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Official Anti-Semitism Subverts Democracy in Venezuela

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Those of us who continue to care deeply about the fate of Venezuelan society and democratic rule are disturbed by the stepped up anti-Semitic rhetoric, a favorite political tool in the arsenal of Hugo Chavez supporters.

Venezuelan media outlets -- 70 percent are owned by the State -- have during the past six years systematically produced attacks against Jews, Zionists and Israel. The intensity of the anti-Semitism often turned up at certain times to disparage and intimidate.

The latest wave of government-inspired hate comes after Henrique Capriles Radonski won the opposition party's primary vote on February 12. He will face incumbent Chavez in the country's presidential elections in October.

Capriles might win if the paying field was even. Opinion polls have showed him closing in on Chavez. But Chavez is determined to stay in power no matter. He enjoys the following of the poor, due to his huge spending spree, government control of the media and has a track record of vicious attacks against the opposition.

Hence, the recent stepped up anti-Semitism. Though Capriles is a practicing Catholic, he has Jewish roots. His maternal grandparents, Polish Jews, perished in the Holocaust. And, that's the hook for Chavez and his minions to use disgracefully anti-Semitic canards with deep echoes harking back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in an effort to challenge Capriles as a legitimate candidate.

This despicable behavior has profound negative implications for the Venezuelan democratic process. Yet, despite the domestic, regional and international negative backlash, even among some of Chavez's closest allies, to the previous immoral use of anti-Semitism for political gain, President Chavez and his supporters insist on using it again in his reelection campaign.

A steady barrage of attacks against Capriles has appeared in official print and electronic media. "The Enemy is Zionism: A Ravine as Promise," an article by Adal Hernandez that appeared February 13 on the website of the National Radio of Venezuela, set the tone for subsequent attacks. As has been the case in the past, Zionism and Judaism are used interchangeably. Traditional anti-Semitic themes, including Capriles' alleged support by "international Zionism", seek to portray him as operating contrary to the aspirations of the Venezuelan people. The Chavez government severed ties with Israel in 2007 and has become one of Iran´s only allies in the global community and its gateway to an increased presence in the Western Hemisphere.

By allowing once again a permissive environment for these types of expressions, the President Chavez and his cronies are creating the conditions for unfortunate situations similar to the 2009 attack against a synagogue in Caracas. In fact, several days ago a mob occupied another synagogue in the capital city. Although the police intervened, this attack can be attributed to the incendiary rhetoric being channeled through the media.

President Chavez needs to act immediately to stop these unwarranted attacks. They threaten not only the local Jewish community but also importantly legitimate democratic aspirations. It's time to recall that on December 17, 2008, Chavez joined with Presidents Kirchner of Argentina and Lula de Silva of Brazil in declaring that he stands against discrimination and racism.

Chavez cannot sit on the sidelines now while allowing the official media and its spokespeople to continue promoting messages filled with hate and aimed at dividing the Venezuelan people.