"There is no anti-Semitism in Venezuela, we don't know what that is," declared Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, in his recent two-day trip to Los Angeles to discuss his country's Bolivarian Revolution and the changing political landscape of Latin America.
In the past, Venezuelan Jews would have agreed. However, events over the past few years have caused the local and international Jewish communities to revisit their opinion.
Two years ago, an unsubstantiated armed government search of a Jewish day school terrified parents and children. There were no accusations of anti-Semitism, but the Jewish community was on edge.
On Christmas Eve 2005, though, President Hugo Chávez made remarks that set off a furor.
"The world has an offer for everybody, but some minorities," he stated, "the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones who threw out [South American liberator Simon] Bolivar ... they took possession of all the planet's gold ... concentrated the riches in a few hands; less than 10 percent of the world population owns more than half of the riches of the world."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center immediately condemned the speech, demanding an apology for what it termed Chavez's invocation of the "canard of the deicide and the association of Jews with wealth."
Separately, about 250 Venezuelan intellectuals protested the remarks with a full-page ad in the major Venezuelan newspaper.
However, the major Jewish confederation, known by its acronym CAIV, supported by the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, issued its own statement -- criticizing the Wiesenthal Center for jumping to conclusions and acting without consulting the local community: "You have interfered in the political status, in the security, and in the well-being of our community. You have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don't know or understand."
Supporters of Chávez explained away the anti-Semitic interpretations of his comment by citing the president's adherence to "Liberation Theology," which views Jesus as a socialist and the elite classes responsible for his crucifixion. The result was utter confusion.
Traditional roles and relationships are changing in Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America. Two polarized camps are emerging, aggressively challenging the status quo: one aligned with the West and the other with the left. Meanwhile, local Jewish communities walk a tightrope, trying to balance patriotism, respect for their leaders and issues of security.
The backdrop for these developments is Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution. To advance the revolution, Alvarez recently spoke at activist and former state Sen. Tom Hayden's house in Los Angeles. He enthusiastically described the revolution to an eclectic crowd of about 30 people -- mainly supporters. They were inspired by Chávez's "new model" for the region, with its promise to overturn traditional inequalities, both on national and international levels.
This "new model," asserted the ambassador, challenges the ineffectiveness of "neo-liberalism" and proposes to replace it with a "participatory democracy," in which "what seemed like apartheid" and "social exclusion" will become things of the past.
At home, the approach entails the aggressive implementation of educational and health programs. Abroad, it means a direct challenge to the United States and the West in general, as it views "socialism as the only solution against U.S. imperialism."
Overall, the approach is fueled by high oil prices and know-how from Chávez's closest ally, Fidel Castro.
Critics complain about Chávez's autocratic style, an erosion of civil liberties and property rights, as well as ineffectiveness of his economic policies. But it is his foreign policy that is causing more concerns.
In his backyard, Chávez is fostering ties with a growing number of like-minded countries in Latin America. The result is a virulent anti-American leftist bloc emerging in the region, aligning itself with foes of America and Israel. As an illustration of the tenor among this alliance, Evo Morales, the newly elected president of Bolivia, has vowed to be "Washington's worst nightmare."
Rallying solidarity around this anti-American sentiment, Chávez has been publicly preparing for what he states is an imminent U.S. invasion, threatening to cut oil exports at the first sign of aggression.
As Chávez advances his foreign policy goals, he is strengthening ties with his OPEC partners. In particular, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chávez -- who warmly refers to Ahmadinejad as a "great ally of brothers" -- are getting closer. The two leaders reportedly signed a commercial deal estimated at $1 billion, through which Venezuela has invited many Iranians to provide technical, scientific and economic support all around the country.
Recently, Venezuela added its voice to Syria's and Cuba's against a UN resolution to report Tehran to the Security Council for its violation of IAEA nuclear safeguards. For this, Ahmadinejad commended Chávez for his "brave and judicious decision."
Further provoking concerns, Venezuela's Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel recently announced that he would receive Hamas in Venezuela "with pleasure," adding, "What's the problem with that?"
Still, the government insists that Chávez wants good relations with all religious groups. Officially, its position has remained supportive of the local Jewish community. Ambassador Alvarez was emphatic: "The opposition is manipulating the situation, not out of true concern for Israel or anti-Semitism, but out of a desire to harass this government. There is no anti-Semitism in Venezuela. In fact, President Chávez was invited to and attended a Holocaust commemoration event."
With regard to Venezuela's ties to Iran and its president's announced desire to "wipe Israel off the map," Alvarez stated, "We have indeed had good relations with Iran for 40 years. However, we do not agree with those comments. We don't believe in any type of exclusion, nor in terrorism of any kind."
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 email@example.com.