Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
With no protest to watch I took the cable car up the Ávila, riding high into the misty cool cloud cover and up over the bustle and chaos of a Latin American capital, looking down on the place that so many Jews had called home. From above, it seemed a precious, fertile valley. It was easy to summon some of the awe and relief those immigrants must have felt landing here 100, 60, 30 years ago, but also easy to summon their anguish now. But surely they weren’t afraid of nutters like Hindu Anderi.
One early afternoon, I hopped the packed metro to La Candelaria and walked up a grid of narrow streets, past the series of tascas—smoky 1970s-style tapas joints opened by a wave of Spanish and Portuguese immigrants escaping Franco—that lent the neighborhood its old-world feel. The sidewalks were crowded with vendors hawking sewing kits, used clothes, and pirated CDs, and pushing shopping carts piled with sad-looking apricots, over-plump grapes, and pungent soursop for sale. This was the lower-class neighborhood with the expropriated Sambil, the one that was supposed to be for the poor, an experiment in urban renewal. It had been built nearly to completion, with almost all of the 273 stores leased, when it was shut down, fulfilling the prophecy Chávez had made on television a year and a half before. That’s how I found it: encircled by chain-link fences, ripped plastic tarps flapping, an empty shell, its garage officially squatted by thousands.
I checked in with the military police unit that was manning a gateway on the parking entrance ramp while some artists on scaffolding painted a riotous mural there. On that first floor, thin windowed walls had been used to make rooms for training programs, a childcare center, a medical post, and administrative offices, and the feel was of a bustling aircraft carrier on a relief mission, temporary and adrift. On the eight floors of parking deck above, there was row after row of shelters, clothes dangling outside, children running everywhere, idleness.
In Kasbah, a tapas bar a block from the shopping center, I chatted with the owner, born in the Canary Islands and, like many of the Candelaria residents, still hanging on to his Spanish guttural lisp. He deplored the state of his neighborhood and the missed opportunity for the first new development since he’d moved there in the mid 1970s. Did he know that Cohen was Jewish? “Claro,” he said, of course. Was the expropriation directed against him because of that? “Not at all,” he said. “Cohen’s just rich, and Chávez hates the rich.”
Representatives and acquaintances of Cohen, widely considered to be one of the richest Venezuelans, relayed to me that he was declining to comment, given his precarious political situation. CAIV president Salomón Botbol insisted that Cohen wasn’t going anywhere, and then expressed his admiration for how cavalierly the builder had absorbed the massive loss, which would have devastated a less deep-pocketed man. Other of his projects, including a number of high-rise apartment towers for lower-middle-class clients, directly across from the Mariperez synagogue, remained under construction. But Cohen had also notably started a number of new ventures across the Caribbean, hedging his bets.
“The decision to migrate is a neatly personal one,” Botbol had told me a few days before. Everyone here is caught between the opposing imperatives of families wishing to stay together and economic, social, and political pressure to move to avoid financial collapse. Then there is the Jewish duty to maintain traditions—the fear of assimilation. In Caracas, for 60 years, waves of Jewish immigrants built Jewish institutions of enormous influence. Today they are, like many Jewish institutions, tethered by geography and of limited reach. Botbol, Isaac, Spira, Rabbi Brenner, young people like Alan Vainrub all placed their faith in communication technologies—gossamer lifelines: video calls, voice-over-Internet protocols, email, chat. This was supposed to keep a community together? I told Botbol I couldn’t see it and pressed him about the mourning associated with inevitable loss. But he refused to think of what is happening here as the end of a community and a way of life. “This is grief for having lost an old and aging family member, who lived a full life—not for an entire family,” he said.
Alan Vainrub, now 29, married the Costa Rican girlfriend he met in Boston. “We decided to go back to Latin America,” he told me by phone from San José, a place he called “the closest we could get to our roots.” At a Jewish engagement ceremony in Caracas, before their wedding in Costa Rica, Rabbi Brenner offered a blessing to the young couple. He praised how far Alan had come: his Harvard MBA, his lovely Jewish bride, and the future that awaited them in Central America. And he talked about Vainrub’s father, one of the community’s leading physicians, who was still running the medical practice responsible for a large portion of those Jews who remained. The day Vainrub’s father left, Brenner said, would mean the end of the Venezuelan community, because who would care for the sick? And who else was left in Caracas save for the old and sick?
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