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Brain Drain in Argentina

Qualified professionals --especially Jews -- are packing up and leaving Argentina for good.
 
 
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Having lost its money, Argentina is now losing its minds.

Jorge Negrete is one such mind. The 44-year-old doctor wants to find a lovely young woman to marry -- provided she is a U.S. citizen. Negrete, who spent years dividing his time between Washington, D.C., and Buenos Aires, longs to live permanently in the United States.

"What I would give to be in Georgetown. Living in this country has become unbearable," he says over lunch in Recoleta, an upscale neighborhood in the Argentine capital. Negrete considered moving to Brazil to live with his brother, but says he doesn't speak Portuguese.

Six months into Argentina's worst financial crisis in a generation, one that has crippled South America's second largest economy, Negrete's dreams of escape are shared by professionals and students nationwide. Many have already left.

"We in Argentina are confronting the worst brain drain in our history," said Luis Quesada, a biologist and research scientist. "It will take a generation for the country to recover from this catastrophe."

Every morning, lines form at the Spanish, Italian and Israeli embassies here. Argentines with a parent, grandparent or immediate family member living in Spain or Italy can obtain visas to emigrate there. And under Israel's "law of return," any Argentine Jew is automatically entitled to Israeli citizenship.

It is the flight of Argentine Jews, in fact, that dramatizes the choices facing many Argentines.

According to the Argentine daily newspaper Clarin, in the first two months of this year, 1,260 Argentine Jews moved to Israel -- an explosive increase compared with 2001, when 1,300 Argentine Jews emigrated to Israel over the entire year.

The first Jews came to Argentina in the late 1800s, mostly from Russia, and many became gauchos -- Argentine cowboys. By 1920, more than 150,000 Jews were living in the country. But the country's relatively tolerant attitude toward its Jewish population changed in the 1970s. During the "dirty war," military juntas killed thousands of leftists, communists and Jews. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, right-wing terrorist attacks on Jewish embassies and community centers killed hundreds of Jews in Argentina.

Many here resent the new Jewish exodus. With the Israeli government paying $25,000 per family to help Argentine Jews settle in Israel, some Argentines accuse their Jewish compatriots of disloyalty and opportunism.

"At a time when we are confronting a grave situation, why is Israel bribing Argentines to turn their backs on their nation?" asked Rafael Buenavista, a diner at the trendy Gran Bar Danzon. "Jews are better educated than the population at large, and they are better able to help the nation. They should stay."

Whether Jewish professionals are leaving because the economy has crashed or because they sense the anti-Semitism of past decades is on the rise -- or for both reasons -- their flight is consistent with what is taking place among all sectors of Argentine society.

Cliff Williams manages Transpack Argentina, a shipping company. "For every inbound move we make, there are now seven outbound moves," he says. In the early and mid-1990s, Williams' firm profited from relocating executives working for foreign multinationals to Argentina. As those companies scale down their presence in Argentina, Transpack continues to move executives -- this time in the other direction. And now, Williams says, he is relocating more and more low-level managers out of the country.

Quesada, the biologist, fears for an Argentina without its professional middle class. "We are the only country in this hemisphere that can boast of three Nobel laureates in the sciences: Bernardo Houssay, Luis Federico Leloir and César Milstein," he says. "But I fear that the infrastructure we built over half a century may be ruined."

Recently, Argentina issued a desperate plea to the World Bank for an extension on $800 million loan. Calls by labor unions for a nationwide strike are a blow to President Eduardo Duhalde, since the unions are aligned with his own Peronist party.

"We're now back to square one," said economic minister Roberto Lavagna recently in a nationally televised speech, a stunning admission that the government has yet to find a way out of the country's labyrinth of despair.

Jorge Negrete, the frustrated doctor, would like nothing more than to join his many compatriots who have become "ex-pats." "If I were Jewish, I'd be on my way to Israel," he mused. "It can't be worse there than it is here, can it?" The question was posed on an evening when CNN was broadcasting graphic images of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

Louis Nevaer ( nevaer1@hotmail.com) is an economist and author of "The Dot Com Debacle and the Return to Reason" (Greenwood Press, 2002) and "Into -- and Out of -- the Gap," a corporate history of the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy. (Quorum Books, 2001).