SAO PAULO, Brazil (Mar. 2)
When Dr. Tabare Ramon Vazquez was sworn in this week as the first leftist president in Uruguayan history, the country’s 23,000-strong Jewish minority pondered the age-old question: Is this good for the Jews? The short answer, according to community leaders interviewed by phone from Sao Paulo, is yes.
They say Uruguay’s Jewish community has nothing to fear from Vazquez — despite his admiration for Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and other left-leaning, pro-Arab heads of state.
“We’re waiting to see what will happen,” said Marcelo Cynovich, director of Hillel Uruguay and an activist in Zionist causes.
“It seems like everyone is betting on this change. So far, it has not been like Venezuela, where right away Chavez cut off all contact with the Jewish community.”
Further, said Israel Buszkaniec, president of the Comite Central Israelita del Uruguay, an umbrella group of Uruguayan Jewish organizations, “We have very good relations with many people in the new government, including ministers, deputies and senators.
“In Venezuela, the Jewish community was against Chavez even before he took office, and they also supported the attempted coup against him” in 2002, he said. “Vazquez is nothing like Chavez.”
Indeed, Vazquez, a 64-year-old oncologist and former mayor of Montevideo, has named at least half a dozen Jews to government posts.
Last month, leaders of the Comite Central held a conference with three top incoming officials of the Ministry of Social Development.
At the meeting, they delivered a presentation put together by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on alleviating poverty in Uruguay — a nation once known as the “Switzerland of Latin America” for its prosperity and political stability.
According to the state-run National Institute of Statistics, nearly a third of Uruguay’s 3.4 million people live below the poverty line, including 100,000 citizens classified as “destitute.” In addition, Health Ministry figures show that 19 percent of Uruguayan children are severely malnourished.
Hard times have affected Uruguay’s Jews deeply as well. Thousands of middle-class shopkeepers, merchants and other Jews found themselves jobless after Uruguay’s economic crisis in 2001, a direct consequence of the peso devaluation in neighboring Argentina.
Though Uruguay’s economy has grown over the last two years and its gross domestic product likely will rebound by at least 6 percent this year, there’s no question that Vazquez begins his five-year term of office amid continuing economic uncertainty.
“By all means, 2004 was much better than the two previous years, but we’re going from minus 100 to minus 80,” said Cynovich, the Hillel director.
“Things have improved and people are a little more optimistic now, but there’s still a lot to do. The new government’s main challenge is to reduce the level of poverty in Uruguay.”
Vazquez, who was elected in October and sworn in Tuesday, has said he will place greater emphasis on social issues while distancing himself from the United States on a range of economic, trade and foreign policy issues.
This follows a recent trend in which Latin American countries have replaced their conservative pro-Washington governments with leftist ones.
The pattern began with the 1998 election of the populist Chavez in Venezuela and has continued with the victories of Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Ricardo Lagos in Chile and Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador.
“Our original concern has always been the left-wing position with respect to Israel. But there is no material proof that the position of the new government will be different than the last government,” said Miguel Brechner, who has been named by Vazquez to head Laboratorio Tecnologico del Uruguay, a state-owned scientific institute.
“Its policy in general will probably focus more on human rights and respect for minorities.”
Until last month, Brechner was the Comite’s general secretary, but he was required to step down from that post upon taking a government position.
He said that Uruguay historically has enjoyed close relations with Israel, and there is no reason to think those relations would be endangered by a leftist like Vazquez.
However, he said, “that doesn’t mean Uruguay will support Israel all the time” at the U.N. General Assembly. “We have had 20 years of democracy, and many times in the past, the Uruguayan government voted against Israel.”
In addition to Brechner, other Jews in the administration include Eduardo Zaydenstatt, head of Uruguay’s internal revenue service, and Daniel Olesker, who will reorganize the Ministry of Health.
In addition, Ricardo Ehrlich is heavily favored to become mayor of Montevideo following municipal elections in May.