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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Rioters in Venezuela. (credit: AFP)

In a country on the brink of becoming a dictatorship and whose second-in-command is a vocal opponent of Israel and the West, members of the shrinking Jewish community say they’re still “living in a bubble.” For now.

The lines at the passport control booths at the main airport in Caracas, Venezuela, are not as long as they used to be, and the number of foreign airlines operating regular flights to Venezuela is diminishing daily. This is just one of many examples of the chaos that is taking over Venezuela.

I arrived in Caracas in the midst of a growing political crisis between the socialist-communist regime and the democratic, liberal and conservative opposition. President Nicolas Maduro, the former bus driver whom former leader Hugo Chavez named as his successor before he died four years ago, forced the country’s Supreme Court to revoke the authority of Venezuela’s parliament, which has been controlled by the opposition for the last two years.

He then called a general election for a new Constituent Assembly that would adopt a new constitution—one that Maduro’s opponents believe will turn Venezuela into a dictatorship. The opposition, and more than a few of Chavez’s followers, say the election was illegal. The battle has spilled over into the streets and it is costing lives.

More people are fleeing crumbling Venezuela these days than are arriving. Some 25,000 people cross the border to Colombia each day. The world is silent.

Given this mass exodus, I noticed something odd in the short passport control lines when I arrived: a large group of several dozen hard-line Salafi Muslims—bearded men with covered heads wearing long white robes, and women in black, covered from head to toe. They went through passport control quickly, unlike people with Asian appearances, who were stopped for thorough checks. In the arrivals hall, the group was met by a few more Salafis, who helped them to their final destinations.

The man responsible for all this is Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who was recently blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department for involvement in the drug trade and money laundering. All his U.S. assets, valued at millions of dollars, have been frozen.

El Aissami, 42, was appointed only at the beginning of this year and is considered the Venezuelan government’s No. 1 liaison with Hezbollah. He is Druze, an avowed Arab nationalist, anti-Israeli and anti-West in the extreme, and up to his ears in the shadowy world of international crime and terrorism. In the event of a new election or if Maduro is ousted, many think that El Aissami could take his place.

The provision of Venezuelan passports to terrorists from the Middle East began when El Aissami became vice president and started taking on a larger role in the government. According to some assessments, at least 10,000 passports have been issued or sold to citizens of Middle Eastern countries. El Aissami’s actions to safeguard the regime at any price have already been seen in the violent and deadly suppression of opposition protests these past few weeks. He is already seen as the de facto leader of Venezuela.

Life in a country that is controlled by good friends of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and that is on the brink of civil war, seems like an ongoing nightmare. The Jewish community in Venezuela numbered 22,000 at its peak. Today, only a few thousand Jews remain, most of them in Caracas.

Club Hebraica, the social center for what remains of the Caracas Jewish community, is like a remote island in times like these. The Olympic-sized swimming pool and row of restaurants filled with community members looking for peace and safety, among other things, is under stringent security protection.

“Despite the increasing difficulties around us, we still enjoy a good life,” one community member, whose parents arrived in Venezuela after the Holocaust, told Israel Hayom.

“Our parents, who experienced persecution and became refugees, tell us that there is no similarity between what is happening here and what they went through in Europe. There is anti-Semitism, you feel it sometimes in day-to-day life, but we pretty much live in a bubble, far away from the terrible reality,” the woman says.

The government moves that have stirred up Venezuela are part of a threatening process that is turning the collapsing country into a center of crime. El Aissami is a vocal opponent of Israel and helps a lot of Muslims, including members of Hezbollah, enter the country freely. The Jewish community, which is trying to stay optimistic, is expected to shrink even more.

By Eldad Beck/Israel Hayom