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Next Year in Caracas

Plans to join a Seder in Caracas are interrupted when Tablet’s correspondent is kicked out of Venezuela by state security forces on the eve of Passover

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein
April 25, 2019
Montage: Kurt Hoffman
Montage: Kurt Hoffman
Montage: Kurt Hoffman
Montage: Kurt Hoffman

These are the days of affliction.

These are the days, not unlike those our ancestors lived through in Egypt, where brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers are hungry and unfree.

It is 11 p.m. Thursday night, the day before Passover begins, and I am sitting on the floor of Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2F, my few remaining possessions scattered all around me. I was supposed to be in Venezuela right now, a country I had been visiting as a journalist for the last few months after a conflict over political legitimacy had left the country in chaos. I was supposed to be leaning ever so slightly at a Seder table in Caracas and celebrating this festival of freedom, but instead I found myself in captivity.

I had prepared everything for weeks. After spending over two months in Venezuela, I had found a second family within what remains of the Jewish community in what is considered one of the most dangerous and chaotic countries in the world; a country in the midst of a political and humanitarian crisis, struggling for its freedom. When I touched down at the airport in Maiquetia, entering the land of the Pharaoh, the poetry of the moment wasn’t lost on me.

The Jewish community in Venezuela has diminished from around 30,000 individuals to 6,000 since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, but the ones who remain have bonded together and managed to overcome many of the issues that plague the rest of the Jewish world. There are no clear divisions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi and, as I could clearly tell as soon as I walked into the Hebraica community center in downtown Caracas, they all share a safe space in an otherwise perilous city. Hebraica is where the Jewish children of Caracas go to school, from kindergarten to 12th grade and where they spend their free time under the watchful eye of a privately contracted security force that provides a level of public safety that the often-corrupt Venezuelan police never could. There is a sense of life in a gilded cage here but it is also so much more than that; those who have remained carry the torch for all the others who one day hope to return.

Por eso eres deportado.

This time, I could sense that something was different the moment I stepped off the plane. The official at the front of the immigration line looked at me as if he knew me, then looked at his phone and hurried off to his colleagues farther down the hall. I told myself it would be fine, that I am being paranoid for no reason, but just as that thought begins to settle in my mind, a GNB soldier, a member of the Venezuelan National Guard, approached me.

“You need to come with me.”

He is holding a piece of paper and I can’t see what it says but I can see the familiar abbreviation—to: DGCIM—the center of Venezuela’s military intelligence.

More soldiers show up and I have no choice but to follow them, from the open hall to the enclosed space marked “special security.” I keep asking, over and over, what is happening and why but no one is speaking to me as I am escorted down the stairs and into the departure hall. Three soldiers stand around me while the fourth says something in rapid Spanish, his words blur but I catch the last part as if it was said in slow motion.

“Estás siendo deportado.”

Everything happens so fast. The soldiers escort me on the plane, place me in my seat and walk off—all to the curious stares of my fellow passengers. I’m crying, despite every effort not to, and just as the hostess starts to make her rounds I post a series of desperate tweets, telling the world that I have been deported.

I first arrived in Venezuela 10 weeks ago, and I never could have guessed that it would end up becoming my second home. There was something there in this people’s struggle for freedom that spoke to me as a Jew; perhaps it was their commitment to their people and land despite it punishing them at every turn; or perhaps it’s the hope they all share, defying logic and circumstance. Six days of reporting turned into two weeks and by the time I touched down Thursday, I was entering my third month with no clear end in sight.

The Maduro regime systematically represses free speech and punishes dissent; working within that system means adapting to constant surveillance and bursts of violence from one or many arms of the government. During my time in Venezuela I have had more than one close call, and even though I’m not given a reason I have little doubt that my deportation is a direct result of the high-profile work I have done over the past two months, reporting on everything from paramilitary groups and mass starvation to the systematic arrests of political dissidents. My own problems are nothing compared to what Venezuelans go through every day far from the public eye, and the minorities in the country enjoy even less protection. The Jews who speak out are twice as vulnerable as others, and faced with ever-present rumors of of dual loyalties and Mossad connections. Most, therefore, usually don’t speak out but rather keep themselves to themselves and try to stay under the regime radar.

I spent the entirety of the nine-hour flight from Caracas to Paris staring blankly into space, trying to make sense of what had happened. The previous morning I had packed my Haggadah, anxiously excited to meet another branch of our family, and now for the first time since as long as I could remember I was about to spend Passover alone.

Once I turn on my phone, it starts beeping with alerts from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. There are messages from exiled Venezuelans around the world: from Madrid, Norway, New York, and Palermo, and each one is inviting me to a Seder in their home. There are over 100 messages and I read through them all, though they are nearly identical, and tears stream down my face as I do. It is the story of an exiled nation, and as I sit on the floor of Terminal 2F I have never felt closer to my people.

I don’t have wine or matzo, but I do have my Haggadah, one of few things not taken from me. It’s not much, but it’s still everything, and I go through the text by myself in company of the exiled on the other side of that phone.

Sure, there will be no parted sea and no miracles to assist the Venezuelans as they walk toward Miraflores, but there are similarities in the journeys of a people in exodus and lessons to be learned from the Jewish tradition of turning history into living memory through the art of storytelling.

This night is different from all other nights because I am sitting here in forced exile on what is not only the eve of Passover but also Venezuela’s Independence Day, in the midst of a makeshift celebration of one people’s freedom while awaiting another’s. This day, chaotic and imperfect as it is, brings me closer to my own history and adds an urgency to the words that, until this point, have been part of a ceremonial recital.

Once I get back home, I call up the Chacons, the family whose Seder I was supposed to attend in Caracas. Before I can even start to explain what has happened they tell me they already know.

The whole community was talking about it at services yesterday. You’re all over the news here and the trolls are saying you were here to infiltrate because, you know, the Jewish thing.

I feel guilty, hearing that, because I worry it will somehow come back to haunt my new friends, even though I have been extremely careful about publicizing my presence within the Jewish community. My visits to shul, my shabbaton, those are pretty much the only things I never really wrote or tweeted about, but given my latest run-ins with the regime, my fellow Jews may end up suffering anyway.

While we speak I go on Twitter to check my mentions and I see what the Chacons are saying. Government trolls have made memes of me, my face next to Trump, Bibi, and the Israeli flag, and of course, less than subtle hints at me being a Mossad agent. I apologize to my friends for possibly having put them in the spotlight of the police state but they offer me an audible scoff in response.

This is our life here, you do get that? We always wonder if the eye of Sauron will be focused on us, it is part of what it is to be a Jew here.

So why in the world would they stay? Why wouldn’t they make aliyah or just leave this place when they are walking in the shadows of Mordor?

This is our home and we refuse to be chased out of it. It’s not just petulance though, we actually love this country. We love Israel but this is our home and one day, be’ezrat Hashem soon, it will make all of this worth our while, all the waiting and all the pain will be worth it when we are free.

And I get it. I understand this diaspora experience and, even though mine is in no way this chaotic or dangerous, I understand love and loyalty to your country of birth, despite all the heartbreak it puts you through.

We chat for a bit about the upcoming pro-Guaido rallies and what comes next for them and all the others and all agree that while the intensity builds, the final push is still a ways away.

We all wished it would come now, because it would be so beautiful if we gained our freedom on Passover, but I guess history doesn’t really care about being poetic

One day, the Venezuelan people will tell the story of their harrowing journey to freedom; from how the dictator’s resolve strengthened despite the many plagues put upon his people, to the way they made it across those treacherous waters, finding that one last bit of fight within themselves, against all odds. One day, generations from now, the story will turn into fiction for the ancestors of those who lived it and that is when it must be made to come alive again by their children’s children.

This year is not like the others, and despite the heartache I feel right now I am ever grateful. This year the story of my ancestors was infused with new meaning by a people still writing theirs.

So I say, next year in Jerusalem, and next year in Caracas.

Next year in freedom, for us all.


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Annika Hernroth Rothstein is a Swedish journalist and author who has been reporting from Venezuela for the past 2 months. Her first book, Exile, Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, will be published by Bombardier Books in January 2020.