Ahmadinejad to visit Latin American nations

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he will tour four Latin American nations in January.

Ahmadinejad will be visiting Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador during the second week of January, Iranian officials told state news agency IRNA on Wednesday.

According to the officials, he will meet personally with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, and attend the swearing-in ceremony of Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega. A report from Iran’s PRESS TV said that he will meet with “senior officials” in Cuba and Ecuador.

The visit comes as the United States and its European allies are ratcheting up sanctions on Iran.

Chavez has been accused of inciting violence against Venezuela’s Jewish community. Last year, he described Israel as a “genocidal state,” and accused the country of financing Venezuelan opposition groups and the Mossad of attempting to assassinate him.

Last year, Cuba’s Fidel Castro told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that the Iranian government needed to understand the history of the Jews.

“The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust,” said Castro.

Leftist government’s moves worry Nicaraguan Jews

It has taken Nicaragua’s new leftist President Daniel Ortega less than two months in office to alienate the country’s tiny Jewish community.

They are distrustful of Ortega and his Sandinista movement, after his first term in office from 1979 to 1990 sent the community into exile.

Local Jews have found government moves to rekindle cozy relations with Iran a distasteful and bitter pill to swallow. The moves come after 16 years of pro-United States and pro-Israeli foreign policy by the right-wing governments that ruled in Ortega’s interval as opposition leader.

“We hoped that he would follow the policies that we had in recent years, but that is not what we have seen,” Nicaraguan Jewish Community President Rafael Lipshitz said. “There is a great deal of uncertainty.”

Ortega returned to power in November elections, in which he captured a plurality of 38 percent, enough to win the presidential race by a slim margin.

After taking office in early January, Ortega’s first official state visitor was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spent a day touring the countryside with Ortega during his first weekend in office. The two agreed to exchange embassies, and Ortega reportedly made an open-ended promise to support Iran internationally.

The visit irked the U.S. government, as did Ortega’s action of firmly aligning himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who also has supported Ahmadinejad and condemned President Bush in a U.N. speech.

Ortega delayed his swearing-in ceremony by a few hours so Chavez could attend.

“In general terms, our foreign policy is based on international law; we maintain our relations with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking,” insisted Sandinista legislator Pedro Haslam, a leading member of the National Assembly’s International Affairs Committee. “We want relations with all the countries of the world predicated on both justice and respect.”

Not all in Nicaragua are happy with the changes, particularly in the right-wing opposition, which would rather see the country firmly alongside the United States.

“I think that small countries like ours should not enter into conflicts,” Eduardo Enriquez, editor of a right-leaning daily newspaper, told JTA. “What we have seen in the first 40 days of the government is not encouraging.”

With most of its members successful business entrepreneurs, Nicaragua’s 50-member Jewish community is a natural source of opposition to the Sandinistas, whose socialist policies and leanings made Nicaragua the Cold War’s final front, as the Soviet-backed government battled U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

In the 1990 elections, the Sandinistas were routed from office by a coalition but remained the country’s premier political party.

But local Jews hold the Sandinistas in special contempt. During their regime, the country’s synagogue, damaged in a 1978 fire, was converted into a secular school. It is being used now as a funeral home. The country’s Torah remains in exile in Costa Rica.

The lack of trust in Ortega has local Jews on edge. Reacting to the country’s delay in supporting a Holocaust memorial resolution in the United Nations, the community has taken to the airwaves of right-wing television Channel 2 to call out the government.

The appearance led the Foreign Ministry to issue a statement recognizing the Holocaust as historical fact, a relief to the community that feared Ortega’s dealings with Ahmadinejad would put the country in his controversial Holocaust denial camp.

However, future relations with Israel, which were resumed in the 1990s but are tepid — Israel’s embassy in neighboring Costa Rica is the closest to Managua — remain clouded. Shortly after the triumph of their revolution in 1979, the Sandinistas cut ties with Israel.

Ortega surprised many by maintaining relations with Taiwan instead of China, and Israel’s ambassador in Costa Rica has made at least two trips to Managua so far this year.

Seemingly contradictory, the clouded foreign policy is in keeping with what one coffee industry executive complained is the administration’s “mixed signals,” given its lack of a clear plan.

While the early posturing has some local Jews nervous, few expect a repeat of the ’80s, when the Sandinistas forged close ties with the PLO, and the Ministry of the Interior, headed by the only surviving founder of the Sandinistas, Tomas Borge, issued passports to an unknown number of PLO combatants, as well as notorious members of Italy’s Red Brigade.

Borge, who of late has distanced himself politically from Ortega but remains an influential party leader — he is expected to become the country’s ambassador to Peru — keeps a picture in his office of himself sharing a laugh with Yasser Arafat.

“This is not the same mentality that there was in the 1980s,” Lipshitz said. “Borge is very low profile; I have not seen much of him.”

Despite the murky climate, the Jewish community is forging ahead with plans to build a new synagogue. Some members are even planning new investments.

As one member who asked not to be identified said, “This time we are going to confront them here instead of from exile.”

Anti-Israel Ortega returns to power in Nicaragua

The return of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega after his victory in Nicaragua’s presidential election has the country’s tiny Jewish community on edge.

During Ortega’s last stint in power, as head of the left-wing revolutionary government from 1979-90, the entire Jewish community fled into exile while the Sandinistas built cozy relations with the PLO and other anti-Israel groups and allied themselves closely with Cuba.

Now, 16 years later, just as the community is on the verge of restoring itself to its pre-revolution levels, the Sandinistas have narrowly won a new chance at heading this impoverished Central American nation.

“We have to accept the result and see how he’s going to act,” a disappointed Elena Pataky said by telephone Tuesday. “We need to make sure that he doesn’t again make Nicaragua a sanctuary for drug traffickers and terrorists.”

Final counts from the Nov. 5 election showed Ortega with 38 percent of the vote in the five-person race, ahead of chief rival Eduardo Montealegre, who won 29 percent. That was enough for Ortega to win on the first ballot under Nicaraguan law.

It marks Ortega’s first victory in four tries since he was thrown out of office in a 1990 landslide.

The country’s anti-Sandinista right split this year, with some supporting Jorge Rizo — the handpicked successor of Arnoldo Aleman, a far-right former president currently under house arrest on corruption charges. Others, including Pataky and the United States, supported Montealegre, a former banker who was dogged by charges of insider trading involving bond issues and embargos by his bank.

An expected split on the left between Ortega and Sandinista dissidents never materialized after the Sandinistas’ preferred candidate, charismatic former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites, died of a heart attack in July. Lewites was the son of a Jewish immigrant who had helped supply the Sandinistas with arms when they were a guerrilla movement in the 1970s, but they slandered the father for his Jewish roots after he split from the group.

Lewites’ replacement in the election, intellectual Agusto Jarquin, finished a distant fourth.

Nicaragua’s Jews, never more than 100 strong, went into exile within two years after the Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship. The country was possibly without a single resident Jew for the remainder of the Sandinista era, when the synagogue was converted to a secular school — it’s now a funeral home — and a number of PLO members were given Nicaraguan passports.

The Sandinista regime had hostile relations with the United States, which funded the “Contra” rebels in a bloody civil war that marred the 1980s and help send the Nicaraguan economy into a tailspin that continues to stunt development to this day.

After losing power, the Sandinistas changed their position on Israel, at least publicly, accepting diplomatic relations and abandoning their backing for rhetoric denigrating Zionism as racism. However, Sandinista leaders like the party’s only surviving founder, Tomas Borge, continue to “deplore” Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank, and Ortega has expressed support for Iran’s government, which threatens to annihilate Israel.
In recent years, Israel and Nicaragua have developed cordial relations. Israeli aid workers provide assistance to farmers in the country, but Israel has yet to open an embassy there, with the embassy in neighboring Costa Rica handling Nicaraguan affairs. Embassy officials could not be reached for comment.

Jews began returning to the country after Ortega lost the 1990 elections, although the community’s Torah remains in Costa Rica. In recent weeks the community has been preparing to build a new synagogue.

Those plans may be put on hold, Rafael Lipshitz, president of the Nicaraguan Jewish Association, said. He said the group’s board will meet next week to discuss its future and that a community assembly will be held by early December to make a decision.

Lipshitz called the election results “worrying,” but added that he advocates a waiting period before any decisions are made on the synagogue project.

Pataky, who spent her exile in Miami and supported Montealegre in Sunday’s election, laughed at the idea of fleeing again.

“The conditions of 1979 were totally different from today,” she said. “Like all of Nicaragua, I am observing with a keen interest.”

Ortega’s election marks a foreign policy setback for the Bush administration and a step forward for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who helped boost the Sandinistas’ chances in the final weeks of the campaign by sending the country a shipment of free urea for fertilizer to be distributed by the Sandinistas.
Ortega is to take office in January, although his ability to govern remains in doubt: The anti-Sandinista right is expected to hold a majority in the legislature, also elected Nov. 5.

First Person – Hatikvah in the Village

If someone had turned on the radio in Mulukuku, Nicaragua, on May 28, 2005, they would have heard “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. There is no Jewish community in this village of 7,000. In fact, there is not normally even a single Jew. But for one week at the end of May, there were 14 of us.

Our group was in the most impoverished region of Nicaragua as part of a joint project between The Jewish Federation and American Jewish World Service. The goal: to help alleviate poverty, hunger and disease among all the people of the world. It was an imperative that I took very seriously, and one that compelled me to step out of my Los Angeles life of privilege and material comfort into a world where those two terms are largely devoid of meaning.

Arriving in Mulukuku shocked my system in every conceivable way. It was swelteringly hot. There was no running water, only a well for drinking and cooking, buckets of rainwater for bathing, and a river for laundry. The sole means of garbage disposal was burning — a method we soon discovered was as dangerous as it was primitive, when one of the villagers was scorched by a combustible piece of plastic.

We drove five hours from the country’s capital. As I emerged, hot and sweaty, I felt a surge of adrenaline, of power. I was here to help, and, clearly, I thought, my help was desperately needed.

I was soon to find out how wrong I was.

Our group was hosted by Cooperativa Maria Luisa Ortiz, a grass-roots endeavor providing free health services, legal aid and domestic violence shelter to the community’s women and children. In a society where girls typically get pregnant at age 14, where spousal abuse is commonplace and where the resources to deal with these issues are scarce, the Cooperativa is a bastion of support.

Our volunteer work was to consist of two projects: the smaller, to paint several rooms in the compound and rustproof a security fence; the larger, to fortify the retaining walls of the clinic’s herbal medicine garden in order to prevent the plant beds from collapsing.

I was excited, enthusiastic to finally put to practice my belief in healing the world — with my own two hands. On some days, the work was near backbreaking. But more troubling than my physical exhaustion was a nagging sense that the people benefiting most from our work were not the villagers themselves, but us, the volunteers.

The first day in the garden, the agronomist instructed us how to properly dig a trench to accommodate a row of large concrete slabs that needed to be erected. Because we were used to working with our minds, and not our hands, we did it wrong.

By day two, we had mastered the task, but worked constantly under the guidance of the locals, who were experts in agriculture, but simply lacked the manpower to do the work as quickly. As I dug into the parched soil with the edge of my spade, I felt myself chipping away at all the stereotypes I held of the developing world.

I went to Nicaragua thinking I could make a difference in the lives of those I met. I like to think that, in some way, I did. But now I know that the major transformation this trip sparked was not in the villagers, but in myself.

I joined this mission because I had an innate sense of obligation. Before I left, the people of Mulukuku were the faceless recipients of my personal need to foster social justice. Soon, though, I learned people’s names, heard their laughter, looked into their eyes. Natalie has beautiful, precocious twin daughters. Michael has the curious, adventurous spirit of a child. Noel has the charisma of a politician. That’s when I realized — poverty is not the face of a stranger, but the face of a friend.

Now that I am back in Los Angeles, I feel a new sense of obligation to help others personalize a typically anonymous epidemic, to see themselves reflected in the eyes of someone less fortunate.

On May 28, 2005, our group was invited to appear on Mulukuku’s sole radio station. The host asked us to choose several songs to sing. Without hesitation, we included “Hatikvah.” We were all proud that our Jewish values had led us to this village, had motivated us to look beyond ourselves, had instilled in us a sense of moral duty. As our voices rang out through the static of radios all over the village, I thought of the likelihood that the Israeli national anthem be broadcast in Nicaragua, and smiled. Anything is possible.

Keren Markuze is a television writer and producer in Los Angeles.