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.