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Support for Palestine builds in Latin America

June 22, 2009

In the last three years, a growing number of Latin American governments have expressed support for the Palestinian people through sanctions and other initiatives against the Israeli government. Their actions reflect increasing popular identification across the region with Palestinian rights.

An activist in Bolivia’s governing party, Arturo Camahuaima, expressed this widespread sentiment in January to visiting members of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity. He strongly condemned Israel’s crimes, which he blamed on U.S. lust for profits:

“Ours is the same struggle as the Palestinians, who are foreigners in their own land…. The Empire, the American élite, wants to subjugate them, because of their economic interests. They have committed genocide. So many people have been killed, so many children killed – murdered and bombed. But the Palestinian people will never be defeated.” (A video of this interview is available by writing torontoboliviasolidarity@gmail.com1)

Such strong convictions about a faraway country express not only ideological commitment but experiences with the Israeli government in Latin America itself. In the 1960s, Bolivia’s military dictatorship was one of several regional governments that adopted an Israeli program called Nahal, designed to tighten the local army’s grip in the countryside. Young soldiers from twelve Latin American countries, including the entire graduating class of Ecuador’s military academy in 1965, were sent to Israel for training.

Israel‘s war against Latin American peoples

These efforts were only a small part of a sweeping Israeli intervention in Latin America aimed at arming and training U.S.-backed dictatorships that conducted a 30-year war of state terrorism against their subjects. Often Israel worked in open partnership with the U.S., but during the decade after the end of the Vietnam war, when popular opposition to the brutality of U.S. client governments forced Washington to cut off open military assistance to the most notorious dictators, Israel was often their main source of arms and military advisors.

One of these wars still continues – in Colombia – and there, Israeli military experts are still active, assisting an authoritarian government’s assault on its people.

During the 1970s, Argentina was the largest customer of Israel’s booming arms export business, during a period in which its government “disappeared” – that is, secretly murdered – an estimated 30,000 Argentine citizens, mostly unionists, students, and activists. Israel was not deterred by the openly anti-Semitic character of the terror campaign, during which, according to Amnesty International, Jewish citizens were forced to kneel before pictures of Hitler and tortured to accompanying chants of “Jew! Jew!” Only when the dictatorship was in its last days, in 1982, did Israel make inquiries regarding the disappearance of 1,000 Jews, including 30 Israeli citizens.

Israel was also a friend to the murderous Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

In Guatemala, Israel not only armed but helped to direct and organize a massive war against the Indigenous population, leaving at least 45,000 dead and, by 1983, one million internal refugees. Israeli specialists trained Guatemalan police in the techniques of repression, including coercing the Indigenous population into heavily guarded “model villages” aimed at destroying Indigenous culture and economy.

In nearby El Salvador, Israel backed the military in a terroristic war that claimed an estimated 75,000 victims between 1980 and 1992. In Nicaragua, Israeli arms helped the Somoza dictatorship kill approximately 50,000 of its citizens in the 1970s. Israel then assisted the U.S.-backed “contras” in a renewed war, this time aimed at overthrowing the democratically elected Sandinista government. In protest, Nicaragua broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, while the U.S. State Department blasted the Nicaraguans for supposed “anti-Semitism.”

A new rise of popular movements

By 1990, these terrorist wars, combined with the onslaught of neo-liberalism, had driven back socialist and liberation movements across most of Latin America. But the two decades that followed have seen a revival of popular resistance across the region. In a number of countries, this has led to the establishment of governments committed to varying degrees to efforts for national sovereignty against imperialism. Among major milestones are the election as president of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1999), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005), Rafael Correa in Ecuador (2006), and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (2006).

These countries have forged close ties with revolutionary Cuba and built a network of agreements and alliances embracing, in different ways, almost every nation of South America and the Caribbean. The backbone of this movement is the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a seven-nation partnership for international collaboration to counter U.S. domination of the region and promote trade and assistance based on solidarity and respect for sovereignty.

The ALBA nations have also defended Iran against U.S. threats and have included the Mideast nation in many development projects in their territories.

While more moderate, liberal regimes, like that of Brazil, have been more cautious in challenging the U.S. government, the ALBA countries have sought to forge ties across ideological lines, on a broad axis of regional sovereignty. Thus when U.S.-backed forces mobilized in August 2008 in an effort to forcibly overthrow the Indigenous-led government of Bolivia, they were firmly opposed by all the South American governments, including U.S. allies in Colombia and Peru.

Charges of anti-Semitism

In this new atmosphere, Israel’s scope for interference in Latin American affairs has been radically reduced, and it faces renewed pro-Palestinian solidarity across the region. Israel has responded just as its defenders in Canada have – with unfounded charges of anti-Semitism.

This has been a central theme of attacks on Hugo Chávez throughout his presidency. Pro-Israeli forces in Venezuela took their place from the outset with the U.S.-backed right-wing opposition. They made much of gestures of support by Chávez to the Palestinian resistance, beginning in his first year in office. They were untroubled by the presence of genuine far-right anti-Semites in the anti-government alliance.

Accusations of Venezuelan anti-Semitism have become a staple of the pro-Israeli press in Canada.

This slander campaign has taken no note of the Venezuelan government’s support of Jewish institutions and the Jewish people in Venezuela. This solidarity sometimes has a Bolivarian touch. Thus Venezuela’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, Roy Chaderton Matos, recently hailed the contributions to humanity of “illustrious Jews” such as Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Noam Chomsky, and Bob Dylan, as well as that of the countless Jewish fighters against “ultra-Catholic military dictatorships” in Argentine, Uruguay, and Chile.

Recently, pro-Israeli media cited a burglary in a Caracas synagogue as supposed evidence of governmental anti-Semitism. The real perpetrators were soon arrested – a disaffected synagogue employee and two rogue policemen, none of whom had ties to the Bolivarian movement.

But pro-Israeli forces continue to blame Chávez. Liberal MP and former attorney general Irwin Cotler, for example, solemnly presented a petition to the House of Commons in April – on April Fool’s Day, as it happened – expressing alarm over supposed “government-sponsored anti-Semitic attacks” like the synagogue incident, which have supposedly led Jews in Venezuela “fear for their personal safety and their denial of religious freedom.”

This is the same charge Cotler and other pro-Israeli advocates make regarding the impact of pro-Palestine educational events in Canadian universities, such as Israeli Apartheid Week.

On May 25, Israeli authorities leaked a government document charging that Bolivia and Venezuela were selling uranium to Iran, supposedly in violation of UN sanctions and with evil intent toward Israel. Both the South American countries have undeveloped uranium deposits.

Bolivia denied the report, which it called a “barbarity.” Chávez called the charges yet another affront to his country’s sovereignty, no different from the absurd charges that his government is engaged in drug smuggling and terrorism.

Defense of Palestine

The rise of popular movements in Venezuela has been accompanied by increasing efforts to aid Palestine.

In 2005, the first Arab-South American Summit was held in Brazil – the U.S. was refused permission to send an observer. The resulting “Declaration of Brazilia” criticized Israeli and U.S. aggression against Palestinians.

When Israel invaded and bombed Lebanon in July 2006, as punishment for support from within Lebanon for the Palestinians, Venezuela’s government was one of the few to speak out strongly in opposition. Chávez denounced Israel’s war on the Lebanese and Palestinians as a “second holocaust.”

Venezuela responded with sanctions, recalled its ambassador from Israel and stopped issuing visas to Israelis. Cuba, which has had no relations with Israel since 1973, also threw itself into the campaign – continuing the pro-Palestinian policy it has followed for 50 years.

A delegation from Venezuela’s parliament met in Damascus in August with leaders of ten Palestinian resistance currents to “express our support and identification … with the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples.” Venezuela’s government sent 20,000 tons of emergency aid to Lebanon and launched a national fund for Lebanese reconstruction.

Venezuela also pressed the Palestinian case at the second Arab-South American Summit in Caracas in July 2006, pointing to the complicity of the U.S. and the UN Security Council in Israel’s wars.

In September 2006, Venezuela, which has a large population of Arab descent, joined the Arab League as an observer.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly commented that Chávez had emerged as “the most popular leader in the Arab world.” This judgment was recently confirmed by Zogby International, a U.S.-based business research firm. Four thousand people in six Arab countries (not including Palestine) were asked in April and May 2009 which world leader they admired most. Chávez (36%) was mentioned twice as often as the next-ranking figures (Jacques Chirac and Bashar el-Assad). Barack Obama did not make the list.

The Hamas-led wing of the Palestinian Authority on January 12, 2009, hailed the Chávez presidency as a “paradigm to be emulated.” Chávez has “boldly said what the world’s masses feel.”

Solidarity broadens

The murderous Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008 touched off a new test of strength between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces in Latin America.

The stage was set three months previously when Nicaraguan diplomat Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann was unanimously elected president of the UN General Assembly. As foreign minister under the Sandinista government of the 1980s, d’Escoto had led opposition to Israel’s intervention in the U.S.-organized “contra war” and organized effective solidarity with Palestine.

It was the Latin American and Caribbean nations’ turn to nominate the Assembly president, and it was they who selected d’Escoto. Unifying them for this purpose was a victory for the ALBA countries, as well as an example of the adroit and principled revolutionary diplomacy at which the Cuban government has long excelled. D’Escoto’s election delivered a message to Israel regarding sentiment in the region.

Among d’Escoto’s first actions, in November, was to call for world support to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel, likening its treatment of the Palestinians to racist apartheid in South Africa.

In December 2008, when Israel began bombing Gaza, d’Escoto accused the United Nations, together with the U.S., the European Union, and Russia, of “direct complicity” in the 19-month siege of Gaza and the Israeli assault. He dismissed suggestions that Hamas rockets had triggered the violence, blaming it on the great powers’ decades-long refusal to implement resolutions of the Security Council for “lasting peace in the Middle East.”

The ten Latin American presentations to the Security Council debate ranged from Mexico, which called for a ceasefire and the opening of the Gaza border, to Venezuela, which called for Israel to face a new “Nuremberg trial” for genocide. Condemnations of Israel were heard from Paraguay, on behalf of Mercosur (a Latin American trade alliance with ten full and associate members), and Cuba, speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement, which unites 118 nations in the Global South.

The efforts of Latin American and other nations and world public opinion to halt the slaughter were blocked in the Security Council by a U.S. veto.

In January, both Venezuela and Bolivia broke diplomatic relations with Israel in protest over the “human catastrophe” it had unleashed in Gaza and its defiance of United Nations resolutions.

Three months later, Venezuela established diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority. At the signing ceremony in Caracas, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said his government’s embassy in that city, among ten such missions planned in Latin America, would be the epicentre of Palestine solidarity in the region.

Israel no longer has a free hand to brutalize Latin American peoples in alliance with local dictators. Instead, peoples and governments of the region are intervening with increasing vigour for justice for Palestine.

In an important sector of the world, the tide has turned against Israeli apartheid.

This article is based on a report given by the author to a membership meeting of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, in Toronto, May 28, 2009.

First published in Socialist Voice, June 22, 2009.

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Note on Sources

For Israeli government participation in the Latin American dictators’ wars against their peoples, see:

  • Bishara Bahbah, Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986).
  • Jane Hunter, Israeli Foreign Policy: South Africa and Central America (Boston: South End Press, 1987).

Other sources:

  • Roy Chaderton Matos, “Chavismo: Christian, pro-Muslim, pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi,”
  • Irwin Cotler, House of Commons Debates, April 1, 2009, p. 2271.
  • On alleged uranium exports, see Tamara Pearson,
  • On Declaration of Brazilia, see Suzanne Weiss,
  • On 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, see Nikhil Shah,, also,7340,L-3288333,00.html
  • On Middle Eastern opinion survey, see Hilary Keenan,
  • On Miguel d’Escoto’s response to Israel’s war on Gaza, see, including links to relevant UN websites
  • On Venezuela’s recognition of Palestine, see
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