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Brazil's Jews pleasantly surprised by new president, despite tough times
JTA / July 15, 2003

By Larry Luxner

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Leaders of Brazil's 120,000-member Jewish community say they're impressed with the country's new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, despite initial misgivings that he would throw the country into economic and political chaos.

Community leaders interviewed here also say that Lula, a former factory worker whose leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) triumphed in last October's elections, has cultivated warm relations with Jewish institutions and is committed to fighting poverty — including Jewish poverty — throughout this nation of 175 million.

"All indications are good," said Jayme Blay, president of the Federação Israelita do Estado de São Paulo, an umbrella group of 55 institutions serving the 60,000 Jews of São Paulo state. "Lula's decisions are getting good grades by the IMF, so he's on the right track. Nobody could suspect he would have gone this way. All of a sudden, we felt we were wrong about Lula because he's proven to be more centrist than even [former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique] Cardoso."

As a result, he said, Brazilian Jews are "much more comfortable" with Lula now.

"Lula himself said he's a very good friend of Israel. He's been there, and he knows Israeli leaders," Blay said during an interview at his office in São Paulo. "For a long time, he's supported the existence of a Jewish state with full security. On the other hand, he also supports a Palestinian state. When we met him, he mentioned that the PT probably has more Jews in its ranks than any other political party in Brazil."

Indeed, two of Lula's cabinet members are Jews: Jacques Wagner, the minister of labor, and Guido Mantega, minister of planning. In addition, one of Lula's closest aides, Clara Ant, is Jewish, as is his chief spokesman, Andre Singer.

About half of Brazil's 120,000 Jews live in São Paulo; another 30,000 reside in Rio de Janeiro, with the remaining 30,000 divided among other major cities including Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Pôrto Alegre, Recife, Salvador and Belem.

Jack Terpins, president of the Confederação Israelita do Brasil, said that while only 10% of Brazil's Jews are believed to have voted for Lula back in October, some 80% would vote for him if the election were held today.

"The Jews were afraid of Lula, because he favors the Palestinians and because he came from the left. We've always been afraid of extremes — the left as well as the right — and Lula was an extremist who was jailed by the military," Terpins told JTA. "But he himself said the political campaign is one thing and power is another. He's invited the president of BankBoston, a symbol of capitalism, to run the Central Bank."

Despite the optimism, Lula faces a difficult task: reviving Brazil's economy following a crippling devaluation of the Brazilian real in January 1999 that catapulted millions of Brazilians into poverty and made life much worse for those who were poor to begin with.

Among other things, the new president has promised to pursue free-market policies, aggressively push exports and fight hunger through a new initiative, Fome Zero, that has the solid support of Brazil's mainstream Jewish organizations.

"I think if Lula stays in the same direction, things will be alright," said Dora Lucia Brenner, director of a large Jewish charity known as Unibes. "He's just beginning to learn how to run this country."

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