Memo from Caracas: Venezuelan Jews, Democracy Are In Trouble

It was a damn good weekend for the vanguard of the Bolivarian Revolution, Fidel Castro's BFF Hugo Chavez.

About 54 percent of Venezuelans on Sunday voted to remove term limits so that Chavez can run again for president in 2012 -- and presumably well beyond, if Castro is really the role model here. It was surely a great victory for Chavez, as the Herald and most other U.S. papers painted the vote, coming just over a year after voters said "No thanks" to pretty much the exact same measure.

But that's the root of the problem, Robert Amsterdam tells Riptide. Amsterdam is a London-based lawyer who's taking on Chavez' government by defending Eligio Cedeno, a wealthy banker who has been imprisoned since February 2007.

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Amsterdam, who was in Miami to work on Cedeno's case, was firm in his convictions about what's afoot in Venezuela today: Under Chavez, the country's small Jewish community is in great peril and its rule of law is close to being thrown out the window. Read more from our interview after the jump.

As Chavez cozied up to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thew out his Israeli ambassador and called Israel's leaders a "government of assassins" earlier this year, Jews in Caracas were uneasy. Their fears came to a head last month when a large synagogue in Caracas was broken into and desecrated. But the realty is even worse on the ground, Amsterdam says.

"The Jewish community in Venezuela is under threat. I witnessed it myself," Amsterdam says. "You have a TV station, a state-run station, broadcasting anti-Semitic sentiment ... Seeing a Jewish community in peril like this is never something I thought I would see in my life in Latin America."

Chavez decried the attacks and called for Venezuelans to respect the Jewish community, but Amsterdam says the abuses ultimately trace back to his leadership. 

Just as disturbing, Amsterdam says, is the way Chavez has used the precepts of democracy -- elections, appointments, campaigns -- to carve out what he calls an inherently anti-democratic government. Holding an election on a constitutional amendment that voters rejected barely a year ago, Amsterdam says, is a frequent ploy from the Chavez playbook.

"There is absolutely no basis for having a referendum 13 months after the last one failed," he says. "When you have state TV and every state resource supporting you and galvanizing your base, it's an obscenity, it's not a democracy."

Amsterdam is currently working to set a new date for a trial for his client, Cedeno. He blogs frequently about Venezuela and world affairs on his site.

"I'm not going to take a position advocating change for Venezuelans, because it's not my role," Amsterdam says. "I'd be very happy with Mr. Chavez if he would simply respect the rule of law with Mr. Cedeno and respect the Jewish community."

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