January 2, 2003
To visit Argentina today is to see with your own eyes the tragedy these people are facing.
Imagine living in a country where you experience the following:
You have worked hard for years, and every month you add to your savings in a dollar account held at a major international bank (i.e. Citibank or equal). You placed your savings in this dollar account to be safe from currency fluctuations that are so frequent in South American countries. One day, you get a letter from your bank saying that your account has been changed from a dollar account to a peso account -- transferred without your permission. You are outraged because you understand that last year the peso was equal to the dollar i.e. one peso equaling $1, yet today, it takes nearly four pesos to equal $1, thus your lifetime savings account has taken a huge hit. Later, another letter arrives that says you can only withdraw a limited amount per month from this peso account.
You appeal to the bank and hear, "Sorry, but this is government policy." You go to the politicians and hear, "Sorry, economic conditions demanded this action." There is such political turmoil that their congress didn't meet for five straight weeks due to lack of a quorum and four presidents resigned within two weeks. You go to the courts with your dollar agreement in hand and get a total runaround. The net effect is countrywide anger.
Many banks in Buenos Aires have their first two-floor exteriors covered with plywood to ward off flying bricks and other evidence of the seething public rage. The Argentine government owes $135 billion to the IMF and the world bank, with little chance of ever repaying this staggering amount. In addition, over the past 45 years, 15 of the 19 agreements with the IMF have been broken, and thus, Argentina has zero credibility for further borrowings.
The net effect of this economic and political chaos has been the destruction of the middle-class. The official unemployment rate is 21 percent, but the unofficial estimate is 35 percent. Of the 200,000 Jews in the country, 80 percent are small businessmen or professionals and their lives have been devastated. An estimated 40,000 Jews are living below the poverty line and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is serving more than 30,000. The JDC reported that last year 1,000 Jews left for Israel, and this year the number is approaching 6,000, with three times that number seeking refuge wherever in the world they gain admittance.
Heart-wrenching stories are heard everywhere. Rosa and Bernardo are in their 60s, came originally from Eastern Europe and have lived in Buenos Aires for 30 years. Bernardo has a heart problem, cannot walk and requires Rosa's full-time attention. They were evicted from their residence, unable to pay their rent. JDC pays their rooming-house rent and Rosa comes to the JDC soup kitchen every day and takes the lunch, offered by JDC, to her husband. Bernardo is too ill to emigrate, so they just exist -- day by day.
Enrique is a lawyer who came to Buenos Aires in 1940. His wife recently died and his youngest child has Down syndrome and can't walk. The economic crisis in the past two years forced him to layoff all his employees and he ultimately had to close his practice. He still has to support his youngest daughter, and his friends do what they can to help him with expenses. He has been coming to the soup kitchen for a regular hot lunch paid by JDC, but he refused to have his picture taken -- feeling so ashamed of his situation.
Melina Fiszerman is fortunate. She has a secure, responsible position with the JDC in Buenos Aires and is getting an advanced degree in economics. Yet, Melina, 25, is also threatened by the personal and political anguish surrounding her. Argentina is a dangerous place and she lives with the risks of random kidnappings on major streets and frequent, violent civil unrest. When we visited her in November, I asked her why she stays in Argentina.
She responded, "This is my country and my people. I love this country. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, and this is my home. I am optimistic about the future."
How can Melina be optimistic surrounded by such chaos? She is young, which helps. But much more than her youth is her knowledge and belief in the historic ability of Jews to survive. As American Jews living in our blessed country, it is our privilege and responsibility to help people like Melina and those thousands of Jews in Argentina who are living such painful, difficult lives. We cannot change the politics or economics of Argentina. But we can help by sending our dollars for Argentine relief.
Richard S. Gunther is on the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.