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In a struggling Latin America, Jews face a host of challenges
JTA / July 15, 2003

By Larry Luxner

In economically ravaged Argentina, thousands of once-prosperous Jews now depend on charity for their basic needs — despite optimism sparked by the recent inauguration of a new president and a slight improvement in the economy.

Across the Río de la Plata in Uruguay, the storefronts of Jewish-owned shops in downtown Montevideo remain shuttered as the country continues to implode. To the north in Brazil, the economic outlook is better, though soup kitchens are still the main source of nourishment for hundreds of elderly Jews in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

"The situation is very difficult," says Bernardo Kliksberg, a senior economist at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. "In Argentina, we estimate that 60,000 of the country's 220,000 Jews are below the poverty level; of these 60,000, approximately 25,000 live in extreme poverty. That means they cannot meet the most basic needs."

"The situation is also very bad in Uruguay, where the trends are similar, and in Brazil and Venezuela," said Kliksberg, an Argentine Jew who has written 33 books on social justice and the root causes of poverty in Latin America.

Poverty's Jewish victims include professionals who have been laid off as a result of recent privatizations, as well as tailors, shopkeepers and other small merchants whose have been forced to close their businesses in the wake of cost-cutting austerity measures that have sapped their customers' purchasing power.

In a series of articles beginning today, JTA will look at how Latin America's Jews — which number approximately 415,000 out of a total population of 508 million — are responding to the economic, social and political challenges facing them.

Those challenges include preserving dwindling communities in the face of emigration to the United States and Israel, dealing with a dramatic shift to the left following elections in Brazil and several other countries, and fighting the anti-Semitism that has sporadically cropped up in Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico in response to events in the Middle East and economic difficulties at home.

By far, the region's largest Jewish community is in Argentina. Home to nearly half the region's Jews, Argentina — once the most richest country in Latin America — is finally beginning to pull itself out of its worst depression in over a century. The May 22 inauguration of President Nestor Kirchner ensured that former President Carlos Menem, who many say bankrupted the country during his 10 years of office, would never return to political life here.

William Recant, assistant executive vice-president at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Inc., said that while the JDC is "committed to the rescue, relief and rehabilitation of Jewish communities" outside of North America, "Argentina is a great example of the way JDC has to move with the times."

The organization's worldwide budget is $220 million, of which $15.7 million — or about 7% — went to Argentina alone in fiscal 2003.

"We're currently feeding 36,000 Jews," he said. "We have 74 centers around the country with employment bureaus, and we're doing community restructuring programs. Synagogues have come to us and asked us for help. Wherever we go, we go in with the local community as our partners."

Yet things may be beginning to brighten up slightly in Argentina — a mood further encouraged by the swearing-in of Kirchner as the country's new leader.

"There are some signs of recovery," said Dr. Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress in New York. "For example, hear fewer people talking about aliyah. From a Zionist point of view, that's bad, but it's a fact that people in Argentina do feel more comfortable and they're hopeful that things will get better."

Things have already gotten somewhat better in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, home to 120,000 Jews — and about six million Arabs. The country has Latin America's largest economy, and in January 1999, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was forced to devalue the Brazilian real by 50%. The move may have saved the Brazilian economy in the long run but in the short run it wiped out the savings of millions of Brazilians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

"Unlike the case in Argentina and Uruguay, there was no sudden exodus to Israel, said Jayme Blay, president of the influential Federação Israelita do Estado de São Paulo. "In Argentina, they went straight to extreme poverty. Here in Brazil, our welfare net could still manage and try to help people survive."

Jack Terpins, president of the Confederação Israelita do Brasil as well as the World Jewish Congress, agreed.

"Brazilians are more accustomed to poverty than Argentines," he said. "Argentina always had the highest quality of life in Latin America, and Brazil has always had lots of poverty. But the Jews have adapted to the situation in Brazil."

Meanwhile, in poor, isolated countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, the relatively tiny but well-off Jewish communities are in danger of disappearing altogether. In Peru, the country's 3,000 Jews are still reeling from an internal banking scandal that turned millionaires into paupers overnight.

Poverty is also beginning to affect the lives of Mexico's fragmented yet wealthy 40,000-member Jewish community, as a result of the country's continuing economic stagnation.

In oil-rich Venezuela, concern about the country's 16,000 remaining Jews is mounting in the face of widespread opposition to Hugo Chávez, the country's populist — yet deeply unpopular — president.

"People there feel the country is sliding toward totalitarianism," Beker told JTA. "The country also has close ties with Iran, which worries the Jews there. Young Jews don't see a future in Venezuela. More are leaving the country all the time."

Thousands of Jews have also left neighboring Colombia, a country of 41 million that has been wracked by kidnappings, drug wars, political violence and assassinations for decades. The exodus of Venezuelans as well as Colombians has brought many Spanish-speaking Jews to the United States — specifically the Miami area — where the newcomers have joined Cuban Jewish exiles living in South Florida for the last 40 years.

Yet in Cuba itself, Jewish life hangs on, largely thanks to donations from American Jewish organizations — and despite a totalitarian regime and the U.S. trade embargo which further isolates Cuba's 1,300 or so Jews from their American brethren.

Dr. José Miller, a 78-year-old retired surgeon and longtime president of Cuba's Jewish community, said worsening political tensions between Washington and Havana have aggravated living conditions for all Cubans, Jew and Gentile alike.

Even so, he said, "we're better off now than we were in the early 1990s, when we couldn't find anything to eat. In general, the Jews in Cuba live the same as everyone else, and in some ways better. The Jewish community has lots of friends, and whenever we have an opportunity, we ask people to help us."

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