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As Uruguay inaugurates its first leftist president, Jews wonder what's next
JTA / March 2, 2005

By Larry Luxner SAO PAULO, Brazil — Dr. Tabaré Ramón Vázquez was sworn in Tuesday as the first leftist president in Uruguayan history, as 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 Săo Paulo, is yes. They say Uruguay's Jews have nothing to fear from Vázquez — despite his admiration for Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez 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 Chávez cut off all contact with the Jewish community."

Added Israel Buszkaniec, president of the Comité Central Israelita del Uruguay (CCIU), 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 Chávez even before he took office, and they also supported the [2002] attempted coup against him. Vázquez is nothing like Chávez."

On the contrary, Vázquez, a 64-year-old oncologist and former mayor of Montevideo, has named at least half a dozen Jews to government posts. Last month, CCIU leaders 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 Joint Distribution Committee aimed at alleviating poverty in Uruguay, which was once known as the "Switzerland of Latin America" because of its prosperity and political stability.

According to the state-run National Institute of Statistics, nearly a third of Uruguay’s 3.4 million people are living below the poverty line, including 100,000 citizens classified as "destitute." In addition, Health Ministry figures show that 19% of Uruguayan children are severely malnourished.

Hard times have deeply affected Uruguay's Jews as well. Thousands of middle-class shopkeepers, merchants and other Jews found themselves jobless after Uruguay's economic crisis of 2001, a direct consequence of the peso devaluation in neighboring Argentina, which used to send two million tourists a year to Uruguay and, along with Brazil, accounted for much of the small country's external trade.

A successful debt swap helped restore confidence, leading to 2.5% economic growth in 2003 and 11% growth in 2004, after having shrunk by an alarming 11% in 2002.

Even though the Uruguay's GDP will likely rebound by at least 6% this year, there's no question Vázquez begins his five-year term of office amidst 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. "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."

Vázquez was elected president last October, ending 170 years of domination by the Colorado and Blanco parties. According to official results, his Frente Amplio (FA) party obtained just over 50% of the votes, compared with 34.3% for the Blanco party and 10.4% for the ruling Colorado party of former President Jorge Battle.

Vázquez 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 pro-Washington, conservative governments with leftist ones. The trend began with the 1998 election of populist Hugo Chávez 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 Gutiérrez in Ecuador.

"In the beginning, the Jewish community was afraid, but during the electoral campaign, it became apparent that Tabaré Vázquez would win," said Miguel Brechner, who has been named by Vázquez to head state-owned Laboratorio Tecnológico del Uruguay scientific institute. "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. Its policy in general will probably focus more on human rights and respect for minorities."

Until last month, Brechner was the CCIU's general secretary, but he was required to renounce that position upon taking a government position.

He said that Uruguay has historically enjoyed close relations with Israel, and there's no reason to think those relations would be endangered by a leftist like Vázquez. However, he said "that doesn't mean Uruguay will support Israel all the time [at the UN General Assembly]. We have had 20 years of democracy, and many times in the past, the Uruguayan government voted against Israel."

Besides 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.

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