Palestine present more than ever in Latin American politics

Governmental and popular solidarity with Palestine is unprecedented following the latest Israeli inv

The left in Latin America has traditionally supported Palestine, but this time around they have been joined by the moderate pragmatic left, writes Khatib [Reuters]

“Let’s advocate for Palestine’s right to be a full member at the United Nations.” The voice is very familiar to any Venezuelan or anyone living in Venezuela. Heard in small recorded sentences, it comes out every now and then, scattered between commercial ads on a local radio station.

“We want peace. We want the aggression on Palestine to stop. We want peace in the World.” Another sound clip comes up after a hip-hop song. It is the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ voice. And those are bits and pieces from his long speeches where he would often mention Palestine, explaining its history and calling for its freedom.

On another pro-government local radio station a broadcaster reminds a fellow broadcaster as they share the latest updates from Gaza that the story is not about three Israeli teens, kidnapped and murdered a few weeks ago. It is the story of a land, the broadcaster continues, that Israel occupies without any right and thus depriving Palestinians of it. He continues: “Imagine that our country Venezuela would be reduced to just two small states, not geographically connected, and the rest would be occupied by a new state, I mean another country. That is exactly how Gaza and the West Bank are now. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”

In El Venezolano Square downtown Caracas a lady of Arab descent prays for Gaza. Passersby stop to show solidarity with statements like, “Israel is a criminal practising genocide,” “Free Palestine” and “Israel is the number one terrorist.”

A few blocks away, the headquarters of Venezuela’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, known as the Yellow House (Casa Amarilla) has been the central point for collecting donations for Gaza: food, medicine, clothes and more. Since the start of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza, this would be Venezuela’s second humanitarian shipment to Gaza, by air and by sea, in coordination with the Embassy of Palestine in Caracas.

Ibrahim is a 23-year-old Venezuelan-Palestinian. He was reviewing the list of items required: mattresses, pillows, clothes, etc. He finds it strange that Venezuelans who are not of Arab descent seem more caring about Gaza than some of those who are of Arab descent: “Look at them sitting in their stores, he says, all they care about is filling their pockets with money.” A man passing by says: “I don’t mind helping other needy nations, but how can we donate something we don’t have here available to us, such as milk and sugar? Our economic situation is dire.” Another young Venezuelan lady responds: “True, but if you got lucky and did find milk, why wouldn’t you share it with the people of Gaza?”

In a rich neighbourhood on the opposite Eastern side of Caracas one would expect those opposed to the government, known as anti-chavistas, to have a different stance, especially because some opposition figures do have links with Israel. And, in fact, most of the time anti-chavistas build their positions on opposing whatever the government says. But there are exceptions, like Gaza.

Juan is an entrepreneur, busy having lunch with lawyers. He is in a hurry and says it all in a few words: “Gaza is a massacre. Full stop.” Others who are opposed to the socialist government also expressed their disgust with the killing of innocent children, “shamelessly”, as one person put it.

Susana Khalil is a Venezuelan Palestinian activist and a very active member of Canaan, a Venezuelan NGO that sets up humanitarian and cultural projects to help Palestinians and help spread information on Palestine. She notes that Venezuela has greatly changed towards Palestine since Hugo Chavez took power in 1999. She says “he educated Venezuelans on the Palestinian cause” and feels “proud that Venezuela is nowadays one of the staunchest critics of international Zionism and of the racist colonial regime of Israel in the whole world”.

A tradition of solidarity

The left in Latin America has traditionally supported Palestine, but this time around they have been joined by the moderate pragmatic left. Even Colombia, Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s ally in the region criticised Israel.

The current offensive on Gaza triggered five Latin American countries – Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador and Chile – to recall their ambassadors from Tel Aviv. Both Chile and Brazil also suspended trade talks with Israel. Venezuela and Bolivia qualified Israel’s offensive as genocide. Bolivian President Evo Morales announced his country would from now on require visas for all Israeli citizens wishing to visit Bolivia. He also declared Israel a “terrorist state”.

Venezuela had cut all diplomatic ties with Israel back in 2009 in protest of Israel’s offensive on Gaza then, expelling all diplomatic staff of the Israeli Embassy in Caracas. It was a rare public humiliation for the Israeli government. Bolivia had also cut ties with Israel in 2009 while Nicaragua did the same later on. Cuba was the first to cut ties with Israel back in the 1970s.

Today, efforts in Venezuela to support Palestine and to spread awareness about the Palestinian cause stem from the political leadership. But elsewhere in Latin America it is sometimes the opposite.

Such is the case in Chile, where the Palestinian community is considered the biggest in all of Latin America and comprises influential figures: politicans, artists, entrepreneurs and writers.

Mauricio Abu Ghosh, president of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, the most active pro-Palestine civil society entity in the country, says that popular solidarity with Palestine in Chile at the moment is unprecedented. He explains: “The last four years we witnessed a leap in communication thanks to social media. Today 95 percent of Chileans commenting on Palestine online are in favour of Palestine despite efforts by the Zionist lobby to always portray Jews as the permanent victim.”

Abu Ghosh is happy with people’s response to pro-Palestine activities organised by the Palestinian community  – such as the demonstrations that marched to the Israeli Embassy in Chile’s capital, Santiago.

The media battle has been very tough. Most local media seem to follow a pro-Israeli editorial line and give pro-Israeli voices a lot of space, repeating the same line about Hamas being a terrorist organisation and about Israel’s alleged “right to self-defence”. They also try and portray the issue as being a religious conflict between Islam and Judaism, sometimes denying even the existence of any military occupation of Palestinian land by Israel or even a siege over Gaza.

Nevertheless, what may be called the Palestinian lobby in Chile has managed to penetrate the media, to expose a different point of view through several prominent faces of the Palestinian community. One of them is Daniel Jadue, the mayor of a Recoleta municipality in Santiago, who often goes on TV to argue passionately for the Palestinian cause.

When asked about the secret of the community’s success in putting enough pressure on the government to recall Chile’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, Abu Ghosh laughs and says he won’t reveal the recipe and simply mentions members of parliament and influential businessmen of Palestinian descent as fundamental contributors to the successful lobbying. He adds: “We now aim at putting pressure on the government to cut all diplomatic ties with Israel.”

That demand was precisely the target of the last demo which marched the streets of Santiago a week ago, while a similar, even bigger, demo marched the streets of downtown Caracas to press the international community to put Israeli leaders on trial for war crimes. Many of those who marched were Arabs or of Arab descent. But most were just Venezuelans who show deep solidarity with Palestine and express anger towards Israel as it continues its offensive on Gaza.

As Palestinian Ambassador to Caracas Linda Sobeh Ali put it, speaking to Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro after he recently offered to bring some orphaned Gaza children to Venezuela: “You and the people of Latin America have shown us more support than some of our Arab brothers. Thank you.”

Dima Khatib is an Arab journalist and blogger, Al Jazeera’s former Latin America Bureau Chief. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Dima_Khatib