Palestinians have found an ally in the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Over the last decade, indigenous movements have been among the most vocal supporters in the region of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the first self-identified indigenous president in Latin America since colonization, has broken off diplomatic relations with Israel, endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, called Israel a “terrorist state,” and denounced Israeli “apartheid” and “genocide in Gaza.” No other Latin American head of state has gone so far in supporting the Palestinian cause.

Underlying this empathy is the deep resonance of Palestinian struggles against loss of territory, state repression, colonialism and racism with the same struggles on the part of Latin American indigenous peoples. The concept of resonance goes deeper than drawing an analogy. As Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink point out, “the construction of cognitive frames is an essential component of transnational networks’ political strategies.” [1] Comparisons in “cognitive frames” do not necessarily make sense in all respects, but they do function to render distant events meaningful. This process—identified by Robert Benford and David Snow as “frame bridging” [2]—can have a pedagogical dimension (to make a problem more comprehensible to a target audience) as well as a political one (to build new alliances). The linkages between the Palestinian and Latin America’s indigenous causes have both dimensions. The reverberations of the Palestinian cause among indigenous peoples are the product of a political convergence built on the ground by indigenous and Palestinian movements in Latin America, which is home to an estimated half-million people of Palestinian descent, the largest such population outside the Arab world.

Encounters

Arab emigration from Palestine to Latin America started in the late Ottoman period, with predominantly Christian immigrants from Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Tayba and Ramallah arriving as early as 1870. The nascent European tourism in the Holy Land created a boom in demand for religious handicrafts, and a new class of merchants emerged in these towns, especially Bethlehem. These merchants first sought to expand into Europe, particularly France, but “Amrika” rapidly became the new Eldorado. Once in Latin America, Palestinian traders understood they had to diversify their wares, and they started to peddle everyday products house to house. Traveling the roads often led them to rural communities. Some of these areas were experiencing unprecedented economic growth thanks to the increased agricultural exports allowed by the advent of railways. Most of these communities, however, continued to suffer from a scarcity of retail trade.

Over time, Palestinian middlemen began to settle in rural areas where indigenous people made up the majority or a significant plurality of the population. One son of immigrants from Bethlehem, Schafik Handal, was born in 1930 in the town of Usulután, the capital of a rural region culturally marked by the Lenca, an indigenous people of southwestern Honduras and eastern El Salvador. Handal went on to become a leader of the Salvadoran guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLN. Similarly, Palestinian immigrants in Peru first settled in Cusco, a predominantly Quechua region in the south of the country, whose commercial revival coincided with the development of railroads. [3] By 1905, those immigrants made up the second largest “foreign community” in Cusco, just behind the Italians. In the Araucanía, a region that Chile did not incorporate until the 1880s, when the state occupied the area to quell the indigenous Mapuche resistance, the number of Arab immigrants reached 469 in 1920. [4]

While the Palestinian immigrants were generally less numerous than European settlers, they often played a crucial social and economic role. In fact, poor rural communities could only welcome the Palestinian peddlers, who introduced flexible, informal credit that allowed low-income families to discover a series of previously inaccessible products, including local and imported manufactures. The Palestinians often worked hard to win indigenous customers, for example by learning a few words of the indigenous languages. In Peru, according to many accounts, some of the Palestinians even learned Quechua before Spanish. [5] In doing so, the Palestinians disturbed the logic of hacienda stores, the equivalent of company stores, and one of the institutions through which landowners exerted paternalistic control over tenant laborers. Indigenous peasants usually ran up large debts at these stores, adding an element of debt peonage to tenant farming arrangements. [6] Competition from Palestinian peddlers contributed to the hacienda stores’ gradual decline and helped indigenous communities to overcome their commercial and financial dependence on large landowners. It is important to stress as well that Palestinian immigrants differed from European settlers in their relation to land: Palestinians had not left their country to take up farming in Latin America. Land was not a subject of litigation between Palestinian immigrants and indigenous communities.

Of course, class, gender and race framed Palestinian immigrants’ relations with indigenous and mestizo peasants. Within the span of two generations, as the Palestinian merchants and their descendants accumulated wealth, class differences became a major barrier. The worst case of conflict comes from Honduras: Miguel Facussé Barjum, a second-generation Palestinian from Bethlehem, is one of the wealthiest men in the country and the owner of Grupo Dinant, a palm oil company. Dinant is associated with the killings of more than 100 peasant farmers, most of them of indigenous roots, and appears to be involved in a virtual terror campaign to ensure control of a large swath of land in the Lower Aguan Valley near the Caribbean coast.

By contrast, ethnicity and race were vectors of both estrangement and mutual understanding. Endogamy was particularly strong among the first generation of Palestinian immigrants, who often married within the community or brought wives from Palestine. Arab families tended to be somewhat prejudiced toward not only indigenous and mestizo people, but also criollos (“whites,” or Latin Americans of confirmed Spanish descent). Like middleman minorities elsewhere in the world, Palestinian immigrants in Latin America put a premium on discipline, education and willingness to work long hours—qualities they associated with Arabs and not with the rest of society.

This kind of cultural bias, however, was harmless compared to the discrimination endured by Arab immigrants and indigenous people, especially during the period 1880-1930, at the hands of the criollo elites. The criollos widely shared a European-inspired racialism that considered all non-white people suspect and undesirable. The abuses, exploitation and denial of rights faced by rural indigenous communities were undoubtedly much worse than what confronted Arab immigrants. Nevertheless, the fact that both groups were categorized as racially undesirable by criollos created a de facto sympathy between them vis-à-vis the elites. While not common, intermarriage did occur among people of Palestinian and indigenous descent. Fuad Chahin Valenzuela, a Christian Democrat in the Chilean parliament, is the grandson of a Palestinian immigrant and a Mapuche peasant.

Shared Concepts

Several scholars have pointed to similarities between the fates of indigenous populations in the United States and Arabs native to historical Palestine. The ideological justifications for dispossession—Manifest Destiny in the US case, and “a land without a people for a people without a land” in the case of Zionism—have been grounds for particularly eloquent comparisons. Elias Sanbar recognized in both ideologies the “same inspiration drawn from the Bible, the same speech about the Promised Land and the new Eden…, the same relation to the indigenous people, which they do not seek to dominate or exploit but hope to see leave.” [7] Both Manifest Destiny and Zionism combined millennial religious prophesy with the modern ideas of progress or a “civilizing mission” as justifications for displacing the native populations. According to Steven Salaita, the settler ideologies share more than a mere resemblance: “Their mimesis…is not merely parallel, but confederated. Zionists drew inspiration from American history in colonizing Palestine, and American history also shaped the outlook of American leaders toward the Near East.” [8]

The connection between Zionism and the colonization of Latin America has been explored far less often, although many features of US frontier history are present in Latin American history as well, especially during the period 1880-1930. In these years, white oligarchies rode sustained economic growth based on the export of commodities to accelerate the dispossession of indigenous peoples. The parallels between the Palestinian and Latin American indigenous experiences are more contemporary than historical. State repression, racism and the murder of indigenous persons by non-indigenous settlers, militias or police are still burning issues in many Latin American countries. Indigenous lands are under multiple pressures from agribusiness, mining and logging companies, and projects to build dams and oil and gas pipelines. Many of these activities open indigenous territories to (legal and illegal) settlement by colonists.

While indigenous peoples in Latin America have suffered almost constant oppression over the last 150 years, with violence peaking during the military dictatorships, their political organization around ethnic cleavages only became noteworthy in the 1990s, with the emergence of prominent indigenous movements in Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico and Chile. Indigenous peoples represent around 55 percent of the Bolivian population, 41 percent of the Guatemalan, 25 percent of the Ecuadorian, 13 percent of the Mexican and 5 percent of the Chilean. At this time, some of the indigenous organizations began to invoke the issue of Palestine, mainly with reference to concepts of indigenousness, colonialism, dispossession and racism. The similarities between Latin American indigenous and Palestinian struggles are not total, of course. The nature of Israeli occupation, the militarization of the Palestinian movement, and the international dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are but three obvious differences. Moreover, the majority of Latin American indigenous organizations do not seek to establish independent states but ask for local political autonomy and advocate for constitutional changes recognizing the “pluri-national” character of their countries. Even in Chile, where some activists want to establish an independent Mapuche state, separatists are in the minority. What gives the Palestinian issue such a powerful resonance among indigenous movements is the way that Latin American states have labeled these movements as “terrorist” and the inspiration of Palestinian resistance that is internationally known and has perdured despite hardship.

Chile’s indigenous Mapuche movement is a case in point. According to official statistics, there are more than 600,000 Mapuche in Chile. Mapuche organizations claim the figure is far higher, and often quote from the 1992 census, which put the total at 928,000. With the return of democracy to Chile in 1990, Mapuche organizations renewed their claims on parts of the Araucanía through street demonstrations, land occupations and, on rare occasion, arson at the private property of forestry companies and large landowners. Successive governments—whether right or center-left—have failed to resolve the issue, opting for repression that has only exacerbated conflict. The heavy police presence in many Mapuche communities in the region—a military occupation in the eyes of some—has ratcheted up the violence. During police raids, Mapuche are often beaten or shot with rubber bullets. Several Mapuche militants, such as Alex Lemun, Matias Catrileo and Jaime Mendoza Collio, have been killed in clashes with security forces. Other murders include the cases of Rodrigo Melinao Licán, who was found dead in the rural area of Ercilla, about 160 feet from the main road where the police regularly patrol, and José Mauricio Quintriqueo Huaiquimil, who died after being run over by a tractor while he and other Mapuche were occupying a farm. The Chilean state has deployed an “anti-terrorism” law against Mapuche activists that permits extended pre-trial detention, anonymous witnesses and longer sentences. This highly contentious law, drafted under the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is almost uniquely applied in Mapuche cases. After years of harsh criticism from international human rights organizations, the Michelle Bachelet administration has taken steps to reform the law, but many Mapuche activists remain in prison.

If one adds the fact that Chilean security forces often carry Uzi submachine guns and Tavor TAR-21 assault rifles, both made in Israel, the parallel with the plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is obvious. Pedro Cayuqueo, a journalist and director of the website Mapuche Resistance, calls his people “the Palestinians of South America,” a phrase that has been adopted by several activists. In July 2014, with the Israeli assault upon Gaza underway, Cayuqueo tweeted maps depicting the shrinkage of Mapuche land since 1540 with the words: “How would you feel? No, it is not Palestine. It is Wallmapu.” The clear reference was to the famous maps of Palestinian land loss since 1948. It was a way to highlight the seriousness of the Mapuche issue to a Chilean population that is often indifferent to the fate of its indigenous population. The comparison was all the more effective because Chile is the Latin American country with the largest Palestinian diaspora.

From Resonance to Mobilization

Since the mid-2000s, Palestinian and indigenous organizations in Latin America have begun to support each other by regularly staging joint events, including protests, informational events, exhibitions and music festivals. The beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 triggered the reactivation of Palestinian diaspora organizations, which joined Latin America’s renewed landscape of social movements. In Chile and Bolivia, where this political convergence is particularly strong, it is not unusual to see Palestine solidarity protests called by both Palestinian diaspora organizations and indigenous movements. At first, this alliance may seem odd given the gaps in wealth and social status. But dialogue is made possible by the lack of historical animosity and the middle-class student or leftist leadership of the most active Palestinian movements. Dozens of activities have taken place in each country, building new social networks with many common memories and emotions.

Popular culture has picked up on the trend. In “Somos Sur” (We Are South), a single released in June 2014, Chilean rapper Anita Tijoux and her Palestinian counterpart Shadia Mansour pressed the two demands for independent statehood. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Tijoux said, “The movements of global resistance, whether in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East, are fighting against the same patrons of violence who have repeated themselves throughout history. What this means is that many of these groups share similar demands. We are asking for a free Palestine in the same way as we are asking for an independent Wallmapu in Chile, without police control.”

In Bolivia, solidarity with Palestine has both a grassroots and a high-level dimension since the 2006 election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in the country’s history. The Palestinian community in Bolivia is tiny. A first wave of immigration came at the beginning of the twentieth century, and a second, mostly Muslims, in the 1970s. Ayman Altaramsi, a Gaza-born doctor, is currently the representative of both the Palestinian and Muslim entities in the country. The question of Palestine has nonetheless become a major component of Bolivian foreign policy. The government broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in January 2009 in condemnation of that round of bombardment of the Gaza Strip. On December 17, 2010, Morales announced that his country would recognize Palestine as an independent state with the 1967 borders. Since then, several cooperation agreements have been signed between Bolivia and Palestine. Finally, in protest of the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Bolivia renounced its visa exemption agreement with Israel amidst the strong language from Morales. The fact that Morales is of Aymara origin is not enough to explain these gestures—Bolivia’s incorporation into the left-leaning ALBA regional economic and diplomatic bloc, and its strong desire to assert autonomy vis-à-vis the US, are other factors. But Morales’ self-identification and pride as indigenous clearly contributed to his interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Within a century, relations between Palestinian immigrants and indigenous peoples in Latin America went from coexistence to active solidarity. The Palestinian cause echoes loudly in indigenous struggles in Latin America. Indigenous peoples have not been erased from the Latin American map. More active and mobilized than ever, they have begun to make strides toward changing their condition. Several countries, including Colombia, Guatemala and Ecuador, have introduced significant changes in their respective constitutions in order to reflect this new status. Most of the alterations are meant to increase indigenous political representation, recognize their cultural rights (in particular with regard to language) and grant limited autonomy on ancestral lands. The most sweeping changes occurred in Bolivia: Its 2009 constitution defines the country as a pluri-national state and recognizes indigenous rights as a transversal dimension in the whole document. Indigenous languages, symbols, ethical principles, land rights, and political and judicial systems are enshrined in the text. While most indigenous peoples still suffer from social exclusion, their battle for full citizenship has brought them to prominence as a new social and political actor. Their solidarity with Palestinians is not tinged with melancholy or despair, but suffused with hope and resistance.

Endnotes

[1] Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, “Transnational Advocacy Networks in International and Regional Politics,” International Social Science Journal 51/1 (March 1999).
[2] Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (August 2000).
[3] Denys Cuche, “Un siècle d’immigration palestinienne au Pérou: La construction d’une ethnicité spécifique,” Revue Européenne de Migrations Internationales 17/3 (2001), pp. 94-95.
[4] Antonia Rebolledo, “La ‘turcofobia’: Discriminación antiárabe en Chile, 1900-1950,” Historia 28 (1994), pp. 78-79.
[5] Cuche, p. 97.
[6] Thomas M. Klubock, “The Nature of the Frontier: Forests and Peasant Uprisings in Southern Chile,” Social History 36/2 (May 2011), p. 128.
[7] Elias Sanbar, “Peaux rouges,” in Figures du Palestinien (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), p. 146.
[8] Steven Salaita, “Demystifying the Quest for Canaan: Observations on Mimesis in the New World and Holy Land,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 11/2 (2002), p. 134.

How to cite this article:

Cecilia Baeza "Palestinians and Latin America’s Indigenous Peoples," Middle East Report 274 (Spring 2015).
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