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Argentina's Mensch in Washington
Bnai Brith Jewish Monthly / May-June 1998

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, 47, is hardly your typical Latin American diplomat. His Hebrew name is Moshe Ben-Tzion, and he's the first Jew in Washington ever to represent Argentina -- a country long associated with Nazi war criminals 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, adding that "I've had very good relations with B'nai B'rith for a long time."

Guelar and his non-Jewish wife Diana Custodio arrived in Washington last August, 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.

Guelar's first official act, even before presenting his credentials to President Clin-ton, 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 weeks later, he addressed a B'nai B'rith Center for Public Policy meeting in Washington. Then, in mid-October, he helped arrange Clinton's historic meeting with President Carlos Menem in Buenos Aires -- a trip Guelar says will have lasting significance for Argentina.

"Our country is increasing in terms of U.S. priority. We used to be just on the margin of civilization," he said, praising the president'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."

During a one-hour interview at the Argentine Embassy, a few blocks from B'nai B'rith International headquarters, Guelar said his appointment by President Menem shows just how far Argentina 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. "Our minister of interior, Carlos Corach, is Jewish. So is the former president of the majority group in Parliament, Jorge Matzkin, as well as Energy Secretary Jorge Mirkin."

Like many shtetl 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.

Today, between 300,000 and 400,000 of Argentina's 35 million citizens are Jews, though Guelar says at one time the community numbered as many as 650,000.

"During the Six-Day War, quite a big group of Jewish boys and girls decided to go to Israel. And during the terrible years of dictatorship and repression, many Jews left for Spain, Venezuela, Australia, the United States and Brazil.

"Until 1994, the Jewish community was officially a second-class community," said Guelar, referring to a law that allowed only Catholics to serve as president (the chief reason Menem converted from Islam to Catholicism before entering politics). "Why is it that my son Alejo, a fifth-generation Argentine, could not become president of Argentina because of the constitution? That's not a minor detail."

Yet with the scrapping of that law four years ago, and the general acceptance of Jews by the general population, Guelar says it's become harder to maintain a distinct Jewish identity.

"If you're excluded and not permitted to mix, your identity problem is solved," says the diplomat. "That's what happened in Europe for centuries. Now, if you can be president, intermarry and have any job you want, it's a major challenge. Books have been written all over the world on this subject."

And 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. 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."

"I think we have anti-Semitism, but I don't feel it on an everyday basis," he adds. "It's illegal to express anti-Semitic ideas, because nobody would accept it publicly -- not the media, nor the leadership of the party, nor cultural institutions. It would be immediately criticized."

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.

"Menem was the first president of Argentina who officially visited Israel. He sent two warships and almost 900 soldiers to the Gulf War. For me, there is a very close link between this and the two attacks. This gave extremists a reason to hit Argentina. This attack on Argentina -- using the Jewish community -- was a way to send a message to other countries, warning them not to get involved in conflicts as an ally of Israel."

Guelar adds: "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. 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."

On Dec. 16, B'nai B'rith International urged the Menem government to wrap up its probe and apprehend those responsible for both attacks. Its resolution asks the U.S., Canadian and British governments "to use their leverage and influence with the Argentine government to ensure that justice is served."

Yet Guelar denies his government is blocking the investigations in any way, even though none of those who planned and executed the bombings has ever been identified.

"There is no doubt that some [local] logistics has to exist," he speculated. "But this is not related to a local conflict. That's why it's hard to find the culprits, because the real authors are not members of the Argentine community."

Meanwhile, Guelar is focusing his efforts on attracting U.S. investors to Argentina, which currently enjoys Latin America's highest per-capita income (around $8,500) and an annual GDP growth rate of 8.4%, but is still plagued by unemployment of around 13% -- one of the worst jobless rates in Argentine history.

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."

Nevertheless, he says "there's a serious lack of perception here about the Southern Cone. The movie Evita was mixture of Carmen Miranda, bananas and tango." Outside of the U.S. business community, "public opinion in general is completely inaccurate." Yet Guelar praised Clinton's recent designation of Argentina as a non-NATO military ally, saying this is in recognition of Argentine peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, Guatemala, Haiti and other hotspots.

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 the 1999 presidential elections. In October, 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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