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Out of Zion

When a shoe shine boy and a Jewish blanket peddler win elections

By Nitzan Horowitz

Ha'aretz, 11 Aug. 2001


Pres. Alejandro Toledo with David Waisman
Toledo with David Waisman,
his second deputy and defense minister. Waisman will lead military reforms.

Besides a transition from dictatorship to democracy, Peruvians are expecting their new president, Alejandro Toledo, to develop the country's ties with Israel.

To the best of anyone's knowledge, for the first time in the history of parliaments, a swearing-in ceremony for a legislator has been held in Hebrew outside of Israel. The Second Secretary in charge of the consular section at the Peruvian Embassy in Israel, Jose-David Hurtado Fudingo, reports: "On July 28, Jacques Rodrich, from our new President Alejandro Toledo's party, was sworn in as a representative of the Congress of Peru. The swearing-in of the congressman did indeed take place in Hebrew - another indication of the deepening ties between Israel and Peru, where there has never been anti-Semitism." Most of the members of Peru's congress accepted this in good spirit, though a few voices were heard commenting that it was not becoming to take the oath in a foreign language, even if it is the language of the Bible.  

This unusual oath is not the only innovation in Lima. The Peruvian capital is all abuzz after the rise of Toledo, the first leader of indigenous origin in the state's history. "There is a real feeling of having moved out of darkness into light, enthuses Rafi Eldad, the Israeli Ambassador in Lima. "The more the extent of the corruption that had spread here over the years becomes clear, the more the extent of the tyranny is exposed, the greater the feeling of relief. This is definitely a new era: a move to democracy and tolerance, a process of rehabilitation of all the country's institutions, first and foremost the justice system, and a healing of the wounds in society."

The rise of Alejandro Toledo is in every respect a Cinderella story. "My victory will be the first time in 500 years that a person from my background rises to power in a democratic election to represent the vast majority of Peruvians," said Toledo in an interview to Ha'aretz in the middle of his campaign. The new president, one of 16 children in his family, was a shepherd in a mountain village as a child. After that, he worked in the city as a shoe shine boy and newsboy in the market square. During the 1960s, his luck improved. He met two American volunteers who helped him get a scholarship to San Francisco University. Then his great leap forward began. Toledo completed his bachelor's degree in San Francisco, picked up two master's degrees at Stanford University and then completed a doctorate in economics. "But mainly I have a doctorate in poverty," he often says. The academic track took him to the World Bank. Then, last June he won the second round of the elections in Peru after an exhausting campaign.

"He has always been characterized by extraordinary perseverance and a strong desire to get ahead," relates Professor Avishai Braverman, Toledo's schoolmate at Stanford and now President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Shimon Peres with Eliane Karp
Peres with Toledo's Jewish wife, Eliane Karp, at the inauguration in Lima. She defines herself as Zionist and observes tradition.

The rise of the dynamic president may well spark a new era in Peru's relations with Israel as well. These relations, which until now have been characterized by arms sales and intelligence cooperation, with a blind eye turned to the human rights violations and corruption of the previous regime, are expected to move in a different direction now. Immediately after his inauguration, Toledo made it clear that he intended to reduce military expenditure. "This is an excellent idea," comments the Peruvian Ambassador to Israel, Nicolas Roncagliolo. "Toledo wants to do this in cooperation with other South American countries, and their response was very positive." The Peruvian Ambassador knows what this means. Before he was assigned to Israel he was the Peruvian Foreign Ministry representative in negotiations with Ecuador, after fighting between the two, and was also a member of the commission that drew up the (disputed) border.

The first signal of possible success for the new initiative came from Chile, a country with which Peru also has had serious disputes in the past. The President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, stayed on in Peru after the inauguration ceremonies and, together with Toledo, signed a joint declaration of cooperation between the ministries of foreign affairs and defense in the two countries. It is possible that, with these changed circumstances, Israel will be asked to provide aid to help Toledo's plan for overhauling the security services. He aims to purge them of the political involvement and corruption of the era of Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of the secret services under president Alberto Fujimori. Montesinos was extradited to Peru recently, after first fleeing to Venezuela.

"Against the background of the solution to Peru's regional problems - with Chile and Ecuador - there is no doubt that its military needs have decreased," says Ambassador Eldad. Toledo has created a new set of priorities, focusing on the economy and society. I agree that this is an excellent decision from Israel's point of view as well. We have expertise in agriculture and education, there is a great deal of readiness to absorb Israeli aid of this sort, and this is an extraordinary opportunity to strengthen our relations."

Toledo has a strong Israeli-Jewish connection. His wife, Eliane Karp, is a French-born Israeli who says she is Zionist and observes tradition. She met Toledo during her studies at Stanford. Their daughter Chantal, 18, is therefore also Jewish. Toledo's "Jewish connection" has also contributed to the vocabulary of the President - a descendant of the Incas - Yiddish words like shlemazel (fool) and shmattes (rag), of which he is especially fond. Eliane Karp is very involved in the Peruvian political arena, which has inevitably lead to comparisons with Eva Peron and Hillary Clinton. "I'm very close to folk organizations," she told Ha'aretz in an interview published in April, "but of course I can't be compared to her other side - the fascism. As for Hillary - apparently there is a lot of room for comparison. Both of us are career women, both of us got into politics without intending to. Maybe the comparison also stems from the fact that we are both very progressive."

Like the first lady, the new president is also very close to several leading figures in the Jewish community, first and foremost David Waisman, who serves as Defense Minister and Second Vice President, and Congressman Jacques Rodrich. "This reality has not grown up out of a void," explains Ambassador Roncagliolo in his modest office in Shilun Vatikim in Ramat Gan. "Peru has always had a positive attitude toward Jews, and at present the local community numbers 3,000. This is also an opportunity to note that even before the establishment of the state, Peru was a member of the special UN commission on the question of the land of Israel [UNSCOP] and the Peruvian ambassador was among those who strongly recommended the establishment of a Jewish state." Second Secretary Hurtado contributes his part of the historical memo and notes that despite economic limitations, Peru participated in the UN emergency force after the Yom Kippur War. "The Peruvian battalion was sent to supervise the separation of forces along the Suez Canal, and three Peruvian soldiers lost their lives for the sake of peace in Israel."

The seal of approval for what is called "courageous relations" in Lima and Jerusalem was provided by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. He represented Israel at all of Toledo's inaugural ceremonies, granted many interviews, and spoke extensively about Israel's interest in strengthening relations with the new Peruvian administration. The visit, which was perceived as a special gesture to the president and his wife, encouraged a series of projects for economic and social cooperation in line with Peru's new priorities. Agricultural development has a place of honor on Toledo's agenda, and Israel is already offering help. One of the projects currently under discussion is Israeli aid to the region bordering Ecuador: This is a target of special importance in light of the peace agreement signed only two years ago between Peru and Ecuador.

"Toledo's victory has created enormous expectations in Peru," explains Ambassador Eldad, "but the challenges facing Peru are also huge. There is a very bad economic and social situation, terrible poverty, educational problems, unemployment. But the national mood is very optimistic. Time will tell whether Toledo will be able to fulfill the expectations. I very much hope that he will succeed and get the country on track. They are such a nice nation, so friendly to Israel, and they deserve to flourish at long last."

And when will Toledo come to Israel? He has already received an invitation, and now they are trying to coordinate dates. "The president definitely wants to visit Israel," says Ambassador Roncagliolo, "and we at the Embassy in Ramat Gan are waiting with bated breath."

The meteoric rise of David Waisman

The end of the Clinton administration dramatically reduced the number of Jewish cabinet ministers in the international arena. Perhaps developments in Peru signal a change of direction in Jewish representation, too. After Alejandro Toledo's victory in the presidential election, his deputy David Waisman was appointed defense minister. "Waisman has been put in charge of one of the most sensitive areas," explains Israeli Ambassador to Peru Rafi Eldad. "Toledo wants to carry out big reforms in the army, and it is Waisman who will have to implement them."

Waisman's star rose when he served as head of the Peruvian congressional committee that investigated the corruption of Vladimiro Montesinos, former president Alberto Fujimori's national security advisor from 1990 until his fall last year. "Waisman was the one who led exposure of the corrupt relationships between officers and senior officials," stresses the Peruvian Ambassador to Israel Nicolas Roncagliolo.

Waisman, 61, was a modest businessman before he entered Congress in the previous elections. Within an astonishingly short time he found himself at the center of a political storm in Peru after he started uncovering a broad network of corruption involving politicians, judges, businessmen and journalists. He received many threats and also encountered blatant manifestations of anti-Semitism for the first time in his life. Waisman told the Israeli news magazine The Jerusalem Report that one of the witnesses who appeared before the committee told him, in the middle of he investigation, that he was already condemned to death, and that his bodyguards wouldn't be of any help to him.

His meteoric rise to the top still surprises him. "It's unbelievable," he said. "It all happened so fast and so unexpectedly. Had someone told me that this was going to happen to me, I would have laughed in his face."

Waisman's father left Romania in 1935 and came to Lima, where he made a meager living selling cloth and blankets from door to door. A year later he brought his wife to Peru and together they moved to a small city about 800 kilometers north of the capital. Young David joined his father on horseback as he peddled merchandise in small villages. The Romanian Jewish family was quite out of the ordinary in this remote area. The family returned to Lima when David was in his teens. Times were hard. Sometimes they went hungry. Young Waisman began his career with a small business that sold machinery for making women's clothes, and continued with this for decades. His wife converted to Judaism and both of them belong to the Conservative synagogue in Lima.

In 1998 he was elected head of the small business committee in the National Industrial Union. He came out publicly against Fujimori's economic policy. In January of last year he received an unexpected phone call. On the line was Alejandro Toledo, the candidate for president. Toledo asked Waisman to join him, stand as a candidate for vice president, and also run for Congress. "I promised myself, my family and my country that I would keep working until the dictatorship fell. We risked everything in order to destroy the huge machine that Fujimori and Montesinos built." Ambassador Eldad confirms: "You have to understand the magnitude of the mission: Waisman was one of the leading fighters for the return of democracy, and earned enormous public prestige for exposing the corruption."

His struggle was not as long one. Fujimori resigned in November in the wake of shocking revelations about Montesinos' corruption. This was during the course of a visit to Japan, the home of his forefathers. Fujimori has remained in Tokyo to this day. Japan granted him citizenship and still refuses to extradite him to Peru. As for Waisman, he ran alongside Toledo again. The sons of poor men - the native shoe shine boy and the Jewish blanket peddler - won. "This will be a government that understands the great majority of poor Peruvians. We have a chance of changing history.




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