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As Argentina Heads to Runoff, Jews Want Anyone but Menem

April 29, 2003
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With more skepticism than hope, Myriam Gartenkrot cast her vote for Argentine president on Sunday morning.

But the results were what she wanted least: Former President Carlos Menem placed first, winning a slot in a May 18 runoff, the first in the country’s history.

“I don’t have a strong conviction about who is the best choice,” Gartenkrot said. “What I’m sure about is that I don’t want to go back to the Menem era, when the terrorist attacks took place.”

She was referring to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA cultural center, which killed 85.

Both attacks took place during Menem’s time in office, which lasted from 1989 to 1999.

Critics accused Menem of corruption, and said his stewardship of the country led to the current economic meltdown.

In addition, a witness in the 1994 bombing case has accused Menem of receiving a $10 million bribe to cover up Iranian participation in the bombings, for which the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group remains the prime suspect. Menem denies the charge, saying it is politically motivated.

Menem still won 24 percent of the votes in Sunday’s first round, more than any of the other 17 candidates. But the run-off is up for grabs, as some two-thirds of Argentines say they will never vote for Menem, according to several polls.

Menem’s opponent will be Nestor Kirchner, the governor of Santa Cruz province in Patagonia, who won 22 percent of the vote on Sunday. Kirchner has the support of Argentina’s current president, Eduardo Duhalde.

Both Menem and Kirchner belong to the Peronist party, as did another first-round candidate, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, who got 14 percent of the vote.

Two candidates representing new political forces had strong showings on Sunday: Ricardo Lopez Murphy, a conservative former economy minister, got 16 percent of the vote and placed first in Buenos Aires.

A left-leaning coalition headed by Elisa Carrio got 14 percent of the vote, without even investing in campaign advertising.

No single candidate had overwhelming Jewish support. And some voters weren’t moved by any of the candidates.

“I come because it’s a civic duty” — voting is obligatory for citizens over age 18 — “but I am a clear example of the impoverished middle class and have little faith that something can change soon,” said Gartenkrot, a volunteer at the Iona Jewish day school and community center, where her youngest son, Axel, studies with a full scholarship.

Gartenkrot’s husband, Jorge Podostrej, a former shop owner, lately has been employed in a clothing shop and receives a salary of less than $300 dollars per month.

Their oldest daughter, Natalia, 16, also has a scholarship at a non-Jewish private school. To survive during the country’s economic crisis, the family shares its small first-floor apartment with Jorge’s mother.

Jose Zayat, 66, opened a kosher candy shop two weeks ago, thanks to Jewish communal support. His shop is in the Once neighborhood, home to many religious Jews.

Zayat used to have three shops but had to close them five years ago because of the economic crisis.

“As part of an impoverished middle class group, I vote for the least bad candidate, not out of conviction,” Zayat told JTA.

Eliau, 59, a Moroccan-born rabbi who asked that his last name not be published, passed by Zayat’s shop.

“I just hope Menem won’t become president after the runoff. It’s crucial for Jews, after the terrorist attacks,” Eliau said.

Before the elections, DAIA, the political umbrella organization of the Jewish community, invited each candidate to present his or her views to Jewish leaders.

Both Menem and Rodriguez Saa said they did not have time to attend the DAIA meetings.

In a telephone interview with JTA, Jose Hercman, DAIA’s president, said his institution would again invite Kirchner and Menem.

The local president of B’nai B’rith, Roberto Nul, said the Jewish community has reason to be dissatisfied with Menem’s halting investigation of the 1992 and 1994 bombings.

But Menem also took action on issues that were important to the community, such as opening files related to Nazis in Argentina and creating a committee to research Nazi activities in the country, Nul said.

On Monday morning, conversations at Jewish institutions across the capital focused on attitudes toward Menem. Israel Maganiezin, vice president of the Hebraica club, missed the elections because he was traveling, but returned Monday to hear people discussing the elections constantly.

“Everyone in the club kept repeating, ‘I didn’t vote for’ ” Menem, he said. “But many might have voted for him. He was first.”

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