August 14, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- A leading anti-Semitism watchdog group said Thursday that a meeting between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Jewish leaders is a positive step but that the government must take concrete action to improve relations.
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center was reacting to a meeting Wednesday between Chavez and leaders of the World Jewish Congress, who said later that the president pledged to work together against anti-Semitism.
"This is a first step in a correct direction, but that can't erase what has happened in the past few years," Sergio Widder, the center's representative for Latin America, said by telephone from Argentina.
His organization is urging Venezuela to investigate two police raids on a Jewish community center in Caracas, and also act against its ambassador in Russia for remarks the group says were anti-Semitic.
The most recent raid came on the eve of a contentious referendum vote in December and was aimed at searching for weapons, but turned up none.
In June, the organization called remarks by Venezuela's ambassador to Russia, Alexis Navarro, "racist." The daily Moscow News quoted Navarro as saying a failed 2002 coup against Chavez involved Israeli Mossad intelligence snipers who were "Venezuelan citizens, but Jews."
Widder called for the ambassador to be sanctioned, and also criticized remarks by a talk show host on state television accusing some Jews of being behind a conspiracy against Chavez.
"There are a ton of initiatives to be taken," said Widder, who did not attend Wednesday's talks.
Chavez has built close ties with Iran and has repeatedly vilified Israel. But his government insists the criticisms of Israel aren't meant to demonize Jewish people, saying it has good relations with the Jewish community.
Associated Press writers Sandra Sierra and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.