear gas canisters into a Vatican mission compound in Venezuela's capital city. Both groups presumed to be responsible for the attacks are radical supporters of President Hugo Chavez’ socialist regime. While Chavez has condemned both incidents, there is no denying they have caused a profound schism in Venezuelan society. There is no question that anti-Semitism and religious intolerance are at the center of the issue. The recent acts of desecration have not come as a response to a specific event or action. They are completely random and suggest the dangerous possibility that the situation will only get worse before it gets better.

To add to the tension, a crucial plebiscite will take place in Venezuela on February 15. Venezuelans will go to the polls and vote on an amendment proposed by Chavez, which would extend his term beyond its scheduled end in 2012.

Although Chavez and his government are saying the right things to condemn these recent attacks, many believe his followers are carrying them out. His radical views are inspiring acts of utter disrespect and hatred. One thing Chavez chooses to ignore is that his often irrational and indignant attitude sparks the same behavior in those who follow him. However, he can’t sacrifice his political image by taking part in ransacking a synagogue, so his followers can do it for him.

Although Chavez may not explicitly say that a synagogue should be desecrated, he has taken a stance on Israel that serves only to instill anti-Semitic sentiments in his people. (State television in Venezuela has run a number of reports highly critical of Israel and its attacks on Gaza.)

Whether Chavez supports the attacks or not, he knows that his scope of influence is great in his country. By using his rhetoric and attitude, he can’t be surprised that this type of violence happens. Chavez is not a fool, and many of his political tactics are ploys to deliberately manipulate those who listen to him. If you listen to some of his criticism of former President George W. Bush, you get an idea of how over the top Chavez loves to be.

If Chavez’ term is extended, this will arguably mark the end of democracy in Venezuela. Chavez has made it clear that he wishes to remain as Venezuela’s leader for as long as possible. Although he will have popular support, there will be no end to this type of anti-religious violence in Venezuela. Until Chavez actually does something greater to instill a message of condemnation in his people for these random acts of aggression, he might as well be the one writing “Jews get out” on the walls of the synagogue.

*Dan Aspan is the producer of Latinocast, a weekly podcast about Latin America.

(For more background on Gaza, please see: "Gaza's Crumbling Ceasefire: A Reaction." For more background on Chavez and Venezuela, please see: "Chavez Loses in Venezuela, so has Democracy Won?" and "Venezuela's Media War: The Latest Battle.")

(The photo is from a celebration in Caracas in 2008 and is not from recent protests or demonstrations; the photo is by Surizar of Guatemala via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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Rick Rockwell said...

Because it is apparent this post is now being read in Venezuela, I feel compelled to add my own postscript.

Although some of this may be correct, especially the fact that if Chavez has his term extended it will likely damage democracy, unfortunately, this post has the usual tone that one might expect from commentators in the U.S. Arguably, Chavez has done more for a democratic tradition and breaking with the Venezuelan oligarchic power structure than any other president in at least the past century. He has left a strong legacy in Venezuela that the powers of the elite will find hard to erase. He has siphoned power away from merely the upper classes. For that he should be congratulated.

This is not to excuse anti-Semitism. This is not to excuse violence. And this is not to excuse Chavez for often using the bully pulpit of the presidency to insight reactions among his followers. This is not the first time Chavez’ words or the steady drumbeat of information from state media may have pushed volatile elements in Venezuelan society to act out violently.

But it is important to remember the situation in Venezuela is not one dimensional. There’s more context for what is happening, and Chavez is not the evil clown that some would make him out to be.

Postscript: As one of the administrators of the blog, I should note a comment left in this piece was erased. The comment was a link to video of President Barack Obama’s first news conference. As Obama did not speak about Venezuela or the Venezuelan situation, this administrator regarded it as a bit of political spam and discarded it. However, perhaps others feel differently and think it should have stayed. We are open to discussion and debate on that issue. Perhaps the better place to put such links is on the latest post which deals in an off-hand manner with Obama’s press conference.

Rick Rockwell said...

Another Update: Because of the crush of media in the U.S. about the religious attacks in Venezuela, the press office of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C. sent out a media advisory on Feb. 10. This blog was included in the mailing list. Here is an excerpt of that release:

“President Chávez and high-level government officials immediately and categorically denounced the attack on the synagogue, and called for a quick, yet thorough investigation that has resulted, so far, in the arrests of 15 people, including a former bodyguard of the synagogue’s Rabbi.

“The fact that this isolated, if yet abominable, incident has been used for some as proof of anti-Semitism in Venezuela shows how eager some are to discredit the Chavez government without foundation.”

For more on the arrests, which included a group made up primarily of police from Caracas, please read this piece (in English) from Venezuela’s El Universal.

Rick Rockwell said...

Update No. 3: For those who may have missed it, The Washington Post just ran an opinion piece echoing many of Dan's sentiments here, with a few more details about why they reached similar conclusions. You can find the piece here.

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