As parents and school buses delivered children to Colegio Hebraica, a Jewish grade school in Caracas, 25 secret police commandos in combat gear and face masks burst into the main building. Scores of preschoolers were locked in the school as panicked parents tried to retrieve them. The children were eventually freed, but the raid went on.
The sustained harassment complete with the collapse of the country have borne fruit.
Over the last 15 years, from the time Chavez came to power and in the year since Nicolas Maduro has ruled the country, the Venezuelan Jewish community has shrunk by more than half. It is now estimated at about 7,000, down from a high of 25,000 in the 1990s. Many of those who left were community leaders.
It’s not just Venezuelan Jews who are leaving. Hundreds of thousands of middle- and upper-class Venezuelans have relocated in recent years, swelling the size of expat communities in places like Miami, Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Colombia.
They left after Venezuelan secret police raided a Jewish club in 2007, and after the local synagogue was ransacked by unidentified thugs two years later.
They left after President Hugo Chavez expelled Israel’s ambassador to Caracas, and when he called on Venezuela’s Jews to condemn Israel for its actions in Gaza in 2009.
They left when Caracas claimed the ignoble title of most dangerous city in the world, and when inflation hit double digits, food shortages took hold and the country’s murder rate reached 79 per 100,000 people.
Interested in keeping as low a profile as possible, leaders of Jewish institutions in Venezuela declined to be interviewed by JTA for this story.
Sandra Iglicki, who left Venezuela for South Florida a decade ago but still goes back often, says it’s also been emotionally difficult to leave a country that for decades was good to Jews, serving as an anti-Semitism-free refuge for European Jewish families who fled the Nazis.
In Miami, the last few weeks have been particularly fraught for Venezuelan expats, filled with anxious phone calls to relatives back home and endless agitation on social media.
With state media in Venezuela blacking out news of the massive demonstrations, the expats have occupied the peculiar position of funneling news to relatives back home in Caracas about what’s happening in Venezuela, often via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Offline, there have been large demonstrations in Miami against the Maduro government, which is blamed for Venezuela’s tailspin.