Venezuela does not want its "historic" relationship with Israel to collapse, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma told Yedioth Ahronoth in a special interview published Sunday.
Ledezma (57), who attended last week's mayors' conference in Jerusalem, said the purpose of his visit to Israel was "not to defy the existing government (in Venezuela), but to present issues that are important to me as a person who believes in democracy and freedom of expression. I fear that Venezuela's democratic values will be undermined."
The mayor is one of the leaders of the opposition to President Hugo Chavez, who frequently criticizes Israel and constantly strengthens the South American country's ties with Iran, the Jewish state's arch enemy.
Venezuela severed its diplomatic relations with Israel in 2009 following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Ledezma refrained from criticizing Chavez directly, but he did say that "in contrast to the current political policy in Venezuela, I wish to convey the message that the Venezuelan nation has respect for Israel.
"I don’t want to launch a personal attack, but a leader's responsibilities go beyond his personal opinions," the mayor said. "We've seen the disasters history has brought when leaders turned racism into a national ideology. I wouldn't want Venezuela to reach that point."
Ledezma defeated Chavez's candidate in the 2008 mayoral race in Caracas. Subsequent to his election, the Venezuelan National Assembly passed a Capital District Law that transferred most functions, funding, and personnel of the Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas to a new Venezuelan Capital District, headed by an official directly appointed by Chavez.
'Disinformation on Chavez's condition confusing'
Ledezma demanded a referendum on the legislation, but his attempt to stop the transfer failed. To protest the move, he launched a hunger strike and even announced his candidacy for president. However, he withdrew his candidacy after failing to gain the support of Venezuela's largest opposition party.
Eventually, the opposition parties rallied around Enrique Capriles Radonski, who is expected to run against Chavez in the next elections, which are scheduled for October 7, 2012.
Chavez, who feels threatened by the emergence of a legitimate rival, launched an anti-Semitic attack on Radonski, the grandson of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. “You have a pig's tail, a pig's ears; you snort like a pig. You're a low-life pig,” the president said of Radonski in a televised speech delivered last February.
"Personal attacks of a racist nature are inappropriate in any political campaign in Venezuela or any other country in the democratic world," said, Ledezma, whose wife is Radonski's cousin.
"I'm certain that Radonski's new government will reestablish ties with Israel," he told Yedioth Ahronoth, adding that Venezuela was "one of the first countries to recognize your independence."
Asked whether the opposition has a chance of seizing power in Venezuela, the Caracas mayor said "I believe the opposition's chances are equal (to Chavez's) and even greater, mostly because it is bringing a message of renewal to all of Venezuela. I want to believe that the current government will allow democratic elections."
Ledezma, who is visiting Israel for the first time, said the Jewish community in Venezuela has diminished, "not because of anti-Semitism, but mostly due to the problems the entire Venezuelan people are suffering from: An economic recession, a drop in the level of personal security and a general atmosphere that hurts the average citizen.
"As mayor I respect all of Caracas' communities and appreciate the Jewish community's contribution," he said.
Addressing the conflicting reports surrounding Chavez's battle with cancer, Ledezma said, "I'm confused by the disinformation that is published (in Venezuela), so it's hard to tell. The truth is that everything is in god's hands."
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