In the past decade, Jerusalemites, like many Israelis, have embraced Latin American culture – be it eateries in Mahaneh Yehuda or natives conversing with Spanish speakers in the streets, having learned the language from “telenovellas” (Spanish soap operas).
Strikingly few Israelis, however, question what is prompting hoards of Latinos to move from their homes.
This is particularly the case for Venezuelan immigrants, whose stories are untold and the situation in their country of origin unknown by their fellow citizens. This piece offers an insight into a country in crisis, and its residents, who have decided that aliya is their last remaining option.
Kidnappings, bulletproof cars and the black market are now common in the Venezuelan Jewish community.
While they are generally far better off than most of the population, who are suffering from lack of food and medicine, many Jewish Venezuelans have reached their limits given the ever-declining state of the country and are choosing to move away from the chaos unfolding before them.
Those who choose to make aliya face all the immigrants’ usual problems: financial uncertainty, unfamiliarity with the language and a foreign culture, with one main distinction: they do not have the option of returning home.
The stories of Israel’s Venezuelan olim are untold. This article offers an insight into a country in crisis and its residents who have decided that aliya is their last remaining option.
In the early 20th century Venezuela discovered its oil reserves. Since then, this resource has served as the country’s primary income, dominating exports and government revenues.
Fluctuating oil prices and worldwide economic crises have severely affected Venezuela’s economy through the past few decades. The situation only worsened with government decisions to devalue the national currency – the bolivar – under the rule of Hugo Chavez, who governed the country from 1998 to 2013, when he died of colon cancer.
Chavez was a controversial leader, who promised “a peaceful and democratic social revolution” and, in the eyes of many, delivered anything but. Many of his policies triggered protests throughout the country, due to his rewriting the constitution to allow himself a wider range of power; an energy and water crisis that resulted in rationing; and price controls on basic produce that often resulted in shortages.
Following his death, vice president Nicolas Maduro took over and was elected president in a narrow victory in 2013.
President Maduro has declared a state of emergency, for the second time this year. The government points its finger at American efforts to destabilize Venezuela and at the country’s elite, who are accused of taking more than their fair share of supplies, and are said to be the cause of an “economic war” between social classes.
Most economists agree that the combination of drastically decreased oil prices and the government’s failure to save money for hard times are to blame. Most, if not all, of the Venezuelans who were interviewed for this article would add the government’s more “questionable” policies – implemented under the guise of socialism – as a factor.
The sad irony is that while citizens can fill up their petrol tank for a dollar, there is a shortage of toilet paper and milk, among other basic commodities, leaving Venezuelans no choice but to purchase these items at black market prices, or queue for days at a time outside supermarkets, hoping both for a delivery and that there would be products left by the time they enter.
Forbes recently dubbed Venezuela “the Country with No Coke,” due to the company’s decision to halt production there because of the sugar shortage.
The bolivar is virtually worthless and, according to research conducted by Simon Bolivar University, 87 percent of Venezuelans say that they do not have enough money to buy food.
Maduro has begun to ration water and electricity, the latter causing government offices to open for two half-days per week. Outside of Caracas, hospitals are struggling to help patients, due to a lack of medicine and even gloves and soap. The situation is decidedly grim.
Historically, Venezuela has had a strong relationship with the Jewish people and with Israel. It was among the few countries to welcome boatloads of Jewish immigrants escaping from the horrors of Nazism in Europe, and in 1947 voted for the establishment of a Jewish state. In the past 15 years the situation has changed.
Jewish Venezuelans, limited solely to the capital, Caracas, tend to have access to American dollars, worth far more than the bolivar, meaning their financial situation is much more comfortable than those who rely on the country’s flaky currency. Dollars allow members of the Jewish community to maintain a fairly normal life, with the ability to purchase expensive or rare products on the black market, and ensure that they can afford luxury apartments, expensive cars and numerous maids – a lifestyle that they are well aware they would not enjoy should they leave Venezuela.
Life, however, is certainly not easy.
Economic unrest prompts robberies at gunpoint and kidnappings, where the kin of wealthy families are held hostage until a ransom has been paid. Moreover, anti-Semitism, which peaked with Chavez, who publicly condemned the State of Israel, is an ongoing threat.
Gabriel, who began university studies in Caracas, found that wearing a kippa on campus was a very uncomfortable experience – particularly in light of the events during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, which prompted vandals to enter the main Sephardi synagogue and throw the Torah scrolls to the ground, as well as graffiti anti-Semitic sentiments on the walls. The Chavez government then expelled the Israeli ambassador, leaving the two countries with no diplomatic relations.
The government’s narrative, which holds Venezuela’s economic elite accountable for many of the country’s hardships, finds a natural scapegoat in the wealthy Jewish community, contributing even further to the rising anti-Semitic attitude. The community’s numbers have, accordingly, decreased from 25,000 to fewer than 9,000 in the past 20 years.
While lifestyle and livelihood appear to be the only redeeming features in a bleak situation, the country’s slow decline means that the situation often goes unnoticed. “When you cook frogs,” explains Roberto, a Venezuelan oleh, “you put them in cold water, alive, and you boil the water so that they won’t notice the temperature rising, and then they die. If the water was boiling, they would jump out. It’s the same thing that’s happening in Venezuela.” By the time Roberto left, his family had to go through four doors just to enter their house, and an electric gate surrounded their property for security. Such measures were added so gradually that it took them a while to notice they were effectively living in an extravagant prison.
For those who decide to leave Venezuela, the question is, leave for where? Popular destinations include Miami, Panama City and Israel.
The younger twenty-somethings are the first to move, with college or entering into the professional world serving as an ideal gateway. Out of Gabriel’s 120 classmates at the Jewish high school, around 100 have moved abroad.
“I think the Jews will leave Venezuela, eventually,” predicts Roberto, lamenting that had the 40-year-olds with families left with him 10 years earlier, “they would have had a chance at a new life; now, it is much harder.”
Daniel is still living in Venezuela, with plans to move to Miami in the upcoming months. The promise of business opportunities and many friends already settled there determined his decision.
“It’s impossible to make any goals or predictions for your personal life and for any business [in Venezuela]... and it’s definitely not somewhere I would build a family in the future.... Every day is getting worse, and I personally don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel or even a slight chance of improvement anytime soon,” he says.
His parents, however, have chosen to remain in Caracas. “[My father] has his whole life there.... He built his business from scratch 45 years ago and has put all his efforts into it since then, so now he is not willing to leave, unless it gets to the point that it’s completely impossible for him to maintain it and he feels forced to shut down.”
The Venezuelan Jewish community is strikingly idealistic in regard to Israel and often cynical about the rest of the world.
Leon, who left Venezuela four years ago, planned to attend law school in the States before realizing: “I was in love with this country.... [Israel] is like family; it’s tough, but it gives me freedom that you can’t find in other countries.”
Gabriel had a similar decision-making process. After accepting a scholarship to Yeshiva University, he decided to make aliya instead, much to his parents’ discontent.
“I really felt like this was my home, this was the place that I should be. All other places, like Miami, would be another station, when the final destination is Israel.” Roberto notes that “Israel is not for everyone,” identifying the economics and language as the toughest challenges, whilst concluding: “Everywhere else in South America is like rolling the ball; eventually you would have to move.”
In fact, he made aliya with his family due to medical reasons. His father was diagnosed with cancer, and to receive treatment in Venezuela, he would have had to wake up early in order to travel to another city to receive the actual medicines, while jumping through numerous bureaucratic hoops, and then later in the afternoon would have had the treatment itself. Their family was among the first to leave, after which a big wave of emigration followed.
“[Even 10 years ago] everyone could see that there was no future in Venezuela,” Roberto says.
One of his contemporaries, who was employed at PwC business advisers, was making five million bolivares each month, which then was worth around $150. Taxi drivers held PhDs which were worthless in securing financial stability.
Years later, after serving in the IDF as an officer in the International Relations unit, he is happy with the choice he made, and while he wishes to take his two daughters to Caracas “to see where I grew up, my culture, my language,” he seems to have accepted the deterioration of his hometown. More recent olim are not as resigned to Venezuela’s fate.
“It’s just sad to see how in 17 years of ‘revolution,’ we’ve seen a country with the highest petrol reserves and the second- highest gold reserves – as well as a lot of talent and other natural beauties – turn into the laughingstock of the world, with the highest inflation and homicide rate in the world,” laments Leon.
Daniel feels a similar sense of helplessness, fed by daily connection with the population. “The thing that affects me the most is the general vibe of the people, the impotence you feel every time you see what everyone has to go through to get the most basic commodities.”
The road ahead for Venezuelans is unclear. In May last year the opposition managed to gather 1.85 million signatures demanding a referendum vote regarding which party would rule the country, which many people believed would be the trigger for much-awaited change. Progress, however, has been slow, with Maduro citing problems with the validity of the signatures and with the procedures of the referendum as an explanation for the lack of progress. The opposition argues that he is deliberately stalling the inevitable.
Ask any Venezuelans for their predictions for the future, and they will give you a wry smile, shrug, and say that they are ever hopeful.
For a taste of Venezuelan street food in Israel, visit Arepa’s in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. For Spanish-speakers searching for representation in Israel, or information, contact Gabriel at ‘StandWithUs Español’ (www.facebook.com StandWithUsEspanol) or ‘IsraelWTF’ (www.israelwtf.com)