Has Latin America abandoned Palestine?

A wave of right-wing politics is sweeping through Latin America and affecting its support for Palestine.

Mexico - Israel Prime Minister
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto during an address to the media in Mexico City, Mexico, September 14, 2017 [Edgard Garrido/Reuters]

“God bless Guatemala.” Last Christmas eve, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales with these words for his decision to move his country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Morales’ decision came as a surprise to many around the world. But Guatemala, the first country that showed interest in relocating its embassy following Donald Trump‘s Jerusalem move, was not the only country in Latin America that tried to please the US president at Palestine’s expense. 

Only a few days before Guatemala’s embassy announcement, several other Latin American and Caribbean countries had abstained in a UN General Assembly vote against the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Those abstaining included Mexico, Argentina and Colombia – the countries Netanyahu visited last September, during the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to the region since Israel’s foundation.

The shift in Latin America’s attitude towards Palestine is symbolic of a stronger Israeli influence in a region historically neglected by Tel Aviv. But it is also concomitant to the consolidation of right-wing governments in Latin America, and the US’ resurgence as the dominant power in a region it has always defined as its “backyard”.

Vying for US backing

Traditionally, the Palestinian struggle has enjoyed a lot of support in Latin America, at the grassroots level and otherwise.

In late 2010 – early 2011, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador joined Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Costa Rica in officially recognising the Palestinian state. They also supported Palestinian membership in UNESCO later that year. 

Back then, Latin America seemed to be a true Palestinian ally, under left-wing leaders such as Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. 

But much has changed since then. Chavez died, Lula and Rousseff have been removed from power, Correa took a break from power, and Kirchner and her former government faced accusations of treason. What remains of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), of which Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba are the main representatives, still loudly criticises US politics in the Middle East, but with limited resonance within the region. 

Latin America has gradually turned to the right, and this has affected the region’s relations with the rest of the world. In the past, leftist governments managed to build new international relationships independent of the US, but the rise of the right in the region has allowed Washington to assume an active role in its “backyard” once again. The right-wing shift in the region brought to an end the era of independent foreign relations and transformed Latin America into a US playground once more.

Several Latin American countries that recognised Palestine as a state between 2008 and 2013, including the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Argentina, and Haiti, chose to abstain in the UN condemnation of the US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Other countries that recognised Palestine during the same period, namely Guatemala and Honduras, voted against the UN resolution. Domestic considerations and a need for continued US support motivated these decisions.

Both countries are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to continue their fight against criminal gangs and drug trafficking, and they do not want to lose this money at any cost. And the political leadership in both countries recently went through severe political crises in which they badly needed US backing.

But Honduras and Guatemala’s stance on the Jerusalem issue was not solely shaped by their need for US support. Both Morales and Hernandez visited Israel in the last year to improve their countries’ security and commercial relations with it. Both countries, which had cooperated with Israel in underground programmes of counterinsurgency in the 1970s, renewed several security agreements and boosted the exchange of military technology with Israel

Israel’s charm offensive 

Since Mauricio Macri assumed power in Argentina in 2015, former members of the Kirchner government have been under investigation for allegedly conspiring with Iran, to undermine the criminal investigation of the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured 300 others. The defendants have been accused of treason for signing a memorandum of understanding with Iran. Even Human Rights Watch considered the accusation of treason as strained and unreasonable.

But during his visit to the country as part of his Latin America tour in September 2017, Netanyahu lauded Macri for his efforts to solve the case, saying: “We know without a doubt that Iran and Hezbollah initiated and backed up the attacks.” This was the first sign of the new Argentinian government’s rapprochement with Israel, and it was swiftly followed by a shift in Argentina’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, it was no surprise that Argentina chose to abstain in the UN vote against US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. 

Mexico, a country that historically has always supported Palestine, also changed its stance on the issue, and chose to abstain in the UN vote. The country, along with Paraguay, also abstained in a previous UN vote promoted by Ecuador on the issue of the “permanent sovereignty of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”.

According to the Israeli ambassador in Mexico, Jonathan Peled, Mexico voted with Israel against several pro-Palestine resolutions in the last year, as a result of specific requests the Israeli government made to Mexican authorities. During Netanyahu’s visit to Mexico, President Enrique Pena Nieto reaffirmed the “friendship” between Mexico and Israel and talked about strengthening relations. 

With the rise of the right, the US is resuming the control of its “backyard”, and Israel is using the situation as an opportunity to have a more solid presence in a region it previously ignored. With no sign, for the moment, that the left is going to take back power, support for the Palestinian cause remains in the hands of the grassroots. 

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