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Jewish Journal

Leftist government’s moves worry Nicaraguan Jews

by Brian Harris

March 8, 2007 | 7:00 pm

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."

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