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Around the Jewish World in Bolivia, Unrest Expected to Increase Jewish Emigration

July 11, 2005
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The political, social and ethnic crisis in Bolivia is taking a toll on the country’s small Jewish community. The landlocked Andean nation practically ground to a halt last month in the face of nationwide protests that cut off food and gas supplies from the major cities. There have been two presidential resignations in the past 18 months, and the country is awaiting actions from the Supreme Court president — who recently took over as national president — to guide the country to new elections before the end of 2005, though his support in the country’s Parliament seems to be faltering.

The indigenous people, who make up the bulk of Bolivia’s population of 8 million, are demanding more say in the government and calling for nationalization of natural gas fields. The gas-rich city of Santa Cruz has answered those demands by saying it could secede from the nation and form its own autonomous territory.

“The first major effect of this long situation is the fact that one has to live in a world of great uncertainty,” said Gabriel Hercman, institutional director of Circulo Israelita, the main Bolivian Jewish organization. “Our children cannot go to school because it isn’t safe to travel. There is no production in the country, no investments, and that is certain to bring major consequences down the line. The lack of being able to plan out anything with any certainty is a terrible situation.”

Hercman says there are only about 600 Jews left in Bolivia — half of them in La Paz — down from a high of around 2,000 in the 1950s. The recent protests included a bit of anti-Semitism, but it wasn’t a major focus, he said.

“There were demonstrations that, more than anti-Semitic, were against all foreigners. The most vehement and vociferous of these groups against any foreigners was the indigenous groups in El Alto,” a huge suburb of La Paz, he said. “There is a group in La Paz called Unzaguista Falange, they are an extreme right-wing organization and they have put on their Web site nationalistic and xenophobic diatribes.”

The protests could accelerate Jewish emigration, Hercman predicted.

“Many Jews have left the country. Some have gone to Israel but most have immigrated to the United States,” he said.

Because of the unrest, Israel evacuated its citizens from Bolivia early last month. Two dozen Israeli trekkers were airlifted to Peru, and approximately 150 Israelis marooned at a hotel in La Paz, the capital, were evacuated.

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