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President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil wrote last December to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, saying: “Brazil, through this letter, recognizes the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.” It was a spectacular announcement, but it didn’t set a precedent. Back in November 1988, when the PLO proclaimed the creation of the Palestinian state by invoking UN Resolution 181, the state was immediately recognized by Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, although no other Latin American country joined them.
The Middle East was not much considered in Latin America until 2009; then in January that year, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, accusing it of “planned use of state terrorism” against the Palestinian people in the invasion and bombardment of Gaza. Bolivia, whose president, Evo Morales, fumed about the UN’s “insecurity council”, did the same. That April, Venezuela exchanged ambassadors with Palestine.
Few in Latin America forget Israel’s traditional role backing up the US. When President Jimmy Carter stopped arms sales to Guatemala in 1977 because of massive human rights violations, Israel stepped in. During the 1979 Sandinista rebellion, Israel only stopped supplying the Nicaraguan national guard 15 days before its dictator Anastasio Somoza fled. Yair Klein, a former Israeli army officer and mercenary who recruited and trained Colombian rightwing paramilitaries in 1988 during the long-running guerrilla war, has recently revealed that his actions were “approved by the Israeli and Colombian governments”. (See Adriaan Alsema “Israeli mercenary threatens to blow whistle on Colombian officials”, Colombia Reports 21 November 2010.)
In Colombia, a land of massacres and communal graves, Juan Manuel Santos, now president, then defense minister, admitted in 2008 to close cooperation with Israel: “Terrorism is fought above all else by intelligence and, in this matter, Israel can help us and offer much to us”. The private security firm Global CST, linked to Tel Aviv’s military establishment, signed lucrative contracts with the Colombian, Peruvian and Honduran governments to train internal security troops. (In Honduras, those undertaking the coup of June 2009 used state-of-the-art Israeli technology to try to break the resistance of President Manuel Zelaya’s supporters.)
All this led to a serious standoff between progressives in Latin America and Israel. But the speed of events since last December has been different. Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Guyana (holding the presidency of the Union of South American Nations, Unasur) have followed Brazil in recognizing an independent state of Palestine. Paraguay and Peru adopted the same position in January (Peru staged February’s Latin America-Arab summit, ASPA), and Uruguay declared its intention of doing the same.
Not all governments are advancing at the same speed: while Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia mention the frontiers in place before the 1967 Six Day war in relation to the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Chile and Peru avoid this clear condemnation of occupation. Beyond that important difference, there are factors that explain the current convergence between states considered progressive and governments seen as close to the US.
Brazil, in demanding a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is reiterating its ambitions as an emerging power and sending an unambiguous message to the US, which in 2010 disdainfully brushed aside its joint offer with Turkey to mediate in the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Like Brazil, other Latin American countries have reasons for friendship towards Arab and Middle East countries: business has grown with them since the first ASPA summit in 2005. Chile’s president Sebastián Pinera may be aligned to the US, but he is also well aware of Chile’s 400,000 Palestinians, the largest foreign community. The Syrian/Lebanese community has high political and economic status throughout the region.
Even a country as far to the right as Peru is finding it hard to neglect the regional drive for integration.
Faced with widespread recognition of Palestine, positions are being defended. The speaker of the US House of Representatives called it “counterproductive”. Israel denounced the “new manoeuvers” by the Palestinians. The Colombian foreign minister, Maria Ángela Holguín, said, straight-faced: “When there is peace with Israel we will recognize Palestine.”
All the same, this broad diplomatic departure reflects Latin America’s independence and its growing criticism of the impasse in the direct peace talks, reinforced by the US’s complicit apathy.
Translated by Robert Waterhouse
MAURICE LEMOINE is a journalist and author of Cinq Cubains à Miami, Don Quichotte, Paris, 2010
This article appears in the March edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, the excellent monthly whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.