Argentine, US Jews applaud as Argentina elects Kirchner

"We were and will be supported by Cristina. She is publicly committed to us, she was at Jewish demonstrations and celebrations, and even spoke at Jewish events."

Lately, it seems nearly every time someone is elected president of a South American country - Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia are among the most recent examples - local Jews express alarm. Not so in Argentina, where Sunday's comfortable victory by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is being warmly welcomed by the country's 200,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Latin America. As predicted by the polls, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner - 54 years old and the wife of President Nestor Kirchner - avoided a runoff by winning 45 percent of the vote. In second place was Elisa Carrio, a center-left congresswoman, with 23 percent, followed by former finance minister Roberto Lavagna, with 17 percent. "The truth is that Cristina as well as the No. 2 candidate are both very close to the Jewish community," said Alejandro Kladniew, director-general of the Buenos Aires office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. "Relations with the Jewish community will be the same or better than now." Fernandez de Kirchner, a senator with the long-influential Peronist party, has developed close relationships with Jews both in Argentina and in the United States, community leaders here say. Aldo Donzis, president of the DAIA, the umbrella political group of Argentine Jewry, told JTA he expects Fernandez de Kirchner will carry on the close relationship the Jewish community has had with the current president, her husband. "This is not going to be a new government in terms of issues related to Jewish community concerns," Donzis said Monday. "We were and will be supported by Cristina. She is publicly committed to us, she was at Jewish demonstrations and celebrations, and even spoke at Jewish events." Fernandez de Kirchner also visited Israel in 2005. Last May, Fernandez de Kirchner addressed the American Jewish Committee's annual meeting in Washington and spoke about the Argentine government's commitment to finding the perpetrators of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The AMIA bombing, the worst terrorist attack in Latin American history, is currently the focus of an investigation by Interpol. The Argentine government has formally accused Iran of orchestrating the truck bombing, which killed 85 people and injured more than 300. In a letter of congratulations to the new president, whose inauguration is scheduled for Dec. 10, the AJC praised Fernandez de Kirchner for denouncing the attack and for promoting better relations with the United States and with the Jewish people in general. "Citizens of your country have recognized your singular leadership qualities, indispensable to meeting the demands for social justice, respect for human rights and engagement in an increasingly interconnected world," wrote AJC President Richard Sideman and Executive Director David A. Harris. Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC's Latino and Latin American Institute, has met Fernandez de Kirchner on four occasions and says Argentina's next president is a "very bright woman" with strong convictions. "She became a senator from Santa Cruz province long before her husband was involved in politics," Siegel Vann said. "From the very beginning of the AMIA case 13 years ago, she was already raising her voice and saying there was a cover-up." Sergio Widder, the Latin American representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Fernandez de Kirchner's support for Jewish causes predates the launching of her national political career. "As a member of Congress, she was among the strongest critics of the investigation of the AMIA bombing, headed by former judge Juan Jose Galeano, and later she led the efforts that ended with his impeachment and dismissal," Widder said. In winning Sunday's vote, Fernandez de Kirchner became the first Argentine woman elected president. In the 1970's, when Juan Domingo Peron died, his wife Isabel took office until the government replaced her, but she was never elected. After Sunday's vote, critics charged that voter irregularities helped secure Fernandez de Kirchner's election. Support for Fernandez de Kirchner was especially low in Buenos Aires, the country's capital and the locus of its Jewish community, where she came in second to Carrio. Chile also has a woman president, Michelle Bachelet, who was elected last year. Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said Fernandez de Kirchner's victory will "have a very positive impact on Argentina-Jewish relations" because of the Kirchner couple's outspoken stance against Iran as well as against amnesty for generals and others who committed atrocities during the military dictatorship's "Dirty War" of the 1970s. An estimated 30,000 political opponents - most of them young university students - were murdered or disappeared under mysterious circumstances during that period. Democracy was restored to Argentina in 1983. "Kirchner's stand against amnesty for the military has had a direct impact on the Jewish community, because although Jews were only 1 percent of Argentina's population, almost 10 percent of the victims of the Dirty War were Jewish," he said. "Kirchner forced the Supreme Court to back down and take away amnesty for the military, and I think his wife will do even more than he did." Birns said "the AMIA bombing is a permanent, poisonous cloud just sitting over Argentina's relations with its Jews, and until this is resolved, they're not going to feel safe - even though there's no question Kirchner was far more responsive to the concerns of the Jewish community than [former President Carlos] Menem ever was." In March, Fernandez de Kirchner flew to Caracas to address an event marking the 40th anniversary of CAIV, the umbrella organization of Venezuelan Jewry. Her links to that country's estimated 12,000 Jews were especially appreciated in light of the recent hostility shown to both Israel and the United States by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose country's oil revenues helped bail out Argentina at the beginning of Kirchner's term four years ago. Kirchner helped lift Argentina out of the country's deep economic crisis in the early 2000s, when the country defaulted on some $80 billion in loans. Birns said he believes Fernandez de Kirchner likely will be a strong voice in Latin America, and that may help temper Chavez, who habitually slams the United States and the West and has strengthened ties with Iran. "Kirchner's wife seems to be very foreign policy-oriented, and I think she will take a very strong position on hemispheric issues, if not global issues," Birns said. "This will offer her an opportunity to influence Chavez in a more centrist manner."