Latin American solidarity movements with Palestine are starting to win important political battles.
Ten days ago, in my first post on this subject, I described movements that, with some exasperation, were still urging governments to go beyond merely symbolic condemnations of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Ecuador had showed the way forward with the withdrawal of its ambassador to Israel, but more than two weeks into the Israeli offensive, it was far from certain that additional Latin American governments would follow suit. The July 24 decision of Brazil to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv was a turning point.
Since that date, Chile and Peru resolved to join Brazil in its gesture of protest against Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip and summoned their respective ambassadors home for consultations. On July 30, El Salvador became the fifth Latin American country to recall its envoy. The governments of Costa Rica and Uruguay say they are considering doing the same. Bolivia went further, renouncing a visa exemption agreement with Israel and declaring Israel a “terrorist state.” While the rest of the international community watches passively as Israel commits crimes against Gaza’s population, Latin America has closed ranks at the forefront of diplomatic protest.
Israel has expressed its resentment at these Latin American moves. After the Brazilian government called its ambassador home, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, dismissed Brazil, Latin America’s largest country and the fifth most populous country in the world, as a “diplomatic dwarf.” Off the record, a senior Israeli official told the Global Post, “They are all very far away and don’t really know what is going on, and Brazil, for its own reasons, is pressuring them. Our situation doesn’t really have any effect on them, and their action, it goes without saying, has no effect on our region.”
The truth is much worse news for Israel, which has been steadily losing the sympathy of Latin America for about a decade. From 1948 until the 1990s, Latin America was always considered “friendly” to Israel. During the first decades of Israel’s existence, Latin American leaders felt genuine affinity for the “national aspirations of the Jewish people.” Unlike their counterparts in the Afro-Asian bloc, these leaders seemed to disregard the displacement and trauma of the Palestinians. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, Israel did a brisk business with the military dictatorships of the region, and Latin America became Israel’s most important arms market, accounting for one third of its total exports of weaponry. As Carlos Escudé, an Argentine political scientist who can hardly be called pro-Palestinian, recently put it, with these military alliances, Israel chose “the wrong side of history.”
With the wave of democratization that swept across Latin America from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s and, most importantly, the region’s left turn in the 2000s, Israel lost its privileged access to the circles of Latin American government. On the opposite side, during their years of opposition to the military regimes, Latin American leftist and center-leftist leaders had forged bonds of trust with the Palestine Liberation Organization. These ties, in addition to the vitality of the solidarity movements with Palestine led by the Arab diaspora organizations, render most of today’s Latin American governments much more sensitive to Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
Contrary to what Israeli officials claim, Latin American countries are not powerless vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, the region does not have the same direct leverage over the players that the United States and the European Union have. That does not mean, however, that Latin Americans cannot make a difference. The Latin American wave of recognitions of the state of Palestine in 2010-2011 played a crucial role in the international campaign launched by the PLO at the UN to gain that status. Without these Latin American gestures, it would have been extremely difficult for Palestinian diplomats to garner international attention in 2011-2012, especially because the US and the EU were at the time entirely focused on the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Latin American votes were also decisive in the admission of the State of Palestine to UNESCO as a Member State. There is no doubt that, when the time comes, the region will again play a role in acceptance of Palestine as a member state of the International Criminal Court.
Most Latin American countries are reluctant to ratchet up the measures even further, for example, to cut economic ties with Israel. Adopting economic sanctions against sovereign states is not in the diplomatic DNA of the region, and showing a balanced position is part of its mediating tradition. Surely, economic interests are also at stake, even though Israel is not a significant trading partner. But outrage at Israel’s systematic violations of international law is felt increasingly keenly, across party lines, and Israel should be prepared for the eventuality that Latin American governments will act accordingly.