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Peru’s Outspoken First Lady Redefines a Traditional Role

Eliane Karp does not match the usual job description for first lady of Peru. In a country where machismo is alive and well, the first lady is expected to be native-born, Catholic, dark-haired and (very) quiet. Karp is Belgian-born, Jewish, red-haired and (very) outspoken.

But she does not mind challenging people’s expectations.

“They see this strange animal, which is not Peruvian, not Catholic, totally different, very opinionated, who works with her husband as a partner and not in the background,” Karp told the Forward in a recent interview in New York, where she was accompanying her husband, President Alejandro Toledo, to the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. “This is difficult to swallow for many people.”

Toledo, who listened in between phone calls, briefings and last-minute preparations for a surprise 50th birthday lunch for his wife, laughed heartily when he heard her talk about the first lady’s duties. The notion that Karp is not a traditional presidential spouse, he said, is a “clear understatement.”

Toledo himself embodies a sea change in Peru. While descendants of Europeans have long dominated the ruling class, Toledo, with his stark Indian features, is the first “cholo”— someone of mixed European and Indian descent — to become president.

His storied journey from shoe-shiner to political leader captured the hearts and minds of Peruvians when he launched his 2000 campaign to displace the autocratic president Alberto Fujimori. Karp, a former kibbutznik and an anthropologist deeply involved in issues affecting Peru’s indigenous peoples, only added to Toledo’s mystique when she appeared by his side.

Fujimori won the 2000 election, which was widely denounced as rigged. But the following year, Toledo ousted him in a runoff; Fujimori fled to Japan, where he still lives in exile.

Toledo’s honeymoon did not last long, however. His popularity plunged, mainly because his pledge to improve the life of Peru’s poor failed to materialize quickly, leading to massive demonstrations against his government.

While Karp admits that the last two years have been “very difficult” and that the president has lost some support, she claims he is more popular than polls show. She claims that the polling institutes and the press are linked to the “mafia” and the Fujimori “dictatorship,” two words she used repeatedly during an hour-long interview.

More broadly, she said part of the resentment toward her husband stems from his refusal to indulge into classic South American patronage politics. She contends Toledo is seeking a third way between the rigid dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the immediate demands of a restive population.

“Alejandro wants to maintain a very disciplined and balanced economy, and people are used to handouts rather than laying the groundwork for a better future,” she said. “It is much easier to win support with handouts, but he doesn’t do it.”

While Toledo has faced opposition as president, Karp has faced negative press herself as first lady.

Two years ago, the press reported that her husband had fathered a daughter out of wedlock. Toledo and Karp initially denied the allegations and blasted his political opponents for engineering a nasty political maneuver. But he has since admitted publicly he was the girl’s father. Karp, who was separated from Toledo for several years in the 1980s and 1990s — she spent those years working for Bank Leumi in Tel Aviv — is still visibly uneasy discussing the incident and its coverage, noting, “This should have been dealt with within the family.”

Last year, she was forced to step down from a well-paid adviser job with a bank following allegations of influence-peddling. She said she held the job prior to the election and saw nothing wrong with keeping it after becoming first lady. But she said she reluctantly resigned to avoid further controversy.

What has mortified Karp even more than sniping from the couple’s political enemies, she says, are the attacks on her from Peru’s small Jewish community.

Several prominent Jewish businessmen — she cited the Wolfenson, Winter and Stone families — have been charged with illegal business dealings under Fujimori, thrown in jail and put under house arrest or forced into exile since Toledo took over.

The businessmen and their supporters accused Karp of orchestrating a witch-hunt; some rabbis have echoed these sentiments.

“I often expressed my ill feelings about a community that was not able to uphold ethical standards and was doing some nonkosher deals with the dictatorship,” she said. “Several of those families have influence in the media and have launched a campaign against me with the mafia. So you have Jews waging a campaign against the first Jewish first lady… This is really an ugly situation.”

Karp was naturalized as a Peruvian a year ago, but her personal history is international. After spending her childhood in Brussels and Paris, where she was active in the leftist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, Karp moved to Israel and settled on Kibbutz Baram. She went on to study linguistics and anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She also delved into Latin American studies and got acquainted with her lifelong passion: the indigenous peoples of Latin America.

She met Toledo when she was pursuing a postgraduate degree at Stanford University in California, where he was studying economics. They were married four years later. When Toledo was offered a job as an adviser to the Labor Ministry and the central bank in the early 1980s, they moved to Peru, where she became immersed in fieldwork in the isolated Indian highlands.

When her husband decided to enter the political arena in the late 1990s, Karp felt she could not remain on the sidelines, she said, “because the dictatorship had become so egregious.” Today, those glorious campaign days are long gone and the vicious political battles have taken a toll on Karp, who prefers to take solace in her passion.

“Amid all the difficulties, the only thing I enjoy is to be able to do concrete things for isolated and marginalized populations in a way I could not as a normal citizen,” she said. “I work with people in places where the government has never been, where people had never felt any intention to include them in a democratic society. This is in harmony with my vision of Judaism.”

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