The Jewish Community in Venezuela

by Miguel Balbuena

Venezuela has recently been ruled by the government of President Hugo Chavez, who served four terms in office between 1999 and 2013, and, then, by the administration of President Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded Commandant Chavez, both being officials of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (USPV), in power for 19 years now.

The policies enacted by the USPV have led to a significant drop in the Jewish population staying in this Caribbean country. Thousands of Venezuelans of Jewish ancestry have chosen to live in self-imposed exile. It happens that many of these expatriates are prominent members of the Venezuelan intelligentsia.

The concept of intelligentsia was introduced to me while I was fresh out of high school. A fellow freshman at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC), Carlos Chipoco, first presented this concept to me. In my storied years in college no professor even mentioned it. Chipoco, in many ways, back then knew more than PUC faculty. Later on, he went to become classmate of future U.S. President Barack Obama at Harvard Law School.

In short, the intelligentsia can be defined as cultural workers who create content to be consumed by human generations, even those not born yet. The intelligentsia is a cast of educated people (not necessarily college-educated, it could also be self-educated ones) that not only reproduce pre-existing ideologies, but expand their frontiers or produce novel ones. The members of the intelligentsia are trendsetters, opinion influencers, who, ideally, exert critical thinking in shaping the culture and politics of their country.

Due to its outsize role in society relative of its numbers, adherents of the intelligentsia have historically become a thorn on the side of governments, some of which have resorted to extreme measures to get rid of these opponents. Books such as “Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the intelligentsia,” by author Lesley Chamberlain, illustrate this by telling the story that Vladimir Lenin, then Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, expelled hundreds of people hostile to the Soviet power: philosophers, students and the like, to Stettin, Germany, and Istanbul, Turkey. They were transported by vessels, which earned the name of “philosophers’ ships.”

In the case of Venezuela, neither Chavez nor Maduro tossed out the Jewish Venezuelan intelligentsia using “philosophers’ ships.” Instead, individuals associated with this status class left by their own volition and by their own means. These subjects included Moises Naim, author of a book titled “Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy,” published in 2005, and; Daniel Benaim – co-director of “Chavismo: The Plague of the 21st Century,” a 93-minute documentary film – who, since 2006, has been media director and adviser to the Confederation of Israelites Associations of Venezuela, which publishes some of Naim’s pieces.

Naim’s family immigrated to Venezuela from Libya, where he was born; Benaim’s family immigrated to Venezuela from Morocco. Then, many decades later, both intellectuals immigrated from Venezuela to the
United States. As an aside, the prefix Ben means “son of” in Hebrew, so the surname Benaim would translate as son of Aim.

Benaim studied at the world renowned S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications from 1978 to 1981, obtaining there a bachelor’s degree in television, radio and film. At this school he met a fellow student, Tere Paniagua, who went on to work at Syracuse University as executive director of the Office of Cultural Engagement for the Hispanic Community.

Daniel and Tere crossed paths again after the release of the “Chavismo” documentary on June 15. After intense negotiations, Daniel agreed to come back to Syracuse for the screening of his film on October 9, immediately followed by his remarks to the audience as well as a question-and-answer session with the public. The event took place at La Casita Cultural Center on Syracuse’s Near West Side.

At this function Daniel praised Naim’s book “Illicit,” although this essay doesn’t mention Chavez nor Maduro, but the filmmaker suggested it was relevant because “Venezuela is governed by thugs.” Then he talked about “The Commandant,” a Colombian television series focusing on the life of Chavez, for which Naim wrote 49 episodes of it.

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).