Hugo Chávez is ramping up his assault on Venezuela’s upper class, and now a rare Jewish paradise is squarely in his sights. Can it be salvaged?
January 23, 2012
During a recent trip to Bogotá, Colombia, where I’d lived for years, I discovered that the wealthier parts of the city were filling up with an odd sort of super-refugee. The new arrivals were mainly rich Venezuelans fleeing an increasingly chaotic situation in their home country: oil execs booted out by nationalization, industrialists frustrated by the corrupt and increasingly hostile business environment, successful entrepreneurs and others displaced by a newly minted Russian-style oligarchy loyal to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. These transplants, many of them Jews, were arriving in the Colombian capital and prospering because they had tremendous skills and valuable international connections—and because they were coming with their social and business ties intact. Their first complaint was invariably about what they called “the security situation” in Caracas. That they found Bogotá to be an island of safety and peace by comparison was alarming.
Through some of these new Colombians, I was introduced to a man named Alan Vainrub. In 2005, Vainrub’s parents sat him down in their spacious apartment in Caracas, on the lush lower slopes of Ávila mountain, to talk about his future. Vainrub, then 23, held an engineering degree from the local Universidad Metropolitana and was happily employed at Procter & Gamble. He had designs on an overseas MBA, after he’d gained more work experience. But Vainrub’s father, a doctor, told him that the domestic political situation was getting worse under Chávez; by the following year, Vainrub’s father said, there might be hundreds of upper-class Venezuelans applying for business degrees, all looking for a way out.
Vainrub was in no hurry to leave. After all, he was the comfortable heir to one of the great flowerings of the Jewish postwar diaspora, third- and fourth-generation Venezuelans with education, social clout, and roots. Jews had first arrived in Venezuela from Curaçao, a haven from the Inquisition, in the 19th century. “Turcos”—the catch-all term for anyone of roughly Middle-Eastern coloring or north African descent, regardless of their religion—had been arriving in the country since the 1900s. And a long tradition of lenient immigration policies—especially after World War II, based in part on the need for expertise and manpower to exploit the country’s single most important resource, oil—meant that Europeans, Iberians, Chinese, Russians, and other Latin Americans were all welcome there. Venezuelans came in all colors and had intermarried for centuries, fashioning a fully mestizo culture brewed from the descendants of indigenous people, Spanish colonials, African slaves, and 20th-century immigrants. Jews were a tiny, accepted minority. People called each other affectionately demeaning nicknames, instead of epithets: mi vieja, mi gorda, mi negra.
But by the time Vainrub’s father sat him down, the Jewish community of Caracas, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, was in precipitous decline. The major cause of this decline was the 1998 election of Chávez—now the longest-serving head of state in the Western hemisphere. After surviving an ouster by coup in 2002, and pushing through constitutional reform to end presidential term limits, Chávez, who declared his recent battle against cancer won, now openly projects his rule into the middle of the 21st century. He has declared the next 10 years to be the Bronze Age of the Bolivarian Revolution, a hybrid of populism and socialism soldered onto a Napoleonic personality cult. The Bronze Age is to be followed by an intermediary Silver Age, and then concluded, beginning in 2031, with the Golden Age of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Over the years, as Chávez’s brash populism has been buoyed by income from Venezuela’s vast, nationalized oil reserves, an object of his political manipulation has become the Caracas elite—“estos ricachones,” roughly translated: those fat cats, as he has dismissively referred to the upper class. In 2004, Chávez made his first official visit to Tehran and struck up a personal friendship and diplomatic alliance with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, whom he welcomed to Venezuela this month. This came after decades of political tutelage from another Holocaust denier, the Argentine ultra-nationalist Norberto Ceresole, who died in 2003 but who managed to instill a conspiratorial, amalgamated view of Jews in his pupil. Chávez has seemed to find in anti-Zionism, and later anti-Semitism, a valuable political tool, one that enhances, or makes more precise, his love of straw-man rhetoric and open hostility toward the United States, first against the bellicosity of George W. Bush and then against President Barack Obama, who remains an avatar of “imperialismo yanqui,” which has abetted “las oligarquias” in Latin America.
And so in 2006, Alan Vainrub entered Harvard Business School, hoping to return to Venezuela after graduation and rejoin the Jewish community of Caracas. But the intervening five years have made that dream seem foolish, if not suicidal. As the reality of Chávez’s durability has set in, nearly half of Venezuela’s Jewish community has fled from the social and economic chaos that the president has unleashed and from the uncomfortable feeling that they were being specifically targeted by the regime.
In this significant migration I saw the seeds of a story of dispossession and loss unlike any other in the hemisphere, a tale spanning five generations—from Europe to Israel to the Americas and back. What I found was at stake for people like Vainrub, his sister, his parents, his Caracas-born grandmother, and her German-born Jewish parents, was the very idea of a “Venezuelan Jew”—a patriotic, Latin-inflected, Holocaust-surviving, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, privileged, devout, convivial, passionate, Merengue-dancing, carefree, and idiosyncratic species. How dangerous must a situation get for a Jew to cut bait, to cast off the identity he had constructed for himself and his family as a person rooted in a particular place? I asked this question of everyone I met: What is your limit? When do you leave? On the one hand, there was the Jewish leader who made religion his measure. “I won’t stop being Jewish,” he told me. “If by staying I can’t be Jewish, then I’m not staying.” But many more seemed to have the tolerance of community association President Salomón Cohen Botbol. Just three weeks before I met him, Botbol’s oldest son, who had graduated from high school, had been kidnapped—allegedly by ransom-seeking delinquents. Understanding the situation of what they call “secuestro express,” Botbol said, meant he knew that the assault would be no more than a few unpleasant and costly hours—“the scariest of my life,” he said, but nothing out of the ordinary. An arrangement was made—Botbol declined to offer the details—and the family resumed its life. “In this case it wasn’t traumatic,” he said. “But there are traumatic cases.”
Wasn’t finding your son in mortal danger reason enough to abandon a sinking ship? “I’m not thinking of leaving,” he answered.
On Dec. 2, 2007, the day a constitutional referendum was held to abolish term limits, the Chávez government raided the undisputed hub of Jewish life in Caracas, the Colegio y Centro Social, Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica, the site of the main Jewish school and club. It was the second such invasion. This time, masked and armed police piled over the walls as elementary-school children arrived for class. The government claimed it was acting on a vague, anonymous tip that the club was harboring weapons, or was a front for Mossad. In both cases, the raids were officially declared “unfruitful.”