Why Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ is taking a stand against Israel

Leftist leaders like Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Chile’s Gabriel Boric have condemned Israeli violence in Gaza.

Gabriel Boric and Joe Biden face each other and talk in the Oval Office, a roaring fire in the fireplace behind them.
Experts say Latin American leaders like Chilean President Gabriel Boric, left, have taken a markedly stronger stance against Israeli actions in Gaza than figures like US President Joe Biden [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Bogota, Colombia – As Israel’s bombardment of Gaza enters its second month, world leaders have increasingly voiced concern over the rising death toll and suspected human rights violations in the Palestinian territory.

But in the West, few have been as vocal — or as severe in their criticism — as the leftist leaders in Latin America, many of whom came to power as part of a progressive wave known as the “pink tide”.

On October 31, Bolivia severed its diplomatic relations with Israel, citing “the aggressive and disproportionate Israeli military offensive taking place in the Gaza Strip”. Colombia and Chile echoed that criticism, recalling their diplomats from Israel the very same day.

“If Israel does not stop the massacre of the Palestinian people, we cannot be there,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro posted on the social media platform X.

His message came minutes after his Chilean counterpart, Gabriel Boric, denounced the Israeli offensive as a “collective punishment on the Palestinian population in Gaza”.

Analysts said these acts of censure send a powerful signal from Latin America, a region that has largely maintained close, if sometimes tense, ties with Israel.

“It speaks to a Latin America that is not willing to tolerate such obvious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,” said Mauricio Jaramillo, an international relations expert.

Dressed in a white embroidered shirt, President Gustavo Petro raises an arm in gesture as he speaks before a row of flags.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro has denounced the ‘massacre’ of Palestinians in Gaza [Marco Ugarte/AP Photo]

The Latin American leaders’ sharp rhetoric, he added, stood in stark contrast with statements from other Western leaders, like United States President Joe Biden, who have been more circumspect in their criticism of Israel.

In response to Latin America’s diplomatic backlash, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on Colombia and Chile to support its right “to protect its citizens”. To do otherwise, Israel suggested, would be to align “with Venezuela and Iran in support of Hamas terrorism”.

It also called Bolivia’s decision to cut relations altogether “a surrender to terrorism”.

Bolivia, Chile and Colombia were not alone in their criticism. By Friday, the leftist government in Honduras had likewise pulled its ambassador from Israel for “consultations”. And after last week’s bombing of Jabalia, Gaza’s largest refugee camp, more left-leaning leaders from Latin America spoke out against the Israeli violence.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Argentina, for instance, home to the largest Jewish community in Latin America, condemned the attack in a statement: “Nothing justifies the violation of international humanitarian law.”

Leaders line up before the portico of the White House for a photo opportunity outdoors.
Leaders from across the western hemisphere, including Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Chile’s Gabriel Boric, gather at the White House on November 2, 2023 [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

Cold War legacy on left-wing politics

The current conflict in Gaza, however, is not the first time Latin America’s leftist leaders have taken a stand against Israel.

Jaramillo pointed out that Cuba’s Fidel Castro became the first Latin American leader to break relations with Israel back in 1973.

Announced in the midst of the Cold War, Castro’s decision served as a rebuke both to Israeli aggression in the Middle East and to its biggest ally, the US — Cuba’s adversary at the time.

The legacy of the Cold War has primed Latin America’s leftist leaders to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, according to Jehad Jusef, the vice president of the Palestinian Union of Latin America, an association of Palestinian diaspora groups.

During the Cold War, the US backed military dictatorships in Latin America that suppressed leftist movements, Jusef said.

That history, he argued, serves as a parallel for the modern-day situation in Gaza, where the US is supporting Israel in a campaign that has raised grave human rights concerns.

Israel played its own role in Latin America’s Cold War period, serving as a major arms dealer to the US-backed military dictatorships in places like Guatemala and Argentina.

“Imperialism in Latin America is the same as imperialism in the Middle East,” Jusef said.

A woman holds up a scarf in the colors of the Palestinian flag, with the word "Palestine" written in red. Around her, people carry candles.
Protesters in Bogota, Colombia, hold a candlelight vigil for Palestinian civilians amid the ongoing war in Gaza [Ivan Valencia/AP Photo]

Experiences with displacement

Experts said Israel’s settlement of Palestinian territories has also fostered a sense of recognition among Latin American leaders.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians faced displacement during the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel after a period of prolonged Western involvement in the region. The UN continues to denounce the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories like the West Bank as illegal.

That history resonates in Latin America, where an estimated 42 million people identify as Indigenous. They too continue to grapple with a legacy of dispossession from their ancestral lands and racial discrimination, as part of European colonisation.

“Progressive movements in Latin America approach the Palestinian cause as one of decolonization,” said Manuel Rayran, an expert in international relations. “They identify with that cause because [many of the inequalities] seen in Latin America today are inherited from colonialism.”

Some political analysts like Cecilia Baeza have noted that Indigenous groups have even taken a leadership role in supporting Palestinian causes.

“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,” Baeza wrote in a 2015 article.

President Luis Arce stands at the UN General Assembly podium, emblazoned with the UN logo.
Bolivian President Luis Arce severed relations with Israel in response to the ‘aggressive and disproportionate’ violence in Gaza [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

Political divides shape Israel relations

Support for the Palestinian cause also falls along stark ideological lines in Latin America.

In the case of Bolivia, the country’s first Indigenous president — the socialist Evo Morales — was also the first to sever relations with Israel in 2009.

But his successor, the right-wing Jeanine Áñez, decided to renew ties within weeks of taking office.

The country’s current president, Luis Arce, is considered part of the present-day “pink tide”.

This leftward trend began with the election of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico in 2018 and continued with leftist victories in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras and Chile.

In Colombia, the 2022 swing to the left was particularly historic: Never before had a left-wing president taken office.

But Petro’s victory in Colombia has shown some of the weakness of the latest “pink tide” movement.

A protester holds up the Colombian flag in one hand and the Israeli flag in the other. He stands on a sidewalk, in front of taxis and a white van passing on the street.
A demonstrator shows support for Israel outside the country’s embassy in Bogota, Colombia, on October 9 [File: Ivan Valencia/AP Photo]

Breaking ties comes at a cost

Only a year into his term, Petro’s approval ratings have plummeted to 32 percent, as he struggles to implement his domestic platform against a strong right-wing backlash.

While opposition leaders in Colombia have accused Petro of using the crisis in the Middle East to divert attention away from his domestic troubles, Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the think tank Crisis Group, questioned that logic.

She argued that — instead of winning public opinion points at home — Petro’s decision to take a stand against Israel could come at a cost.

After Petro compared remarks made by the Israeli defence minister to those made by Nazis, Israel suspended its military exports to Colombia, including the sale of planes and machine guns used in the government’s efforts against rebel forces.

Actions and comments from other Latin American leaders could lead to similar repercussions, Dickinson warned. Israel’s defence exports alone are a $12.5bn industry.

“This is not an easy or obvious decision,” she said. “It’s clearly a political choice that these leaders have made despite the possible risks to their own interests.”

The diplomatic rebuke from countries like Colombia, Chile and Bolivia is unlikely to deter Israel from escalating the war, she added.

“These are countries that don’t have a definitive economic or political relationship [with Israel] that could shift the conflict in one way or another,” Dickinson said.

It does, however, build pressure on the US, Israel’s closest ally, to call for a ceasefire.

Dickinson said she suspected that the South American countries timed their actions to coincide with an international summit in Washington last Friday. Both Petro and Boric used the meeting to encourage their US counterpart to condemn Israeli actions.

“It’s a point of entry for Latin American leaders to push this forward with the United States,” Dickinson said.

Source: Al Jazeera