Letter from Lima

Letter from Lima

(See editor's note)

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Lima
David A. Harris
Executive Director, American Jewish Committee
November 28, 2005
(*See editor's note at bottom of letter)

Here's a political trivia test:

Name the one country today—outside Israel—where the president, speaking before the Israeli Knesset in a special session earlier this year, began his remarks with the words, Am Yisrael Chai ("the people of Israel live").

Name the one country today—outside Israel—where the first lady is Jewish, was a member of a left-of-center Zionist youth movement, studied in Israel, and raised her daughter to speak Hebrew.

Name the one country today where the vice president is an active member of the Jewish community.

Name the one country today where the current prime minister, a distinguished economist, practically commuted to Israel as an investment banker, over a span of six or seven years, to advise it on privatization efforts.

And name the one country in South America today that is included in every list of Israel's closest friends in the world.

As you would have guessed from the title, the answer to all five questions is Peru, though the information may come as a surprise to many. After all, Peru seldom surfaces in discussions of world Jewry or Israel's global standing. It deserves greater attention, as befits a friend.

An American Jewish Committee delegation met with Alejandro Toledo, Peru's president since 2001, in September, one of several opportunities we've had to chat with the Peruvian leader. After a bit of bantering, he turned to us and said, "Let's get down to tachlis." In that spirit, let's focus, first, on the nuts and bolts.

Geographically, Peru is located along the Pacific Ocean, and is bordered on the north by Ecuador and Colombia, on the east by Brazil and Bolivia, and on the south by Chile. After Brazil and Argentina, it is South America's third largest country, slightly smaller than Alaska. Its population of 28 million places it fourth among the most populous South American nations, following Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia.

On the UN's 2004 Human Development Index, Peru ranks #85 of the 177 countries measured, well behind Argentina (#34), Chile (#43), and Uruguay (#46), but ahead of Paraguay (#89), Ecuador (#100), and Bolivia (#114). (For the curious, Norway tops the list, the U.S. is #8, and Sierra Leone comes in last.)

Historically, Peru was famed as the home of Inca civilization. Spanish explorers in search of gold and silver, led by Francisco Pizarro, arrived in the sixteenth century, ravaging the Incas through superior weapons and the deadly impact of imported diseases. The occupiers remained for nearly three centuries. They finally left in defeat in 1824, three years after the country declared its independence under the leadership of General José de San Martin, and four decades after a failed revolt led by the legendary Tupac Amaru, who claimed to be descended from the last Inca leader. Striking remnants of both the Inca Empire and the Spanish presence are still found in the country, making such places as Machu Picchu and Cuzco coveted destinations for travelers from around the world.

Of Machu Picchu, the British author Sacheverell Sitwell wrote:

This is the most stupendous approach there has ever been, to something which in its own right is perhaps the most startlingly dramatic archaeological site in either the Old or the New World. For the setting is enough, is almost too much in itself. It is nearly too good to be believed that there should be something to see here.

And of Cuzco, Christopher Isherwood, the Anglo-American writer, said:

There is no sense in my trying to describe Cuzco; I should only be quoting from the guide-book.... What remains with you is the sense of a great outrage, magnificent but unforgivable. The Spaniards tore down the Inca temples and grafted splendid churches and mansions on to their foundations. This is one of the most beautiful monuments to bigotry and sheer stupid brutality in the whole world.

Politically, Peru is a democracy, but, like many of its neighbors, has had a topsy-turvy history, bouncing back and forth from elected leaders to military strongmen, with some extra dollops of corruption and scandal thrown in along the way.

The cynical view of Peru's political history was perhaps most succinctly expressed by the noted Peruvian writer Manuel Scorza who, in 1970, said, "In Peru, there are two kinds of problems: those which will never be resolved and those which will resolve themselves."

Possibly Peru's best-known—or most notorious—leader in recent memory was Alberto Fujimori, who served as president for ten years before seeking asylum in Japan rather than face corruption charges in his native land. Elected in 1990, when he ran against the famed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, the mathematician-turned-politician and son of Japanese immigrants promised to tackle the country's three most pressing issues—the hyperinflation that reached 400 percent under his predecessor, Alan Garcia; widespread corruption; and the devastation wrought by the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, whose armed struggle in the name of a "utopian" communist vision cost tens of thousands of lives.

Fujimori was reelected in 1995, thanks to the adoption of a new constitution that allowed the president to serve more than one consecutive five-year term. (As a result of the Fujimori experience, the constitution was changed back to prevent an incumbent president from running for a second term.) During his decade in office, he succeeded in curbing inflation—with the help of his prime minister and finance minister, Efrain Goldenberg Schreiber, who was a member of the Jewish community—and dealt a near fatal blow to the guerillas, capturing Abimael Guzman, the leader and ideological sparkplug of Sendero Luminoso. Among the many arrested was a young Jewish woman from New York, Lori Berenson, who, in a closed court, was found guilty of treason for collaborating with the guerillas and sentenced to life imprisonment. Later, after pressure from Washington and a public campaign by her family, her sentence was reduced to twenty years.

Along the way, Fujimori was accused of human rights violations and embroiled in political and financial scandals. As a result, the Peruvian Congress, in 2000, declared him "morally unfit" to lead the country. An interim president was named, prompting Fujimori to flee to Japan and seek asylum in his parents' native land, which has no extradition treaty with Peru.

In June 2001, Alejandro Toledo was elected president, with 59 percent of the vote. In an improbable and inspiring political journey, Toledo became the first Peruvian of indigenous descent to lead the nation. Born in an impoverished Andean village, he was one of sixteen siblings, seven of whom died in early childhood. By age seven, he was shining shoes to help his family, who had moved to Chimbote, a coastal town, where their home had neither electricity nor running water. With the assistance of Peace Corps volunteers, he was able to obtain a scholarship to the University of San Francisco. After graduation in 1971, he went on to earn a doctorate at Stanford University and began a career as a respected economist and professor.

At Stanford, he met Eliane Karp, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who was born in Paris to Belgian Jewish parents with a strong Zionist background. After high school, she worked on a kibbutz, did her undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and went to Stanford for a Master's degree in anthropology. They married in 1979.

Regarding her Jewish identity, she said in an interview published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (June 9, 2000): "My vision of Judaism, although it is not religious, is one of enlightenment and justice. This is how I was brought up. My commitment as a Jew and a human being is to fight against dictatorship and injustice wherever it exists."

Returning for a moment to the subject of political trivia, as I learned four decades ago when researching a high school paper, Karp was not the first Jewish woman to marry a South American who would go on to lead his country; she was at least the second. Chicago-born Janet Rosenberg married Dr. Cheddi Jagan, a Northwestern University-trained dentist, who spearheaded Guyana's independence struggle against Britain, served as prime minister from 1961 to 1964, and as president from 1992 to 1997. In fact, after his death in 1997, she was elected head of state, a post she held for two years. Thus, not only was she the pioneer Jewish first lady in South America, but also the first Jew elected in her own right to lead a country in the Western Hemisphere.

In a case of "exquisite timing," Fujimori arrived by private plane in Chile earlier this month, precisely on the day our delegation was in Santiago to honor the country's president, Ricardo Lagos, and announced his wish to return to Peru to run for the presidency in the April 2006 elections. In reality, he is legally barred from doing so until 2011, and could face possible imprisonment. At the time of writing, Fujimori is being held by Chilean authorities, while Peru seeks his extradition. This adds to an already full bilateral agenda. Currently, there is a war of words between Chile and Peru over a disputed maritime boundary.

With or without Fujimori's return, Peru faces its share of challenges.

It's true that there's been good news on the economic front. The U.S. Department of State earlier this year described the Peruvian economy as "well managed ... and one of the most dynamic in Latin America, showing particularly strong growth over the past three years." The nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown at a healthy clip over the past several years, inflation has been curbed, foreign reserves have increased, and the external debt has declined as a percentage of GDP.

Even so, as a developing country, Peru still has a long way to go in attracting foreign investment, diversifying its economic base, raising the standard of living, addressing widespread poverty, boosting health care, and improving the educational system, including lagging high school graduation rates.

This may be why, according to one survey cited during our visit, as many as 80 percent of Peruvian young people think about leaving the country, most mentioning the United States as a desired destination, where an estimated two million Peruvians currently live. They contend that there are too few opportunities in their native land, although by any objective standard Peru, at least on paper, has all the ingredients—from vast size to abundant natural resources, from fertile farmland to extensive coastline—to become the continent's next Chile, in other words, a democratic country with solid institutions and a rapidly expanding economy. This fairly widespread sense of pessimism helps explain President Toledo's stubbornly low approval ratings in the polls—in the 10-15 percent range—notwithstanding the impressive economic performance of recent years.

And the lack of confidence in the Peruvian future is just one more reason why Americans need to be reminded of the importance of understanding—and engaging—the political, economic, and social issues affecting our Western Hemisphere neighborhood. At the moment, the United States is in negotiations with Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador for an Andean Free Trade Agreement, to replace the soon-to-expire Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. The aim is not only to spur increased bilateral trade, but also to promote investments and job creation for the three South American countries—an important objective both for these countries and the United States, as we have a profound stake, more than some seem to realize, in the success of hemispheric development.

The talks with Peru, whose principal trading partner is the U.S., are running ahead of those with its two neighbors. It could be that we'll see a bilateral deal before the quadrilateral agreement is completed. Any trade treaty would need Congressional approval, which is less certain today because of the unraveling of the consensus on free-trade issues in Washington that existed just a few years ago. As it was, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which AJC supported, was barely able to make it through Congress before President George W. Bush signed it into law earlier this year.

It should be added that not everyone in Peru supports a free-trade agreement either. In a meeting we had with a number of church leaders, several voiced concern that such an accord would hurt, not help, the nation's poor. This echoes the views of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and others who decry what they insist is the negative social impact of Washington's promotion of "neoliberalism."

Moreover, Peru has a major fight on its hands with illicit drug cultivation, drug trafficking, and organized crime. As the Colombian government makes headway in its own struggle with the same problems, there's been a shift of focus by the underworld to Peru. The drug issue has been a major priority of the Peruvian government and a matter of close cooperation between Lima and Washington. Fortunately, relations between Peru and the U.S., which began with formal American recognition of the Republic of Peru in 1826, are excellent. To his credit, President Toledo has made strong ties with the U.S. a centerpiece of his administration's foreign policy. This pro-American orientation will assume even more importance starting on January 1, 2006, when Peru begins a two-year term as one of ten non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.

By the way, there are as many as twenty Israelis currently serving jail time in Peru for violations of drug laws, many of them young people who traveled to South America for a break after their military service.

This is among the few issues clouding the work of the new Israeli ambassador—a member of the small Israeli Druze community and former ambassador to Vietnam—in an environment that otherwise could not be friendlier today. Another troublesome matter is an arms-trafficking case involving an Israeli, Moshe Rothschild, who's under investigation in Peru on suspicion of corruption, bribery, and illegal association for arms deals in the 1990s and is the subject of an international arrest warrant.

Ethnically, Peru's population is overwhelmingly comprised of Indians and mestizos, with a noticeably smaller European population than in the other countries we visited during this trip—Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Like other Latin American countries, the population is overwhelmingly Catholic, and the Catholic Church remains a privileged institution in the state's eyes, though Evangelical churches have been making significant headway in attracting congregants. There are also rather sizable Chinese and Japanese communities, whose origins in the country date back to the nineteenth century, and a smaller Arab, largely Christian, population. And there is, of course, a Jewish community, almost totally concentrated in Lima.

The first Jews arrived in the sixteenth century, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and, as Conversos, practicing their religion in secret. But when the Spanish learned of their presence, they brought the Inquisition to Peru. The goal was to root out and destroy any religious "heresy" or "blasphemy." Torture and murder were the favored methods. Today there's a museum on the Plaza Bolivar in Lima—Museo de la Inquisición—devoted to this grisly history. In the same building that was used by the ecclesiastical court of the Inquisition from 1570 to 1820, the museum displays the dungeons. It was from here that those found guilty were taken to be publicly burned at the stake.

The modern community began about a century ago, with the arrival of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. According to Leon Trahtemberg, the principal of the Jewish day school in Lima, by the end of the 1920s, there were one thousand Jews in Peru; ten years later, the number had risen to 2,500. In 1938, however, the government banned further Jewish immigration. During this period, synagogues, youth movements, Zionist organizations, and benevolent institutions were established.

In the 1940s, the Jewish population reached 4,000, despite the restrictions on immigration. The León Pinelo Day School was founded, and an umbrella organization for the community was created.

In the 1960s, the population peaked at nearly 6,000 Jews. Communal life was thriving. More than 80 percent of Jewish children attended the Jewish day school in Lima, considered one of the nation's top schools, the three synagogues were in good shape, and the community enjoyed prosperity. Ties with Israel were strong, and there was a steady trickle of immigration to the Jewish state that eventually numbered over one thousand Peruvian Jews.

But the next decade witnessed the start of a thirty-year decline in the Jewish community's fortunes. First came a military coup, an economic crisis, a surge in street crime and kidnappings, and an unfriendly attitude toward Israel. (For instance, Peru, which had been a strong supporter of Israel's establishment, abstained on the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1975.)

This was followed by the terrorism and hyperinflation of the 1980s, and the severe jolts of the Fujimori period, all of which contributed to the emigration of Peruvian Jews, a rapid decline in enrollment at the Jewish school—from over one thousand students in 1970 to just 400—and a shortage of funds to maintain the extensive network of communal institutions.

Intermingled with these developments, sad to say, were several high-profile cases of alleged embezzlement and corruption by prominent Jews, including bankers and owners of newspaper and television stations.

One countervailing demographic trend during this period worthy of mention was the case of the B'nai Moshe, or Inca Jews. Numbering several hundred, they abandoned their Catholicism and began practicing a form of Judaism in the 1950s. After years of being ignored or dismissed, they were converted by an Israeli religious court in 1989 on condition that they leave their homes and move to Israel. All told, there are nearly 400 members of this community currently living in Elon Moreh, a settlement to the east of Nablus (Shechem), where it is believed that God first said to Abraham, "To your descendants will I give this land."

A second community has been seeking recognition as Jews, but so far unsuccessfully. Known as "Amazon Jews," they are descendants of Moroccan Jews who came to the region in the nineteenth century and settled in the country's interior, a thousand miles from the coast. They number no more than a few hundred and practice a faith that has been described by visitors as part Judaism, part Catholicism, and part supernaturalism.

Barring unforeseen developments, today's Jewish community, which includes a Chabad congregation, is determined to stay put. In fact, as a commitment to their future, the umbrella body, Asociación Judía de Perú, and the American Jewish Committee signed an association agreement during our recent stay in Lima. As the local Jewish leaders see it, the current government could not be friendlier, the economy has turned a corner, the community's roots run deep, and the likelihood is that the next government, to take office in July, will be well-disposed (and, according to current polls, could produce the first female president of Peru)—though, given Peru's history, political earthquakes can never be entirely excluded.

Each time I travel to a Jewish community like the Peruvian, I fantasize about bringing large numbers of American Jews with me. There are three reasons.

First, I'd like them to see the resolve of a population, in this case numbering fewer than 3,000, to maintain a full, active, and meaningful Jewish life. It just might have a salutary effect, particularly on the complacent or indifferent in our midst.

Second, the American visitors might gain a greater appreciation of the vital role that American Jews—and organizations like the American Jewish Committee—can, indeed must, play in enhancing the political and communal well-being of numerically smaller, and at times far more vulnerable, Jewish communities.

And finally, they might also understand, at a deeper level, the stake that we have, as proponents of democracy, pluralism, and economic development, in the direction that emerging countries like Peru take, not to mention the positive influence that we can exert through our active involvement in the field of international relations.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In his November 28, 2005 Letter from Lima, AJC Executive Director David A. Harris, based on published reports in the JTA and elsewhere, stated that the former Peruvian  Prime Minister and Finance Minister during the Fujimori administration – earlier identified as Efrain Goldenberg -- "fled to the U.S. rather than face prosecution [in Peru]."  In fact, AJC has been informed by Mr. Goldenberg that he is living and working in Peru and has not been charged with any criminal conduct.  We have removed this language from the letter and regret the error.

Date: 11/28/2005
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