Viva Venezuela!

February 3, 2009

In News

By James Suggett

Mérida, January 30th 2009 (– Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said Israel’s expulsion of Venezuela’s representative to Israel, Roland Betancourt, on Wednesday was an “honor,” and accused the Israeli government of committing genocide against Palestinians.

“It is an honor for this socialist government and this revolutionary people to have our representatives expelled by a genocidal government such as Israel,” said Chávez upon his arrival in Brazil on Thursday, where he attended the World Social Forum.

Chávez, a consistent critic of U.S. and Israeli militarism, expelled the Israeli ambassador from Caracas and formally broke off relations with Israel in early January, to protest the U.S. ally’s occupation and invasion of the Gaza Strip.

On Wednesday, Lior Hayat, the Israeli foreign ministry official for Latin America, declared Betancourt and two colleagues “persona non grata.”

Venezuela-Israel relations have been strained for many years. Israel has opposed Venezuela’s growing economic and political relationship with its enemy Iran. President Chávez says the partnership is part of his plan to construct a “pluri-polar world” that is not dominated by the United States and Europe.

Also, Israel and Jewish organizations in the U.S. have accused both Iran and Venezuela of supporting radical Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah in Latin America and the Middle East—an accusation that Venezuela’s foreign minister vehemently denied recently.

On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified before the U.S. Congress that he is “very concerned about the level of truly subversive activities that Iran has developed in various parts of Latin America.”

Venezuelan Foreign Relations Minister Nicolás Maduro dismissed the accusations. “We have a transparent relationship with the Arab peoples, aimed at cooperation for peace and development,” said Maduro. “If we had official relations with these organizations, we would say it publicly.”

Maduro also accused Israel and the U.S. of using such claims to justify military intervention in Palestinian territories, Venezuela, and other parts of the world.

Alternative media organizations and other political groups in Venezuela, many of them supporters of the Chávez government, burned Israeli flags and chanted anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slogans during rallies to protest the siege of Gaza in January. Swastikas have appeared spray-painted on walls, often superimposed or equated with the Star of David or an Israeli flag, implying that Israel has committed genocide.

Earlier this week, an Israeli newspaper reported that a prominent leader of the Jewish community in Venezuela, Abraham Levy Benshimol, had declared that in Venezuela, “anti-Semitism is supported by the president, through the government and the media.”

Venezuelan Foreign Relations Minister Nicolás Maduro denied this accusation as well. “Our government guarantees total and absolute religious freedom and non-discrimination on religious grounds. These are not problems that our society has,” Maduro said in an interview on state television.

“The newspaper in Israel that said that is shamelessly lying,” Maduro added, attributing the accusations to “a perverse campaign by elites in the Israeli government against President Hugo Chávez and our country.”

Maduro also said the media should not conflate criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism, and reiterated the Venezuelan government’s “call out to the Jewish people to condemn these crimes [of the Israeli state] and demand respect for the Palestinian people.”