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Latin American solidarity with Palestine at all-time high

Latin America’s growing support for Palestine was voiced at an international conference last weekend
Conference on Palestine and Latin America in the 21st Century: Building solidarity for national rights (Courtesy of the Middle East Monitor)

“The voice of the South in support of Palestine is growing steadily stronger,” said the Bolivian ambassador to the UK at a conference held in London on 22 August. Speakers from Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Chile and Grenada reported on major changes of attitude both by governments and civil society, aided by the explosion of social media and a greater diversification of mainstream media outlets.

Cuban diplomat Jorge Luis Garcia pointed out that Cuba was the first Latin American country to cut diplomatic ties with Israel, as early as 1973. Even further back, when the UN voted on the fate of the Palestinians in 1947, pre-revolutionary Cuba was one of the 13 countries – the only one from Latin America - that voted against partition. Cuba has continued to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine, consistently affirming the right of return and calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Ecuadorian Minister of Culture and Heritage Guillaume Long, among others, paid homage to Cuba as “the giant of South-South politics” citing its long-term support for liberation movements in Africa and its intervention on the side of Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. “We are the proud heirs of this strong internationalist position, in standing by Palestine,” he said.

Diplomatic reaction

It is the radical left and centre-left governments that have responded most strongly to Israel’s repeated violations of international law and especially to its increasingly brutal assaults on Gaza.

After the 2009 war on Gaza, dubbed "Operation Cast Lead," Venezuela and Bolivia cut diplomatic ties with Israel. And after the killings on the Turkish aid ship to Gaza, the Mavi Marmara, in 2010, Nicaragua suspended diplomatic relations. The response to the 2014 onslaught on Gaza was also unprecedented, with El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil all withdrawing their ambassadors in protest, and three countries accusing Israel of attempted genocide.

Israeli-born academic Prof. Ilan Pappe spoke at the London conference and was enthusiastic about the nature of the support for Palestine in Latin America. There, he said, the focus is on basic human rights issues, not some nebulous “peace process”.

“In Latin America,” he continued, “there are no hang-ups, no layers of guilt” as there are in the West, so charges of anti-Semitism are a much less potent weapon.

A shared history

A number of delegates referred to the commonality of experience of Palestine and many Latin American countries, from outright colonisation by a regional superpower to hegemony in terms of economic and military control thinly veiled as "cooperation". Invasion, bribery and coercion, regime change by assassination – which country of Latin America has been untouched?

Dr. Daud Abdullah, director of the Middle East Monitor, likened the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba to the more recent US-backed attempt at overthrowing the newly elected Hamas government in 2006. And the 55-year US blockade of Cuba may not have been as brutal as the siege of Gaza, but the parallel carries a special resonance with the peoples of Latin America.

Like the indigenous peoples of Latin America demanding their rights, Palestinians have been labelled terrorists posing some global threat, be it communism or violent Islamism.

Guillaume Long spoke of Israel’s role in the 80s in ”doing America’s dirty work”: supplying arms to “the most aggressive, genocidal dictatorships” in Central America and in Colombia and arming and training paramilitary forces, including the militias of narco-cartels. The role continues today, with Israeli involvement in Mexico, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. 

A 'pink tide' for Palestine

The "pink tide" (turn to the left) sweeping much of Latin America this century was headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, soon to be followed by Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Chilean academic Francisco Domingues explained this dramatic shift as a backlash against the harsh neoliberal policies launched by the US in the 1970s and imposed with extreme violence in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and elsewhere.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of assassinations and desaparecidos (one who has disappeared, in referring to a person who has been secretly imprisoned or killed during a government's programme of political suppression) the people fought back. Now, Guillaume said, support for Palestine is both a natural corollary of an anti-imperialist worldview and a symbolic rejection of US hegemony.

Voting patterns at the UN in relation to Palestine broadly match alignment or non-alignment with American foreign policy. In the November 2012 vote to admit Palestine to the UN as a non-member observer state, for instance, all Latin American countries voted yes apart from Panama, Paraguay, Colombia and Guatemala – all still firmly within the US sphere of influence.

Brazilian academic Arlene Clemesha said that her government’s position had traditionally been one of “keeping a balance” in its relations with Israel and Palestine, but that civil society had become increasingly engaged. The year 1982 saw massive demonstrations against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the setting up of a solidarity movement with Palestine. Discussion of Palestine is now mainstream, she said, with the development of academic courses and much more discussion in the media, despite attempts by Zionist organisations to stifle debate. (The Ecuadorian minister reported that he had been subject to “pressure” not to take part in the London conference.)

A fragile unity

Despite very diverse histories, economies and differences in political orientation, there have been numerous attempts to achieve a degree of economic and political integration in Latin America. The regional trade bloc Mercosur was formed in 1991 (and joined by Israel in 2010), but is now rivalled by the broader, more politically oriented Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) established in 2008. The US on the other hand is working to establish a pan-American trade association, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Long-standing disputes between neighbours continue to be major obstacles to Latin American unity: Bolivia may have diplomatic relations with Palestine – but not with Chile.

There have however been successes at the political and diplomatic level. Domingues said that the easing of US restrictions on Cuba was largely due to a concerted effort on the part of fellow Latin American nations. Also, he said, when the US came out with belligerent statements earlier this year about Venezuela representing an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States" – often a prelude to military action – many countries of the region again brought diplomatic pressure to bear, and the US has backed off.

Building from below

At grassroots level, Ilan Pappe called for “galvanising a clear solidarity movement in Latin America around boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS]”. Guillaume Long conceded however that diplomatic gestures of support are only a beginning: more radical steps in the form of sanctions should follow. The problem, of course, is that economic and military ties with Israel are strong in many Latin American countries. Guatemala, Chile and Colombia all rely heavily on Israeli drone technology, while Brazil is one of Israel’s biggest clients, not just in terms of arms sales but also in the training of its “special forces,” as the Israeli film The Lab confirms. Here, an Israeli general says of government criticism: “They condemn you politically, while they ask ... 'What is Israel’s trick for turning blood into money?'"

On a more optimistic note, Pedro Charbel, a coordinator of the BDS movement across Latin America, was able to report on a huge and growing network of organisations working together to promote the boycott of companies involved in the occupation, with a special focus on Israeli companies that train and equip killer squads in Latin America. Tapping into the many millions of Facebook and Twitter users across the region, the network has major projects in hand such as the "Olympics without apartheid" campaign which will challenge Israel’s participation in the games in 2016.

A region in flux

The death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was a considerable blow to the pro-Palestinian movement in Latin America. Although Nicolas Maduro has so far upheld his predecessor’s policy in relation to Palestine, the country’s catastrophic economic reverses make it highly vulnerable to external pressures. In Brazil, the economic heavyweight of the region, Dilma Rousseff also followed through on her predecessor Lula da Silva’s progressive social policies but has been badly weakened by a stagnant economy and allegations of corruption.

Domingues sounded a warning note: "All leftist Latin American countries are suffering from very intense processes of destabilisation ... If the right wing returns, all gains on Palestine will be lost.”

Wadah Khanfar, the Palestinian former head of Al Jazeera network, was more optimistic. He felt that the shifting tectonic plates of global politics – the rise of China, an economically weakened US, a resurgent Russia, the economic crisis in Europe – could ultimately result in a multipolar world order that would favour more “human-centred” politics. In the meantime, the message is clear: in Latin America, as in Europe, it is civil society that must lead the way in the struggle for Palestinian rights.