Why did Latin America stop standing up for Palestine?

After a visible shift to the right, Latin American governments are aligning with Israel.

by
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales following the dedication ceremony of the embassy of Guatemala in Jerusalem [Debbie Hill/Reuters ]
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales following the dedication ceremony of the embassy of Guatemala in Jerusalem [Debbie Hill/Reuters ]

    While most of the world rejected US President Donald Trump's decision to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, some Latin American leaders have supported it enthusiastically. This may come as a surprise to many; after all the region has been vocal about its support for the Palestinian cause. All Latin American states, except for Colombia, Panama and Mexico, recognised the state of Palestine between 2008 and 2013.

    But political realities in the region have changed. Paraguay recently became the third country to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of the US and Guatemala. Honduras may be next; last month, its Congress passed a resolution urging its foreign ministry to carry out the move. And in December 2017, Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right presidential candidate leading in Brazil's most recent polls, stated that if elected he would follow Trump's controversial decision.

    Such developments signal a worrisome shift in support for the Palestinian cause and demonstrate a broader regional trend towards regressive politics.

    Many observers are pointing to the fact that Latin America and Israel have ties that date back to 1948. Guatemala pioneered these relations with its immediate recognition of the Israeli state, and more than half of Latin American countries opened embassies in Jerusalem in the years that followed. Yet though Latin America was rather friendly towards Israel until 1967, afterward, relations changed.

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    For instance, in 1980, Israel's adoption of a law proclaiming Jerusalem its "indivisible and eternal capital" led to a UN Security Council resolution calling on countries to move their embassies to Tel Aviv.

    Nine Latin American states - Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Uruguay, and Venezuela - immediately respected the demand. The Dominican Republic and Guatemala delayed until 1982 but ultimately implemented the resolution.

    More recently, in 2014, as the Israeli offensive against Gaza's population escalated and the international community stayed silent, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru issued strong statements of condemnation and recalled their ambassadors for consultation.

    Regional support for relocating embassies to Jerusalem is linked to an alarming takeover of power by right-wing forces in the region and their need for US approval. The right-wing governments of Guatemala and Honduras are facing serious political crises, for example, and desperately need Washington's support.

    Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has been mired in a series of corruption and money laundering scandals since 2016, and is still under pressure to submit his resignation. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez's recent re-election in November 2017 was plagued by widespread allegations of electoral fraud and corruption, as well as violence against protesters.

    For Morales and Hernandez, moving their embassies to Jerusalem is not only a show of "goodwill" towards Trump, but an attempt to shift attention away from domestic troubles. It also shows a resurgence of servile subordination to US interests - something most Latin American governments had managed to overcome in the 2000s.

    The two leaders also have personal connections to Israel. Morales is an evangelical Christian, as are 40 percent of Guatemalans, and as such he is a staunch Zionist. Hernandez, on the other hand, is a graduate of an outreach programme administered by the Agency for International Development Cooperation under the Israeli foreign ministry.

    Paraguay's President, Horacio Cartes - a billionaire who has also been accused of money laundering and drug smuggling - also has close ties with Israel. He is known to have close relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One of Cartes' campaign advisers in 2013, Ari Harow, also served as Netanyahu's chief of staff.

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    Further, these three leaders came to power with the support of right-wing parties that have long-standing ties with the Israeli military industry. Israel sold weapons to and maintained excellent relations with the Paraguayan tyrant Alfredo Stroessner, a military general who ruled from 1954 to 1989. Cartes, the leader of the right-wing Colorado Party, which served as the political power base of the Stroessner dictatorship, has revived these military connections.

    Similar ties were established in the late 1970s between the Guatemalan regime and Israel. A few years later, when General Efrain Rios Montt staged a coup, it was reported that 300 Israeli military advisers aided him. Officers who participated in the Guatemalan civil war side by side with Montt, who was later convicted of genocide against indigenous communities, are now part of Morales' party. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Guatemalan president chose to go to Israel for his first official trip abroad. 

    Honduras, too, received significant military support from Israel during the 1980s, when the CIA-backed Contra uprising swept through the country. In 2016 it signed a new arms export deal with Israel, one of the largest in Latin America in recent years. Hernandez called it a historic deal that would strengthen the country's security forces, unlike anything that came before it.

    Admittedly, democracy is receding in Latin America even in countries governed by left-wing parties, such as in Nicaragua and Venezuela. But there is something especially worrisome about this new generation of right-wing leaders in Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and elsewhere. They are reversing gains achieved by the civil society on indigenous and minority rights and re-introducing toxic racist rhetoric and policies - not that different from the Israeli ones. 

    Israel's financial and military support for these right-wing powers spells nothing good for the people of Latin America. 

    Editor's note: This article has been updated to add Panama to the Latin American countries which have not recognised the Palestinian state yet. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

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