A Visit to South America

The Jewish Humanist, October 1989

 

This summer I was in Argentina. I was in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. An adventure on the Amazon lured me. The ever-present political turmoil intrigued me. And the presence of two Humanistic Jewish communities in Montevideo and Buenos Aires aroused my missionary instincts.

The most troubled country I visited was Argentina. I had been there before, just after a military junta had overthrown Isabel Peron in a swift coup. Now I returned to the same nation immediately after the election of Saul Menem, a loyal disciple of Isabel’s husband, to the presidency of the republic. This election, took place amid the worst financial crisis the Argentine people have ever experienced. Rioting and the looting of stores had preceded my arrival.

I did not know what I would find when I took the hydrofoil from Uruguay to Buenos Aires on a cold rainy windy winter’s day. Would “the Big Apple” still be the exciting splendid city I still remembered? Would there be violence in the streets? Would the military allow a follower of Juan Peron to be the leader of the nation? Was the Jewish community safe or in danger?

My boat trip allowed me to reflect on the causes of the present Argentine distress. Once viewed as the wealthy land of cattle barons and gauchos, Argentina was now sinking, through economic distress, into the status of a third World country. And the cause of her problem was none other than the most charismatic leader of her history – Juan Peron.

When Peron came to power in 1946, he decided to maintain his power through the promotion of a political ideology which was half-fascist and half-socialist. The foundation of his power was a unique alliance between the military and the labor unions (“the shirtless ones”). This bonding was accompanied by an extreme nationalism which sought to dislodge all foreign control of the Argentine economy. It was reinforced by the personal skill of Evita, Peron’s wife, and the new welfare system which she promoted. Banks and basic industries were nationalized. Foreign investors, especially the British were driven out. New factories were built with state money and state control. Hundreds of thousands of farm workers left the pampas to find their fortunes in the new, jobs in the cities. The standard of living rose, especially for the working class, and especially for the friends of Peron.

So long as a devastated Europe provided a market for Argentine manufactured goods – as well as the more traditional meat and wheat – Peron was secure. Bu when Europe revived the easy markets disappeared. Exports dropped. But imports did not drop. The price of political power was that Peron could no reduce his subsidies to his labor allies. The imbalance grew, aggravated by the inefficiency and corruption of state industries. Inflation followed – at first slow, and then devastating. Even after the fall of Peron the military governments that followed could not reverse the devastation. The last military government, much addicted to terror and a sadistic fear of suspected leftists and liberals, made everything worse through a new free trade policy which bankrupted whatever private industry still survived. After years of protection, the fresh air of competition was lethal. Only borrowing money from America seemed to be the answer to these problems. The debt rose astronomically. And the economy collapsed.

When I arrived in Buenos Aires, the city was much shabbier than I remembered it. The grandeur of a city that had tried desperately to be like Paris was still there. But it was faded and was in need of repair. There is no money to fix anything. Potholes fill the streets. And all construction has stopped. Nothing is being built. The country is at an economic standstill. The currency is worthless. In February, 17 Argentine australes bought you one American dollar. In July, it took 700 australes to do the same work. Inflation is somewhere around 12,000% per annum right now. It is so bad that prices are never posted, credit cards are never accepted and banks pay 1,000% interest on short-run deposits. Middle-class people with fixed incomes are sinking into poverty. Working-class people have no money to buy food or clothing. Only the rich, with easy access to American dollars, seem to be weathering the storm. An underground economy of illegal transactions is thriving.

Right now, in most neighborhoods, the people are too exhausted and stunned to rebel. They are also waiting to see what the new government is going to do. Desperation breeds hope.

The government is the first democratically elected regime in sixty -years to follow another democratically -elected regime a major achievement in itself. For the past six years after the disastrous Falklands War unseated the military junta, the Radical Party – and their leader, Raul Alfonsin – tried valiantly to reverse the legacy of Peron and the military. But they failed. They did succeed in punishing many of the military murderers of innocent victims, including prominent generals who now linger in jail. Yet, they could not rescue the economy. Foreign investors shunned them. And state industries resisted their reforms.

Now the Peronists are back in power. The military detest them as much as they detest the Radicals. But they do not want to be responsible for the economy. They would prefer to -wait and see -what happens.

Menem, the new president, is an enigma. He is an Arab Muslim who converted to Catholicism so that he could be both a politician and president in a Catholic country. He was a mediocre governor of a poverty-stricken province and was famous for womanizing and public spats with his volatile wife. But he is a sportsman and a demagogue, with the oratorical power to reach the masses that Peron did. His campaign slogans were hardly suggestive of a rational approach to the economic disaster.

But he has surprised everybody. His amnesty for army officers still awaiting prosecution was predictable – as well as his proposal to pardon convicted generals. Even though he was jailed by the junta, he needs to appease the army and his constituency will not object. Yet his economic proposals are a total repudiation of the Peronist legacy. He has called for the privatization of state industries. This revolutionary proposal would mean the sale of Argentine industry to foreign investors. Peron must be turning over in his grave!

Privatization means foreign investment and foreign control. It is a slap in the face to all the Argentine chauvinists who supported self-sufficiency and the anti-British war. But there is no alternative. Without foreign money the Argentine economy cannot be made productive. Menem took a bold step that even his more liberal predecessor was afraid to take. Sometimes radical action is only tolerated in leaders who are seen as impeccably conservative and patriotic.

Amid this economic mess the Jews of Argentina are managing to survive. With 300,000 in the nation and 250,000 in Buenos Aires, they are primarily a capital city phenomenon. Some are rich. Most are middle-class and professional. Some are poor. Almost all of them were opposed to the Peronists and supported Alfonsin and the Radical Party. They viewed the Menem victory with great apprehension. Visions of new repressions, anti-Semitic outbursts and economic chaos were part of their anxiety.

Right now they are less afraid than they were. Given the number of Jewish victims of junta murders, the proposed amnesty is disturbing. But some Jews realize that the amnesty may be the price that needs to be paid to keep the army from taking over. The economic proposals of Menem are heartening and welcome. Like the rest of the middle-class they are waiting to see whether these reforms will indeed be realized.

Many Jews, like other Argentinians, have lost faith in the possibility that the legacy of Peron can be reversed. They want to leave. But where can they go?

Europe is now the favorite possibility. Since most Argentinians are of Spanish and Italian descent, they hope to find easy access to the new European Economic Community through a return to the lands of their ancestors. It is ironic that the great-grandchildren of the peasants who fled Spain and Italy because of poverty now want to go back to their homelands because they see those countries as richer than Argentina.

While Europe is a strong option for Jews, both North America and Israel have great appeal – the United States for economic reasons, Israel for ethnic and cultural reasons.

There is a significant Aliyah to Israel. Most of Argentine Jewry is overwhelmingly secular and Zionistic. The synagogue is a minor institution compared to the independent day schools and private community centers which dominate Jewish community life. The two biggest Jewish institutions in Buenos Aires are Club Hebraica and Club Hakvakh. They are unique to Argentina and other Latin American countries. They are a cross between a country club, a cultural center and a school. Religion is almost nonexistent in their programming. Zionism and Hebrew are dominant. In the more hostile environment of Argentina, Israel is more than a romantic attachment. It is a real alternative.

Despite the barriers of Catholic culture, assimilation is widespread and intermarriage is growing. Feeding on the fears of Argentine Jewry for its future are the newly arrived emissaries of ultra-Orthodoxy who offer themselves as the only guarantee of Jewish survival. Their influence is increasing, despite the secular orientation of most Argentinian Jews.

Humanistic Jews in Argentina now have their own association with their own magazine. Their president is Gregorio Klimovsky, a world-renowned professor of philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires. Many distinguished writers and posts have also joined the movement.

Their task is clear. While most Argentine Jews are secular, they are not self-consciously or positively secular. They simply see themselves as not religious. This negative posture makes them vulnerable to all the new conservative religious governments that provide a positive affirmation of Jewish identity. The job of the Association is to offer self-awareness to secular Jews and to give them humanistic ways to express their Jewish commitment. Certainly, the Zionist and Yiddishist heritage of Argentine Jewry can reinforce that task.

Despite the economic distress, I was inspired by my contact with our soul brothers and sisters in Argentina. They are eager for contact and sharing. And I assured them that we in North America are eager too.

The future of the Association will depend on the future of Argentine Jewry. And the future of Argentine Jewry will depend on the future of Argentina.

Can the economic disaster be reversed? Right now hope is the best policy available.