Caracas, Venezuela – Henrique Capriles Radonski, who on Sunday handily won the opposition’s ticket in the Venezuelan presidential race, is said to have the best chance of defeating President Hugo Chavez in an election in years when voters go to the ballots on October 7.
But some observers worry supporters of the incumbent might turn the 39-year-old governor of Miranda’s Jewish ancestry into an issue by smearing him with anti-Semitic slurs.
“We already have seen some signs it is going to happen,” said Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group in New York, on Monday. “One local paper placed a Star of David on a picture of him.”
Last week Kikirki, a weekly magazine, showed a photo of Capriles with a Star of David imposed on him juxtaposed with a photo of Chavez.
Michael Salberg, director of international affairs at the Anti- Defamation League, said this was indicative of “a government- related media apparatus that promotes and flogs the issue [of anti-Semitism.]”
“You have in Chavez a political leader, a head of a country, who engages in the use of political anti-Semitism,” said Salberg.
“Someone who engages in scapegoating and accusations against the Jewish community, particularly around issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
While Capriles is proud of his Jewish ancestry and has never tried to shy away from it, he is a devout Catholic.
His maternal grandparents were Jewish refugees from Europe who arrived in Venezuela during World War II with nothing but “a suitcase full of clothes,” he told The Forward in an interview last year.
“Because of my mother and grandmother, for Jews I’m Jewish, but I’m Catholic,” he said.
Nonetheless, his enemies have used anti-Semitic rhetoric against him in the past accusing him of being part of a Jewish conspiracy.
In 2009 pro-Chavez protesters ransacked his offices spraying swastikas on the wall with and calling him a “Nazi,” an insult which Capriles was particularly offended by because his great-grandparents were murdered in concentration camps.
“They came here and they called me ‘Nazi,’ when my grandmother was in the Warsaw Ghetto,” he told The Forward. “My great-grandparents were killed in a concentration camp. My grandmother’s mother and father were killed by the Nazis in Treblinka.”
Capriles began his political career in earnest in 1998 when he became the youngest member elected to the lower house of the Venezuelan legislature.
Over the years Capriles has been subject to what he says is political harassment from Chavez. In 2004 he was sent to prison for allegedly fomenting violence, charges that were later dropped. He cites his experience behind bars as one of the reasons he became a more pious Christian.
At the same time, Capriles has maintained close ties with the local Jewish community, which has struggled under Chavez. Many of its members have left the country because of increasing economic hardship for the middle and upper classes and a sharp rise in violent crime. In 2009, twice as many people were murdered in Venezuela than in restive Iraq, The New York Times reported. Members of the Jewish community say the policies of the president known for his animosity towards the US and Israel and close ties with Iran have created a noxious atmosphere for them to live in. Consequently, the community has shrunk from about 20,000 in 2000 to fewer than 10,000 today.
Recently, Chavez is looking more vulnerable than in the past. Over the past year he has battled cancer and has seen his popularity sag, yet the firebrand politician can still rely on the staunch support of poor Venezuelans who see in him a leader they can identify with. If Capriles is to defeat the Chavez juggernaut that has held on to power for the last 13 years he must appeal to a broader swath of the electorate than his predecessors have.
Looking forward, Siegel Vann of AJC said regardless of who wins the elections in October she hoped they go ahead without incident and that democratic principles are respected.
Salberg said ADL will continue to keep a close watch on anti-Semitism in Venezuela during the political campaigning and vowed to “speak up if we see it.”