I was born in 1952 in Tripoli, Libya, where my family had settled six generations earlier. They ran successful businesses and were well rooted and deeply integrated in local communities. Unfortunately, the 1950s were a difficult time for Jews in that part of the world. I was just a toddler when peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Libya crumbled in the wake of the Suez Crisis. The situation and the hostilities became so intense that my parents decided to emigrate. Our family fled to Italy, however, Italy’s economic situation was not much better, and millions of Italians were leaving in search of better opportunities. The United States and several Latin American nations were the preferred choice.
I have only vague memories of the anxious year we spent in Naples, before my parents decided to take the second biggest gamble of their life: getting on a boat headed to Venezuela. The country was distant physically and culturally. But my dad had an Italian friend who was working there who convinced him this would be a far better place to rebuild his life than postwar, impoverished Europe.
While Venezuela was foreign to my family, it soon became apparent that it was an enormously generous country, so open to the outside world that it invited and promoted the arrival of immigrants. For example, the country’s constitution stated that immigrants who arrived before their seventh birthday had the legal right to be recognized as Venezuelans by birth. As a boy and as a young adult, I was aware that I had all the rights of Venezuelan-born citizens, even if I had not been born there. At the time, this seemed interesting but not very important. After all, I felt deeply Venezuelan and did not remember anything about Libya. Three decades later, this made it legally possible for me to become Venezuela’s Minister of Development. At the time I was an academic and, while deeply interested in politics, I did not belong to any political party. The presidential appointment came as a huge surprise. I thus joined a group of young, idealistic, highly-trained technocrats bent on liberalizing the economy of an oil-rich country with poorly functioning institutions. I vividly remember the day when I was sworn into office. After the ceremony ended, the national symphony played Venezuela’s beautiful anthem. My parents, my brother, and I were in tears.
We ran into ignorance much more often than prejudice: most Venezuelans had never met a Jew, and didn’t quite know what being Jewish meant.
The Venezuela of my youth was a welcoming place for outsiders of every sort, and Jews were no exception. Within a few years of arriving in Venezuela, we joined Caracas’s small but prosperous Jewish middle class. I went to a Jewish school, and my family also joined a beach club where we were among the only Jews. Being Jewish simply never came up.
Antisemitism may have been around, but I never experienced it. We ran into ignorance much more often than prejudice: most Venezuelans had never met a Jew, and didn’t quite know what being Jewish meant. We had many Jewish and non-Jewish friends.
It was only much later, when Hugo Chávez came to power, that this all started to change. Chávez brought a brand of antisemitism I had never encountered before into the public sphere. Stenciled outlines of Chávez alongside Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, began appearing on the streets of both Beirut and Caracas. Venezuelan Jews learned what Jews everywhere else had learned generations ago: where dictators and populists come to power, antisemitism flourishes.
In 2010, Chávez famously went on national television to state “I take this opportunity to condemn again from the bottom of my soul and my guts the State of Israel: Cursed be, State of Israel! Cursed terrorists and assassins!” Years later, the regime’s secret police entered Hebraica, the community center adjacent to the Jewish school. The officers were purportedly looking for weapons. Instead, they found hundreds of children filling the corridors as classes for the day had just ended. In another incident, Tiféret Israel, the main Sephardic synagogue in Caracas, was broken into during the night and desecrated. Swastikas were spray-painted on the walls, and torn Torah rolls were scattered on the floor. Nothing like this had ever happened in Venezuela before.
Hugo Chavez died of cancer in 2013 and his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has been ruling Venezuela ever since. The Organization of American States estimates that six million Venezuelans have emigrated to neighboring countries. This includes most of Venezualan Jews. For over two decades I’ve been writing newspaper columns, academic articles, and books about Venezuela and Chávez. My focus has been evidence: statistics, data, corroborating facts.I decided to turn to fiction and write my first novel, Two Spies in Caracas, centered on real events and situations that are easily verifiable and which I intertwined with a fictional story based on what I know happened but can’t prove. This novel takes place in a wonderful country that has been brutally plundered by a foreign power, Cuba, which had the traitorous help of Venezuela’s corrupt military regime.
All kinds of things have happened in Venezuela that are not known, that won’t be known until the dictatorship’s archives are made public one day. I am hopeful that the wonders of Venezuela are permanent while the devastation it has undergone in these times will turn out to have been temporary. And that my Jewish community in Caracas will blossom again.
Moisés Naím has been called “one of the world’s leading thinkers” (Prospect Magazine) and has been ranked among the top 100 global thought leaders by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute. He is an internationally syndicated columnist and the host and producer of Efecto Naím, an Emmy winning weekly television program on international affairs that has been aired throughout the Americas since 2012 via NTN24/DirecTV.
Naím was the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine for 14 years and is the author of many scholarly articles and 15 books on international economics and politics. In 2011, he received the Ortega y Gasset prize, the most prestigious award for journalism in the Spanish language. His 2013 book, “The End of Power”, a New York Times bestseller, was selected by the Washington Post and the Financial Times as one of the best books of the year.
In the early 1990s, Naím served as Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry, as director of Venezuela’s Central Bank, and as executive director of the World Bank. He was previously professor of business and economics and dean of IESA, Venezuela’s leading business school. Dr. Naím holds MSc and PhD degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lives in Washington, DC. For more information visit https://www.moisesnaim.com/.