When a grim-faced Luis Fishman announced last week he was dropping out of the race for president of this predominantly catholic Central American country, he closed the door on the first-ever presidential bid by a Jew.
Fishman, a former Minister of the Interior and Public Security, withdrew his candidacy after the Social Christian Unity Party’s leading candidate, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, asked him to abandon the campaign and, in turn, to head the party’s list of candidates for the unicameral Legislative Assembly in the 1998 general elections.
Fishman, 48, said he made the decision to withdraw from the race after preliminary opinion polls showed he would be unable to defeat Rodriguez in the party’s primary and that the contest might hurt the unity of the party before the 1998 general elections.
The same polls gave Rodriguez, who is making his third bid for the presidency, a three-to-one margin of victory. Rodriguez narrowly lost the presidential race in 1994.
Fishman’s announced withdrawal last Thursday, 18 months before the party’s primary but just two weeks prior to the first district causes, was met with resignation and relief in the local Jewish community.
Jewish leaders here saw in Fishman’s campaign both a groundbreaking opportunity to improve the community’s image but also a dangerous challenge to perceived anti-Semitism in Costa Rica.
Fishman denied his Jewish roots played may role in his campaign to lead a party that traces its roots directly to Costa Rica’s Catholic archbishop in the 1940’s. Nor did his Judaism have any influence in his decision to withdraw from the race.
“My religion had nothing to do with it,” he said in an interview. Fishman said he would not rule out seeking the presidency in the future.
“Costa Ricans fully understand respect for freedom and personal decisions like religion,” said Fishman’s wife Aida, a former minister of culture. “We have always had the friendship of all Costa Ricans.”
Carlos Denton, a pollster for Gallup, agreed with the former candidate, saying Fishman’s campaign was unable to get off the ground because of Rodriguez’ power within the party. “In all the polls over the last five years, Fishman has been among the top three popular political figures,” Denton said.
“This is enough of an illustration he was totally accepted. His position as one of the most popular figures more than illustrates this. The other issue is not even mentioned.”
Ironically, Fishman got little support from the 2,500-member Jewish community, whose members generally support either the governing National Liberation Party or the free-market oriented Rodriguez.
However, National Liberation Legislative Deputy Saul Weisleder, whose wife Rebecca Grynspan was the first Jew elected to one of the country’s two vice presidencies, said he was impressed with Fishman’s campaign, even though he did not support it.
“In a historic perspective, it is positive that members of the community participate in politics because it helps the integration and perception of the fact that people with other cultural elements exist,” he said, ruling out any presidential bid on his part.
“To a certain extent I think we are ready to have a Jewish president but I do not see that person yet in the community,” Weisleder said.
Jose Nowalski, one of Fishman’s Jewish supporters, said he saw the campaign as an opportunity to eradicate anti-Semitism and stereotypes of local Jews, although he admits Fishman himself never saw his campaign from that point of view.
“If there was something I like about the campaign,” he said, it is that “the taboo has been broken.” Nowalski said Costa Rica could have a Jewish president as early as the presidential elections in 2002.
However, author Jacobo Schifter, who has written extensively on the Jewish community, is not convinced the country’s Christian electorate is ready for a non-Christian president. “A Jewish candidate would have a hard time winning and actually, with what Luis has done, I have been surprised with the support he got,” he said. “I was expecting a greater rejection of him because he is Jewish.”