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Argentina's New Sovereignty: Ambassador Diego Guelar
The Washington Diplomat / February 1999

By Larry Luxner

Ambassador Diego Ramiro Guelar leans back in his chair and schmoozes about the intracacies of Argentine politics, as he enjoys his yerba mate -- a bitter-tasting gaucho herbal tea traditionally sipped through a silver straw.

Guelar, 48, has quickly become one of the most prominent foreign diplomats in Washington. Known for his love of beef and tango, two leading Argentine exports, he's also the first Jew in Washington ever to represent the Argentine Republic -- a country long associated with Nazi war criminals, fascism and anti-Semitism.

"I believe in God but I don't attend synagogue, with the exception of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur," says the balding ambassador, whose Hebrew name is Moshe Ben-Tzion.

Guelar and his wife Diana Custodio arrived in Washington in August 1997, having just finished a three-year stint as Argentina's envoy to Brazil. Before that, he spent seven years in Brussels representing his country before the European Union. Among other things, Guelar has edited the opinion page of Buenos Aires newspaper La Razón, taught at the University of Maastricht in Holland, and served as vice-president of the Madrid-based Institute on European-Latin American Relations.

His first official act, even before presenting his credentials to President Clinton, was to sample the first shipment of USDA-certified fresh Argentine beef to the United States in 68 years, which had been banned because of hoof-and-mouth disease. A few months later, he helped arrange Clinton's historic meeting with President Carlos Menem in Buenos Aires.

And last month [January 1999], Guelar was instrumental in bringing Menem to Washington, in a trip that highlighted the strengthening friendship between the United States and Argentina -- two countries that didn't always see eye to eye on human rights and other key issues.

"It was a very positive visit, and represented a real major change in the relations between the United States and Argentina," said Guelar. "President Menem is in his 10th year in office. He's not going to run again, because the constitution forbids him from running, but he already promised at his speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that's he's going to be back in Washington in 2003 as president once again, because in our political system, after one term of office, he can run again."

Ambassador Guelar says his two main objectives in Washington are quite clear: "One is to strengthen the very good relations that already exist between Argentina and the United States. The second one is to inaugurate the beginning of a new relationship between Mercosur and the U.S. That's a very exciting process."

"Our country is increasing in terms of U.S. priority. We used to be just on the margin of civilization," said Guelar, praising Clinton's recognition of the Mercosur integration process, which ties together the economies of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. "We are building a very ambitious project, a nation of nations -- a new type of sovereignty linked more to the 21st century than to the 19th -- without losing our sense of origin or national identity."

Nevertheless, he says "there's a serious lack of perception here about the Southern Cone. The movie Evita was a mixture of Carmen Miranda, bananas and tango." Outside of the U.S. business community, "public opinion in general is completely inaccurate."

During a one-hour interview at the Argentine Embassy off Dupont Circle, Guelar said his appointment by Menem shows just how far this nation of 35 million inhabitants has transformed itself in the late 20th century from dictatorship to democracy.

"This is a clear expression of a melting pot, where we can have an Arab president of Muslim origin -- even though most of the country is Catholic -- and a Jewish ambassador in Washington," he said.

Like many Eastern European Jews, Guelar's great-grandfather immigrated from Lithuania in 1880, to a little town named Schonenfeld (which in Spanish was called San Salvador). The town doesn't exist anymore, though it's close to present-day Dominguez in the province of Entre Ríos. In 1935, at the age of 16, his father relocated to Buenos Aires -- a growing metropolis that would eventually boast the largest Jewish community in South America. Guelar was born there in 1950.

Despite the anti-Semitism once associated with Menem's Peronist party, Guelar claims that's no longer the case.

"Jews have always been involved in politics, especially during the democratic periods," he said. "Traditionally, the community's relationship used to be stronger with the Radical Party, because we used to have within the Peronist movement rightist sectors who were involved in anti-Semitic ideologies. We used to have both extremes in a way -- extreme left and extreme right. When you're in the underground, it's hard to work in regular conditions. With the consolidation of democracy, both sectors were expelled from the party. Now it's thought of as a centrist party. There's no xenophobia or racism."

While serving as a deputy in Parliament, Guelar was instrumental in pushing through a law forbidding the expression of anti-Semitic views, whether they take the form of pamphlets, newsletters or desecration of synagogues or Jewish cemeteries. "Those types of things still happen," he says. "I think we have to remain very cautious, and not think it's a problem of the past."

In fact, Guelar believes it was President Menem's pro-U.S. stance during the Gulf War and his friendship with Israel that led to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people and injured 252, and the 1994 destruction of the AMIA Jewish Social Welfare Building (also in Buenos Aires) in which 86 died and 240 were injured.

"We used to have domestic violence and guerrilla warfare related to problems within Argentina. But we weren't prepared for suicide attacks by extremists coming from overseas," he said. "At any moment, two well-dressed people with good fake passports can enter Argentina with a little plastic bomb and can kill me, President Menem or Congress, and we don't have the security measures [against] that type of methodology."

Despite its geographical isolation, Argentina has become an important player on the world stage in recent years. In December, Menem expressed his full support of President Clinton's surprise bombing raid on Iraq. This followed Washington's recent designation of Argentina as a non-NATO military ally, which Guelar says is in recognition of Argentine peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, Guatemala, Haiti, Angola, Western Sahara, Croatia, Kuwait and other hotspots.

In the meantime, Guelar is focusing his efforts on attracting U.S. investors to Argentina, which currently enjoys Latin America's highest per-capita income (around $8,000) and a 1997 inflation rate of only 0.3% -- compared to 5,000% in 1989.

Investors recently polled by New York investment bank Merrill Lynch say Argentine debt offers the best performance prospects in Latin America. That view prevailed even though 67% of respondents don't expect the one-to-one peg to last until 2000.

"We had under 1% inflation last year, and will achieve the same rate this year. There is no reason to have this rigid procedure anymore," said Guelar. He added that although peso convertibility was "extremely useful" at one point, Argentine prosperity no longer depends so much on parity with the dollar, as on reducing unemployment.

"There is no doubt unemployment is our most delicate issue. It hit a peak of 20% but has since descended as the [Mexican] tequila crisis of 1995 wears off. Now it's around 12%, and we hope that in a couple of years more, it's going to be 8%."

Of equal concern is the unfolding crisis in Brazil, which last month [January 1999] devalued its currency, the real, by 8%. That worries Argentina, since Brazil buys 30% of all Argentine exports, but Guelar said his country will try to compensate by selling key commodities and exports like grain, petroleum products and automobiles to other markets.

In the meantime, Guelar has started up the Smiling Beef Club every Tuesday night in the patio of the ambassador's residence. And on Thursday nights, the residence hosts Guelar's newly inaugurated U.S. Tango Academy, with friend and actor Robert Duvall as its president. Other celebrities being enlisted as part-time instructors include actor Al Pacino, singers Madonna and Placido Domingo, and Argentine jazz composers Lalo Schifrin and Gato Barbieri.

Guelar, who recently told The Washington Post that the traditional Argentine dance "is like walking and making love," hopes as many as 1,500 couples will sign up for tango lessons in the project's first year. The Argentine Embassy is organizing the training for an end-of-season tango party on Sept. 24, 1999 at Wolf Trap Farm.

As to his own future, Ambassador Guelar isn't sure how long he'll remain in Washington; that depends on how well the peronistas do in presidential elections later this year. In October 1997, the party lost crucial mid-term elections -- though the diplomat says he wasn't exactly surprised at the outcome.

"If you have a democratic system, you cannot win all the time. After eight years, we still got 40% of the vote. That's not bad." Guelar insists that "even though the Peronists lost the mid-term election, we have every possibility of winning in 1999."

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