These are sad days for the Jewish community in Venezuela as many begin to question whether this country, once so hospitable to Jewish life, can still be called home.
As the country faces nearly its sixth week of a devastating strike calling for early elections or the resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venzuela's economy, already set to shrink by 6 percent this year, has been hurled into utter chaos. Poverty levels are estimated at 80 percent -- a tragedy for one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in Latin America.
The economic deterioration that began with the Latin America debt crisis of 1983 and has continued unabated is now coming to a head under the rule of Chávez. A former army officer and ex-coup leader, Chávez has initiated a self-styled "revolution" marked by fiery, anti-wealth rhetoric and little action. His close ties to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and leftist policies have deeply polarized the country, with two entrenched camps on both sides of the strike -- neither of which is showing any signs of backing down. After a month of paralysis, more people are armed, food and supplies are growing scarce, and oil production has ground to almost a halt. The nation is on the brink of chaos, and anything could happen.
Venezuela's present predicament is particularly disappointing. Once viewed as a beacon of democracy in a region dominated by military dictatorships, Venezuela had enjoyed nearly a half-century of stability and economic growth -- thanks largely to its great reserves of oil. The resulting opportunities drew substantial numbers of Jews to Venezuela.
Although Jews began immigrating to Venezuela at the beginning of the 19th century, it was not until after World War II that most Jews arrived and formed a strong and vibrant community. The Jewish population received yet another boost after the Six-Day War in 1967, when a large influx of Sephardi Jews from Morocco arrived and settled mostly in the capital of Caracas.
At the peak of the boom years, the '60s and '70s, it was estimated that affiliated Jews numbered approximately 30,000, split evenly between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Middle-to-upper-class professionals and business owners established associations, schools, synagogues and community centers. They developed deep ties to the country and a strong sense of patriotism. They acculturated and settled into a comfortable "live-and-let-live" rapport with the government -- the government welcomed the community and the Jewish community kept a low profile.
A snapshot of the Jewish community at present shows a different picture. On the economic front, many Jews, just as the population at large, are slowly being squeezed out of the middle class. Once lucrative professions now barely pay enough to make ends meet. An experienced university professor, for example, now makes approximately $200-$300 a month. This forces professionals to become small entrepreneurs, or leave.
Dr. Marcko Glijenschi, founding member of the Confederation of Israeli-Venezuelan Associations, an umbrella organization that organizes the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Venezuela, reports a notable increase in assistance recipients. An average caseload prior to Chávez was around 100 cases; it now is approximately 400. In addition, the requests are changing from items such as matzah and candles to staples, such as soap or toothpaste.
Another telling event is the recent closure of one of the campuses of the well-established day school in the old Jewish neighborhood of San Bernardino in Caracas. The 450-student school was under financial strain. Its capacity to provide aid to an increasing number of families requesting scholarships, or enrolling their children and not keeping up with payments, became impaired by the simultaneous reduction in donations.
All this may seem reminiscent of Argentina. But according to Venezuelan community leaders, the Jewish community's present predicament is not the same. Argentina's social structure was different, with a large Jewish proletariat class. By contrast, Venezuela's Jews are mostly middle to upper class. Argentina has seen a full quarter of its Jewish population slip into poverty, while in Venezuela, the Jewish community's economic problems are, so far, small enough to be handled locally, within the community. Resources are strained, however, and time is running out. The red flags have been raised, prompting a visit from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to instruct community leaders as to what to do if the situation deteriorates.
Although these events are alarming, the greatest current threat to the community is widespread emigration. Since the 1980s, Jews have been gradually emigrating due to worsening economic conditions. Under Chávez, the trend has become dramatic. Glijenschi comments that prior to Chávez's election in 1998, the population of affiliated Jews numbered 20,000; now, it has shrunk to 14,000.
The custom of sending college-age children abroad -- often to the United States -- to get a university education and then return to settle in Caracas, is now turning into a slow emigration pattern. Children are no longer encouraged to return. In addition, many Venezuelans are physically leaving the country, but still keeping business ties. Finally, young professionals facing an unpromising future are being forced to leave. Just recently, for example, 250 professional Jewish Venezuelans met in Miami to discuss prospects for immigration to the United States and a new life. Understandably, the mood has become bleak and pessimism prevails. Will the community survive?
Rabbi Pynchas Brener, head rabbi of La Unión Israelita, a large modern Orthodox temple that also runs a day school and community center for approximately 1,500 families, sees three potential scenarios, all linked to the outcome of the present conflict: If Chávez stays in office, and continues present policies, Jews will continue to emigrate at the rate of 2 percent to 3 percent a year, slowly but systematically shrinking the community; if Chávez succeeds in his Castro-style "Bolivarian Revolution" and implements extreme leftist policies, 50 percent of the community would leave rapidly; and, if Chávez loses the present conflict and resigns, the community would be invigorated by the return of 30 percent to 50 percent of the recent emigrants.
Ena Rotkopf, director of the Venezuelan Federation of Jewish Women, agreed: "If the situation changes, I have no doubt that those who emigrated will return because our community is very united, the country is beautiful, and the Jews who left have very deep ties. Our present leaders are all graduates of our day schools, they love their community, they love their country."
Julie Drucker, a language and marketing consultant for the Latin market, grew up in Venezuela and lives in Los Angeles. She can be reached at JulieDrucker@yahoo.com.