Jorge Silva / Reuters

Why Latin American leaders are standing up to Israel

The frostier their relations are with the US, the more likely they are to sympathize with the Palestinians

August 16, 2014 6:00AM ET

Since the Israeli offensive against Gaza began, images of Palestinian children murdered in their homes and schools and bombs exploding in neighborhoods have outraged people around the globe. Many governments have followed the United States, making empty declarations against the violence, as if the death dealing were equal and not overwhelmingly of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli bombs and bullets.

But as the U.S. government backpedals to reconcile its unconditional support of Israel with basic principles of human rights and Europe waffles, one region stands out in its opposition to the siege of Gaza: Latin America. Leaders from across the region have condemned the Israel Defense Forces’ attacks on Gaza as excessive and unfair.

“I think what’s happening in the Gaza Strip is dangerous,” Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “I don’t think it’s genocide, but I think it’s a massacre.”

Chile, currently a member of the U.N. Security Council, stated that the Israeli government “does not respect the fundamental norms of international humanitarian law.”

Uruguayan President José Mujica condemned the attacks in a weekly radio show. “The loss of perspective in the response is undermining Israel’s prestige and, I think, sullies the marvelous history of the Jewish people. Hatred and revenge do not work to build civilization,” he said. Bolivia’s Evo Morales went further, saying, “Israel does not guarantee the principle of respect for life and the basic right to live in harmony and peace in the international community,” adding that Israel was “passing onto the list of terrorist states.”

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa joined the criticisms and canceled a planned official visit to Israel later this year.

In addition, at a recent meeting the regional bloc Mercosur issued a statement condemning “the disproportionate use of force on the part of the Israeli armed forces in the Gaza Strip, force which has almost exclusively affected civilians, including many women and children,” while criticizing Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians. Mercosur urged “an immediate lifting of the blockade that is affecting the Gaza population, so that the free movement of people, food, medicine and humanitarian aid can flow freely in and out, both by land and sea” and “an immediate and durable cease-fire.” 

Louder than words

The declarations didn’t mince words. But what really called attention to the region’s stance were their governments’ actions. So far, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel, and Venezuela suspended diplomatic relations. 

This drew the ire of Israeli officials. The government blamed Brazil for leading the pack and called the South American regional leader “a diplomatic dwarf.” The Israeli reaction started to look like the behavior of a bully in the schoolyard when Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor added that Brazil was “an irrelevant diplomatic partner, one who creates problems rather than contributes to solutions” and through a clumsy non sequitur recalled the nation’s 7-1 loss in the World Cup just in case the previous insults didn’t sting enough.

A Latin America freed from U.S. dictums has the capacity, if not to isolate a wayward state, at least to send a powerful message of opprobrium.

And yet the Latin American position wasn’t entirely surprising. Latin American nations have historically shown their support for the Palestinians. In a recent column in El País, Peruvian writer Diego Garcia-Sayan points out that Latin America has defended the Palestinians at key moments in history. He notes that Latin American nations called for withdrawal from occupied territories in the 1967 Six-Day War and drew up what would become Resolution 242. In recent years, nearly all Latin American have recognized the Palestinian state.

A major factor in the forthright tone of current criticism of Israel, though, is Latin America’s relatively newfound independence from U.S. foreign policy. For the first time, a majority of the continent isn’t afraid to offend its northern neighbor.

Country by country, Latin America still breaks along geopolitical fault lines on the Palestinian issue, as on most other foreign policy issues. The nations most tightly tied to the U.S. — Mexico and Colombia, for example — have had muted responses, while center-left governments have come out strong in opposition to Israeli bombings and the occupation of Gaza.

The list of Latin American nations that refuse to recognize the Palestinian state follows to the letter the list of nations with the strongest military and economic ties to the United States: Colombia, Mexico and Panama. These countries receive significant amounts of Israeli arms, which reached at least $107 million in sales to the region in 2012, often with U.S. aid. In the November 2012 vote to admit Palestine to the U.N. as a nonmember observer state, Panama voted no, and Paraguay, Colombia and Guatemala abstained.

Today counterhegemony movements, new regional organizations, like the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, that do not include the United States and a coming of age in global affairs have combined to make Latin America a leading voice. The fact that it has been one of the most economically dynamic regions — with emerging economies, a BRICS member and growth rates that compare very favorably with crisis-bound developed countries’ — doesn’t hurt either.

That’s why the Israeli government lashed out in response to the withdrawal of the Latin American ambassadors. The move sets a dangerous example. The southern countries broke out of the historical and ideological confines that equate any criticism of Israel as an attack on its right to exist and an affront to the U.S. and acted on the basis of human rights and international law. By so doing, Latin America sent a double message: that it supports the Palestinians and it will no longer render diplomatic tribute to the United States.

A Latin America freed from U.S. dictums has the capacity, if not to isolate a wayward state, at least to send a powerful message of opprobrium.

Hopefully, other nations will see the example and follow suit.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. She is a frequent commentator on Latin American relations and an international consultant on gender and foreign policy issues.

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

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