Venezuela’s ‘anti-Semitic’ leader admits Jewish ancestry

Nicolas Maduro defends Caracas’s policies toward Israel, says his grandparents were Sephardic Jews who converted to Catholicism

Venezuela's newly elected President Nicolas Maduro celebrates his victory at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, April 14, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Ramon Espinosa)
Venezuela's newly elected President Nicolas Maduro celebrates his victory at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, April 14, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has dismissed accusations that his country’s ties with Iran are fostering anti-Semitism in Latin America, explaining that Caracas is critical of Israel’s policies, not the Jewish people.

In an interesting twist, Maduro, the political successor of the late president Hugo Chávez, told the press last week that he himself was descended from Sephardic Jewish ancestors. Maduro and his predecessor, Chávez, have widely been regarded as anti-Semitic, in part for their close relations to Iran, vocal criticism of Israel, and rough treatment of Venezuela’s Jewish population.

Maduro, from the United Socialist Party, is a former bus driver and union leader. He was a member of Chávez’s inner circle and previously held the posts of vice president and minister of foreign affairs. He assumed the day-to-day responsibilities of the presidency after Chávez’s death, and then won the top spot by a small margin in April, defeating Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda, who is the Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors.

“My grandparents were Jewish, from a [Sephardic] Moorish background, and converted to Catholicism in Venezuela… The mother of [Minister of Communication and Information] Ernesto Villegas also comes from a similar background,” Maduro said last week, according to Aporrea, a Venezuelan news portal supportive of Chávez’s socialist platform and reform initiatives.

“I’m sorry to hear about the statements made by Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, who I know and have received many times, saying that there’s anti-Semitism in Venezuela and implicating Chávez and me in it,” Maduro said.

“He can accuse me, but he should leave Chávez out of it,” he added.

According to Aporrea, Epelman said that “a strong presence and strengthening of relations of various Latin American countries with Iran are fostering anti-Semitism on the continent.” He made the comments last week during the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Budapest, Hungary.

Maduro, however, said that having a problem with the state of Israel, and what he called attacks on the people of Syria and the Gaza Strip, did not entail criticism of the “noble Jewish people.”

He called Venezuelans “open-hearted people” who have always welcomed all types of religions and peoples.

“It’s one thing to have differences with the state of Israel… We reject the state of Israel’s attack on Damascus and the Syrian people, and its attacks on the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian people,” Maduro added, saying that Caracas would continue to fight against Israel’s “repressive policies.”

Yet, he said, “if there is a people that has a rich socialist tradition, it’s the Jewish people… We respect their history.”

He said the people who hated and killed Jews during the Holocaust were members of the far-right who built on the ideas of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and not supporters of the ideals advocated by the Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin.

“Karl Marx was a Jew,” he noted. 

Iran and oil-rich Venezuela have enjoyed close strategic and economic ties in recent years. In April, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the swearing-in ceremony for Maduro. Both nations espouse vehement anti-US rhetoric.

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