Jose Ber Gelbard, 60, who was forced from his native Poland by the programs of half a century ago and who rose to become economy minister of his adopted country, Argentina, died yesterday at George Washington University Hospital after a heart attack.
Mr. Gelbard had divided his time between Washington and California, where his two children live, for the last 19 months. He was in the United States when the military seized power in Argentina in March, 1976, and decreed the lifting of his citizenship.
Last December, Argentina asked extradition of Mr. Gelbard to face charges of misuse of public funds. He was minister under President Juan D. Peron and under Peron's widow, Isabel. Anti-Peronists in Argentina have sought to link Mr. Gelbard with multimillion-dollar scandals, some allegedly involving investment of funds amassed by left-wing guerrillas who kidnaped prominent businessmen.
Mr. Gelbard, who was himself one of Argentina's most prominent businessmen before becoming economy minister, denied the charges. The request for extradition was made under a 1972 treaty that leaves to the United States a determination of whether the charges are politically motivated.
No action ever was taken on the extradition request, but it apparently complicated Mr. Gelbard's efforts to obtain permanent residence status - and hence the passport that was essential to his efforts to re-establish himself in hemispheric business circles.
Mr. Gelbard's son, Fernando, of Beverly Hills, Calif., said that his father flew to Washington Saturday after learning that the long-sought permanent-resident visa could be issued this week. This is a prerequisite to issuance of a passport.
In recent months, Mr. Gelbard had devoted much of his time to a proposed conference in Washington of Latin American political leaders on the subject of human rights and democracy in Latin America.
Mr. Gelbard was working on this project with Laurence R. Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, who quotes Mr. Gelbard as giving this rationale for his efforts:
"From the age of 9 until the time I entered the government of Peron . . . I have spent my life at first fighting for personal survival and then in making money.
"Argentina has been good to me and I have had a great deal of money. Now I ask myself what I, an exile in a strange land, should do for the rest of my days. My answer is that I must use whatever skils I have to work to protect the human rights of my fellow Argentines and to improve the economic possibilities of all of Latin America."
Mr. Gelbard was a symbol to those who see a strong current of anti-Semitism on the ideological conflict hat has wracked Argentina in recent years. "Anti-Semitism was a factor" in his own case, Mr. Gelbard said last December, "But I was also attacked as a symbol of the economic policies [the conservatives] oppose, policies that affected entrenched interests."
Starting with the populist policy of freezing prices - but also freezing wages - Economy Minister Gelbard received acclaim for halting Argentina's bounding inflation in its tracks - and blame for the near economic collapse that followed when Mrs. Peron turned away from the Gelbard approach.
Although he had made his money in private business, and had led the Peronist version of the chamber of commerce, Mr. Gelbard's policies were highly nationalist and somewhat statist. He characterized himself as a non-Marxist reformist.
One of the more persistent allegations of his detractors was that Mr. Gelbard was the recipient of a bribe paid at the time that Argentina chose Canada to supply the nuclear reactors for the country's fledgling nuclear energy program.
The case caused considerable turmoil in Canada since the reactor firm is a government entity and revelation of the bribe came from within the Canadian government.
Mr. Gelbard, denying any involvement, pointed out that the crucial decisions in the contract were made by the military government that preceded Peron. An intensive investigative effort by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has failed to link Mr. Gelbard to the case.
The biggest case to which he has been tied in this country is that of Argentine financer David Graiver, who collapsed New York's American bank and Trust Co. and who apparently died in a Mexican air crash last year.
Mr. Gelbard said that he was among the many Argentines who lost considerable sums to Graiver. He did not discount the allegation that Graiver was acting as investor for the Montonero leftist guerrillas, whose $17 million in ransom funds allegedly were involved in the international banking scandal.
With excusing Graiver for any wrongdoing, Mr. Gelbard did offer this view of business in Argentina: "There are no rules. Those who are in power make up the rules. So those ot of favor are bound to break them."
A big man with sad eyes and a wry sense of humor, Mr. Gelbard was limited in his contacts in Washington by his failure to become fluent in English. He took up residence first at the Fairfax Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue but moved out after a team of journalists from buenos Aires was able to gain access to his suite in his absence and to publish his expense accounts.
Mr. Gelbard's wife Dina and son Fernando announced here yesterday that the funeral would be in Los Angeles. A daughter, Silvia Warquirs, also lives in California.