On July 29, Brazil, Chile, Peru, El Salvador and Ecuador recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv, whilst denouncing the disproportionate use of Israeli military force in Gaza in which civilians, including women and children, have been killed in bombings on military targets as also schools and hospitals.
Chile has suspended trade talks with Israel. During the Mercosur Summit on July 29, the Presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela issued a joint statement condemning Israel and calling for lifting the siege in Gaza. Venezuela issued an even stronger statement on behalf of the nine-member ALBA (Bolivarian alternative) group. Bolivian President Evo Morales called Israel as a “terrorist state” and appealed to the UNHCR (UN Human Rights Commission) to consider these attacks “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” by Israel.
Civil society has jointed in: Latin American Nobel prize winners Pérez Esquivel of Argentina and Rigoberta Menchú of Guatemala have called for a military embargo against Israel as done against South Africa during apartheid. This is not the first time that Latin Americans have reacted to Israeli offensives in Gaza. In 2009, Venezuela and Bolivia had cut off diplomatic relations and Nicaragua followed suit in 2010 after the last Israeli offensives. Cuba had done it in 1973 as part of its ideological support to the Palestine cause.
The vocal criticism and strong language used by Latin America has a reason: the impunity with which Israel has killed over 1,898 (both Palestinians and Israeli) civilians and the support it receives from the US, remind many Latin Americans of the atrocities committed by Right-wing Latin American military dictatorships with similar US backing.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a pragmatic and respected Latin American leader, has likened her political exile in Europe during the Pino-chet dictatorship to the plight of Palestinian refugees denied the right to return home. This memory has triggered Latin Ame-aaarican governments to react strongly, and go beyond the response of many countries around the world.
Latin America is no stranger to Jews and Israel — or to Palestine. Chile has the largest Palestine community of around 400,000, followed by Honduras with 200,000. Mexico has 100,000 and other countries have smaller numbers. But most of these people of Palestine origin are Christians and have not stood up for the Palestine cause. The continent is also home to over 500,000 Jews of which 200,000 live in Argentina, 100,000 in Brazil and 50,000 in Mexico. In fact, the Jewish community of Brazil apologised for the statements made by Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, who called Brazil a “diplomatic dwarf” and a politically irrelevant country.
In fact, Israel owes a debt to Latin America. Of the 33 votes for the 1949 UN resolution partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, 13 were from Latin America. These included Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela — the very states which have now taken diplomatic action against Israel.
Mexico and Colombia, which have reacted mildly to the Gaza offensive now as part of their pro-US policy, had abstained in that voting. In the years after the creation of Israel, many Latin American countries had taken pro-Israeli positions in global fora because of the US’ influence on the Rightist authoritarian regimes in Latin America — with whom Israel was also cozy. But most Latin American countries changed their stance after the Israeli occupation of Palestine territories and after the restoration of democracies in their own home countries.
They have since recognised Palestine as an independent state and were sponsors of the UN resolution declaring 2014 as the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestine People. In the Latin American stance against Israel, is a larger political message to the world: that the region is increasingly independent, and will not hesitate to assert its beliefs on the global stage.
The writer is a distinguished fellow, Latin America Studies, Gateway House, and the former Indian ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela, and consul general in Sao Paulo.