Anti-Israel revolutionary Hugo Chavez dies at the age of 58
Hugo Chavez (Photo: Walter Vargas)
The death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez could open the door to a second leadership bid by the grandson of Holocaust survivors.
The firebrand president, who died on Tuesday at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer, defeated Henrique Capriles to win another election last year.
Mr Capriles, a Catholic whose grandparents fled Nazi Europe for South America, had reportedly pledged to re-establish ties with Israel.
For now, he is calling for unity as the country mourns the man that led it for more than 14 years. But if he did challenge Chavez's expected successor - Vice President Nicolas Maduro - it could mark a turning point for the Jewish community of Venezuela and for the country's relations with the US and Israel.
The populist socialist leader, who won support from his country's working class and positioned himself as a revolutionary and the successor to Simon Bolivar, became known during his leadership for his anti-imperialist and anti-Western stances.
But despite claiming to champion the rights of the marginalised, he was often criticised by human rights groups. He made speeches accusing "Semitic banks" of sabotaging the economy and offered his support to an indigenous Islamic group labelled "Hizbollah Venezuela".
Internationally, Chavez was a staunch critic of Israel and the Zionists, focussing instead on building ties with Iran. In 2010 he accused Mossad of trying to kill him and said that Israel was financing the Venezuelan opposition.
Venezuela severed ties with Israel following Operation Cast Lead, with Chavez expelling the Israeli ambassador and staff. After the Gaza flotilla clash of May 2010, he described Israel as a "genocidal state". Also that year, leaked Wikileaks cables revealed that Venezuela viewed its Jewish community as "foreign" rather than Venezuelan and wanted to replicate Iran's treatment of Jews.
The cable also showed "a heightened sense of vulnerability by the Jewish community" because of government "double talk", limitations on free speech and "constant criticism of Israel".
During his time in office, antisemitism was rife in state media, while there were frequent instances of synagogue desecrations and antisemitic incidents. And when Mr Capriles ran for office last year, he faced repeated accusations in state media of being "a Zionist".
Despite this, last night David Bittan, the head of the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations, sent a message expressing his condolences to the Chavez family.
Condolences were also offered by Respect MP George Galloway and former mayor Ken Livingstone. Mr Livingstone, who famously hugged the Venezuelan leader when he visited Britain, offered praise in a BBC interview on Wednesday.
"The simple fact is the reason the US hated Chavez was that for the first time you had a Latin American leader who puts the interests of the people of Venezuela ahead of America," he said.