Venezuela and Israel: from Cautious Balance to Inflamed Rhetoric

Caracas used to have an equidistant stance in the Middle East since the creation of Israel. Chávez flipped our foreign policy and fully aligned with Hamas and Hezbollah

A version of this piece was originally published at our sister site, Cinco8.

The history of the relationship between Venezuela and Israel is a history of transitions: from the diplomacy of equilibrium during the civilian republic, to one infused with anti-Israel rhetoric in the chavista era. This history can be traced to what we see now in Venezuelan social media, where the battles of misinformation are fought, in the heated opinions and the dispatches from Venezuelans living in Israel, which is under fire by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad from Gaza.

By the end of the 1940s, Venezuela supported the creation of a Jewish state in what was then British-controlled Palestine. The members of the Venezuelan Pro-Palestine Committee (1946) were illustrious Venezuelans such as José Nucete Sardi, Andrés Eloy Blanco, Juan Liscano, Miguel Otero Silva, Mario Briceño Iragorry, Antonio Arráiz, Netty Bargrasser, and the journalist who funded the newspapers Mundo Israelita and Nuevo Mundo Israelita, Moisés Sananes.  

In September 1947, the Venezuelan government voted in the United Nations in favor of Resolution 181, about the partition of Palestine to create two states: one Jewish and one Arab. Venezuela established a relationship with nascent Israel and kept it until 2008, when Hugo Chávez, during one of the conflicts in Gaza, broke it and expelled the ambassador. 

The existence in Venezuela of a Jewish community, small but very active in many areas of Venezuelan society, made the relationship between both nations easier, besides the diplomatic formalities.

With that action, the chavista regime ended a long equidistant policy regarding the Middle East. The democratic administrations had close relationships with Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, due to the stellar role Venezuela had in OPEC since its foundation in 1960. In fact, there were moments when Venezuela’s foreign policy was relatively critical towards Israel. In his first presidency, Carlos Andrés Pérez became close to the Non-Aligned Movement, which meant a tilt towards the promotion of a Palestine state as part of the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Other democratic governments, in their role in OPEC and the South-South collaboration with other developing countries, kept a delicate balance between the links with Israel and the so-called Third World.

Venezuela and Israel established cooperation in agriculture, science, technology and the military. The Instituto Cultural Venezolano Israelí (ICVI), founded in 1956, has promoted cultural exchange between both countries (even if the diplomatic liaison is currently broken, the institute still works). It has sponsored the translation of Doña Bárbara, the Rómulo Gallegos novel, to Hebrew and Hebrew-Spanish editions of Diez poemas by Andrés Eloy Blanco and Olivos de eternidad by Vicente Gerbasi, among many others.  

Israeli politicians on all sides of the ideological spectrum visited Venezuela: Itzjak Rabín, Shimón Peres, Shlomo Ben Amí, Menahem Begin, Itzjak Shamir, Ariel Sharón, among many others ministers and members of the Knesset (parliament). 

The existence in Venezuela of a Jewish community, small but very active in many areas of Venezuelan society, made the relationship between both nations easier, besides the diplomatic formalities. Today, there’s a Venezuelan community in Israel, organized around Beit Venezuela,  the association that calls itself “the Venezuelan home in Israel.” 

The Turning Point

Soon after Chávez came to power, Venezuela started to lose its balance and prudent stance towards the Middle East. The first sign was Chávez’s relationship with Argentinean sociologist Norberto Ceresole, a writer linked to Iran and the Argentinean far-right military logia around Aldo Rico. Ceresole, who was openly anti-Semite and tended to negate the Holocaust, left Venezuela in 1999 by invitation of then Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel, because he had become an uncomfortable acquiescence for the government. But his ideas had an impact on Chávez and many of his collaborators, who strengthened their relationships with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and other Arab-Muslim groups with radical positions toward the West and Israel. 

After the relationship with Israel was broken in 2008, the Venezuelan government opened an embassy in Ramallah, and the Palestine Authority opened one in Caracas. From then on, Chávez and Maduro’s discourse has always been aligned with the Palestinian cause. In a recent statement, the Venezuelan regime said it “…expresses its most firm condemnation of the new violent and unjustifiable actions committed against the brotherly Palestinian people by the State of Israel, which include forced displacements of legitimate inhabitants of the Sheikh Jarrah community, as well as the inhumane execution of indiscriminate bombings against the civilian population. These events constitute a severe violation of the human rights of the Palestinian population and have increased precisely during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Even if the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry statement says that “respect for the resolutions of the United Nations can lead to a negotiated solution as the only way to peace and stability in the region,” the Maduro regime verbiage uses anti-Israeli formulas. For example, the statement mentions a “Zionist violence against the Palestinian people.” “Zionists” has a particular connotation in the radical speech and is associated with racism, colonialism, and supremacism when Zionism is nothing but the national Jewish movement for establishing a State in the ancestral land.

The chavista discourse regarding Israel and Judaism has gone for years in a direction that we can call intolerant, if not anti-Semite. Sometimes, the rhetoric turned to action. Chávez’s government ordered raids against the academy Colegio Hebraica Moral y Luces in Caracas in 2004 and 2007, when students would be arriving at school, with the excuse of searching for arms and explosives. Burglars broke in and vandalized the synagogue Tiféret Israel in downtown Caracas in January 2009, a few days after Chávez ended the relationship with Israel.

With the increase of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, it’s hard to think Venezuela will assume a more balanced stance. The fall of oil production has reduced its influence on countries such as Saudi Arabia. The Maduro regime is currently an ally to Iran, which supports Hamas and Hezbollah on their agenda of destroying Israel. 

Let’s hope that someday, when democracy returns to Venezuela, we can also return to sensible diplomacy in the Middle East.