Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
Once their steamer landed at Venezuela’s Guaira port, Spira’s new husband led her around the littoral Ávila mountain to the central, residential neighborhood of La Candelaria in Caracas. The weather was warm, and rain came in pleasant, nourishing showers. The mountain formed a blazing-green curtain behind the peaceful capital. The house had a live-in maid. And there was a small, growing community of Yiddish-, German-, Romanian-, and Hungarian-speaking Jews, who, like Spira, though deshechos, or spent, were eager to leave behind the horrors of Europe and were busy establishing themselves. Spira quickly realized the emptiness of the idea of going back to Israel.
Venezuela rewarded her husband’s hard work. He prospered, and their partnership solidified into a happy marriage. She became the matriarch of a burgeoning family. But when I asked Spira if she felt Venezuelan, she let out a long sigh. “I’m Jewish. I’m a Jew,” she said, acknowledging that she knew it was a wrong answer of sorts. She spoke of the children she’d borne in Venezuela, and of her gratitude toward the country, and then tried again: “Of course I feel Venezuelan,” she said. “But I’m a Jew first. When I pray, I pray toward Jerusalem.” In the last couple of years, though, despite her deep desire to never set foot in Eastern Europe again or “know anything about them,” Spira obtained a Slovakian passport, so that her children and grandchildren could also have a European Union passport—for, she said, “a last resort.” But Spira refused to imagine the worst. “I want to hope,” she said about Venezuela under Chávez. “I went through worse times than this. I saw more dangerous situations than this.”
By 2008, a year after Chávez nationalized major oil operations and on the heels of his successful seizures of cement, steel, and banking industries, Chávez’s political plan seemed to be gathering steam. After nine years in office, the president had deftly handled a potentially hostile military by allowing corruption to flourish and then threatening to crack down on it and by setting factions against each other. Massive street demonstrations had failed to topple him. And with the price of oil skyrocketing from under $10 a barrel when he was first elected to well over $100 midway through his tenure, Chávez sat on untold cash reserves for funneling to whatever politically expedient boondoggle should require it. He hadn’t hesitated to shore up his support with the underclass by promising, and sometimes delivering, housing, social programs, and a host of other populist endeavors. The signposts of these social improvement schemes are easily recognizable, if not always completed, all over Caracas: half-built architecturally ambitious cultural centers, officially squatted apartment blocks, patriotic paint jobs in the boxy stacked slums known as ranchos. Having thoroughly polarized the country along class lines, and with his opposition continually in disarray and disunion—or, as is currently the case, under direct legal attack—Chávez in 2010 slashed national medical and academic wages, increased business regulation, and set in motion a wave of expropriations now numbering in the hundreds of private enterprises, from banks to cattle ranches to shopping centers.
Under acute social and economic pressure, by 2007, Caracas had grown statistically even more dangerous than Baghdad. Indoor shopping malls became disproportionately important to Venezuelans, as havens where long afternoons and evenings could be spent without fear of mugging, car theft, or a stray bullet. Some of the most popular of these shopping centers were owned by a prominent Jewish industrialist, Salomón Cohen Levy. Cohen’s entertainment centers were called Sambils, and they were so successful in this new, more dangerous Venezuela that he had opened branches across the country and broken ground on a center in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
In December 2008, the biggest and newest of the Sambils was set to be a hulking brick-and-cement structure occupying a full city block in La Candelaria, the central, once-partly-Jewish neighborhood where Trudy Spira had first landed. Sambil La Candelaria, a privately funded project that began with the support of the municipal authorities, was supposed to transform this dilapidated district with an injection of commerce and city life. But on Dec. 21 of that year, Chávez went on state television for his 323rd edition of Aló Presidente, his variety-slash-work talk show, and said, “How is it that they are going to build in the heart of La Candelaria a—what do they call it?—a Sambil? No, no, and no.” He directed his next line to the district’s mayor, present and wearing a red baseball cap, like the rest of the audience: “It’s in your hands, Mr. Mayor, but it can’t be allowed.” And then, as if as an afterthought, sounding very much like a whim, Chavez said, “We’re going to expropriate that and turn it into a hospital, a university. No, no, and no. … The construction of socialism cannot deliver vital areas of the people to shopping and excessive consumerism.”
Two years later, on Nov. 2, 2010, agents encircled the structure and declared it nationalized. Fences were erected, and within months, over 3,000 “damnificados,” or people left homeless by acts of God, had been moved in to ramshackle dwellings in the parking garage.
Norman Eisen, an old friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, is bolstering the forces of liberalism as ambassador to the Czech Republic