Latin America’s support for Palestinians and the echoes of the Cold War

Presidents from the Mercosur nations (L-R) Uruguay's Jose Mujica, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez, Paraguay's Horacio Cartes and Bolivia's Evo Morales poses for an official photo during a summit in Caracas July 29, 2014. Behind them is a statue of independence hero Simon Bolivar. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS)
From left, presidents from the Mercosur nations -- Uruguay's Jose Mujica, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez, Paraguay's Horacio Cartes and Bolivia's Evo Morales  -- during a summit in Caracas on July 29. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

On Wednesday, Bolivia's outspoken President Evo Morales denounced Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, and labeled the country a "terrorist state." Bolivia also changed the rules for Israeli citizens visiting the Andean nation, making a visa now mandatory prior to travel.

Morales's Bolivia was only the latest Latin American nation to express outrage over Israel's actions. El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel in protest. The Brazilian move, in particular, stung the Israelis, prompting a foreign ministry official to call Brazil "a diplomatic dwarf."

At a Tuesday meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc, a grouping of Latin American states that styles itself as a bulwark of the global south, the presidents of Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela issued a joint statement calling for a cessation of violence and an end to the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian enclave. "Mercosur vigorously condemns 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," the statement read.

What explains all this conspicuous messaging by statesmen thousands of miles away from the conflict? The distance, in part, helps. Contrast the Latin American rhetoric with the relative silence of most of Israel's Arab neighbors, whose rulers regard Islamist group Hamas with a mixture of wariness and loathing. There are few geopolitical risks for Latin American states in taking such a clear line in opposition to Israel (bucking the trend are Colombia and Mexico, two countries that remain more firmly in the American political and economic orbit).

But the support for Palestinians is hardly a passing fad. There exists a significant Arab diaspora across South America. In Chile, for example, one of the country's established soccer teams is Palestino, named after the community of migrants who formed the club in 1920. Earlier this month, the club published a statement in Chilean newspapers calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. In January, the club was banned from wearing a jersey where the number 1 was shaped like the combined landmass of Israel and the Palestinian territories. "For us, free Palestine will always be historical Palestine, nothing less," the club wrote in defiance on its Facebook page.

More importantly, the Palestinian plight has long stirred leftists in the region, dating to a time when the main faction fighting Israeli occupation was the secular, leftist Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by the late Yasser Arafat. Many saw the PLO in the same continuum as other revolutionary, guerrilla groups in the 1970s and '80s that were battling the last vestiges of colonialism or repressive governments backed by the West.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, one of the continent's more respected leaders, has likened her political exile in Europe during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to the plight of Palestinian refugees denied the right to return home. Cuba's Fidel Castro frequently points to the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation as a sign of American imperial perfidy. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, heir to the demagogic Hugo Chavez, inked a deal earlier this year to send oil to the Palestinian Authority in a bid to boost its international recognition.

The sense of solidarity is profound across the oceans, as well. Battling irrelevance at home, one of India's Communist parties issued a communique in mid-July "denouncing the criminal acts of the Israeli government" and deemed the efforts of the West to further the stalled peace process as "nothing but crocodile tears."

Most famously, South Africa's late President Nelson Mandela was long a supporter of the PLO, which he considered a kindred movement to his African National Congress, the political organization that eventually took down apartheid. In 1990, Mandela met with Arafat after being released from prison just two weeks prior. "There are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel," Mandela said then.

The Palestinian keffiyeh remains a ubiquitous symbol of protest in South Africa and elsewhere. Earlier this month, one of South Africa's main industrial unions even took part in a Gaza solidarity dance. You can watch the video above.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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