Latin America's leftist resurgence sparks hopes for Palestine solidarity
Dotted across Latin America are several small tributes that tie together the Salvadoran capital city of San Salvador, the Argentinian region of Santa Fé, Brazil’s coastal city of Recife and the small Chilean city of Chillán.
In each of them, you will find a Plaza Palestina – or Palestine Square – that links many of Latin America’s numerous Palestinian diasporas to their ancestral home.
Though the squares may be small, they are by no means insignificant as they are a frequent site for demonstrations of local solidarity and support.
“The existence of such squares is part of Latin America’s solidarity towards Palestine,” said Simaan Khoury, the head of the Palestinian Union of Latin America. “It is very pleasing and encouraging to know that in these countries we have moral support, to feel that we have people who understand our cause.”
Latin America is home to approximately 700,000 people of Palestinian origin, with the likes of Chile, El Salvador and Honduras housing some of the largest Palestinian diasporas outside the Arab world.
"Despite the geographical and generational distance between many Latin Americans with Palestinian roots and their ancestral homeland, the bond between the diaspora and Palestine remains strong"
Despite the geographical and generational distance between many Latin Americans with Palestinian roots and their ancestral homeland, the bond between the diaspora and Palestine remains strong.
This is most notably put on show during marches and protests in response to Israeli intimidation and attacks on the occupied Palestinian territories and their inhabitants. In May, the region saw an outpouring of solidarity and support following the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh at the hands of Israeli snipers.
“We denounce these attacks and aggressions against our people in Palestine. In addition, we stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and we call on the national government, international organisations and United Nations organisations to condemn all these illegal and inhumane practices that violate all UN resolutions and international law," said Anibal Bachir Bakir, the president of Islamic Centre of Argentina, in a statement.
In Brazil, 59 deputies and senators signed an open letter denouncing Israeli attacks on the Palestinian population, while the Chilean football team CD Palestino took to the pitch wearing keffiyehs to express support, as they have done on numerous occasions.
A greater push for solidarity
These instances of support and solidarity are attempts made by the Palestinian diaspora in Latin America to raise awareness and engage local governments on the Palestinian cause.
Latin America’s Palestinian diasporas can hold significant political sway, and ongoing Israeli aggression has brought about a new wave of support across the region, according to Yousef Aljamal, an academic and co-author of 'Palestinian Diaspora Communities in Latin America and Palestinian Statehood'.
“Palestinian and Arab diasporas play an important role in Latin American politics towards Palestine. Palestine is becoming more visible with media coverage and social media because of Israel's continuing violations,” Aljamal told The New Arab.
“As part of this visibility, we see an increasing wave of solidarity with Palestine in Latin America. This will translate into more solidarity and political action in favour of Palestine.”
The Federation of Palestinian Arabs of Brazil (FEPAL) is trying to do just that: mobilise the country’s political sphere in hopes of shedding greater light on the Palestinian cause.
“In the 2018 electoral process, Palestine and the Palestinian question began to be seen in Brazil as a bad thing. As of 2019, there was an attempt to nullify Brazil's positive relations with Palestine and with the Arab world in general, and even make Brazil a strategic ally of Israel,” Ualid Rabah, the president of FEPAL, told The New Arab.
The FEPAL recently met with Brazil’s leftist presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and handed him a letter expressing some of the community’s main concerns and proposals for relations between Brazil and Palestine.
At the meeting, Lula himself donned a keffiyeh and claimed that “Palestinians deserve all our attention and solidarity.”
Rabah highlights the importance of greater awareness of the Palestinian cause among the Brazilian population, adding that the FEPAL has embarked on a “new policy of communication.”
“We want to speak to every Brazilian to improve this perception [of Palestine]. The Brazilian people in general need to know more about the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian people, their demands and know more about Brazilian interests in that region and how they can be improved for Brazil based on a better perception of the Palestinian question,” Rabah said.
"Much of the renewed hope for Palestinian solidarity in Latin America has stemmed from Chile, home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world"
As such, a Palestine Square was inaugurated in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife in late May. The coastal city is home to the second largest Palestinian community in the country.
Rabah is proud of the new square, adding that naming it after their motherland “means preventing the name of Palestine from being erased from the map.”
Regional resurgence of leftist governments
Much of the renewed hope for Palestinian solidarity in Latin America has stemmed from Chile, home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.
Earlier this year, Chileans elected the leftist pro-Palestinian lawyer Gabriel Boric as their new president, and the local Palestinian community hoped he would champion their cause. However, Chile’s Palestinian community has urged the young president to prioritise its struggle.
“If we want the government to do something for the Palestinians we will have to put pressure on this government, because Palestine–not only for this government but for every Chilean government–is not a priority. If there are different political interests they have to choose they wouldn't chose Palestine, so that's tricky,” Nadia Silhi-Chahin, a Chilean-Palestinian academic focusing on Chile’s Palestinian community, told The New Arab.
Boric’s election in Chile is part of a wider regional transition towards leftist governments, as countries such as Mexico, Honduras, Bolivia, Peru and most recently Colombia have all recently turned their backs on conservative rulers – while Lula is on the cards to return to power in Brazil this coming October.
This regional shift towards the left may bring about greater institutional solidarity and governmental support towards Palestine, as was witnessed during Latin America’s wave of leftsist governments dubbed as the Pink Tide in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Nonetheless, Aljamal warns that any possible diplomatic shifts will “not happen overnight.”
“If we have leaders emerging in other Latin American countries and who are left-wing, then we could have a trend that might lead to something. It will happen, but it will take time. Even when we had what many experts call the golden decade of Palestinian solidarity in Latin America, it took time. It did not happen overnight.”
“Now we have what seems to be a return to left-wing politics in Latin America. In the long term, it might result in policy changes but still the two-state solution mentality governs this solidarity in Latin America,” he added.
For Khoury, who has long resided in El Salvador, this greater visibility and added support is invaluable.
“The people who vocally support our cause are helping a lot,” he said, emphasising the fact that he believes the Palestinian cause to be neither a left-wing or a right-wing issue. “We respect any country that supports justice, and our cause is a just cause.”
Despite Khoury’s appreciation of verbal support across the region, his Brazilian counterpart believes more needs to be done.
“Street activism alone, which brings together a few hundred people, does very little to change the perception [on the Palestinian cause],” Rabah explained.
"'Latin America has always had a special position towards us as its people have suffered dictatorships, they’ve felt the pain of the Palestinian people'"
Khoury believes there are also historical ties between Latin America and Palestine which are a driving force behind the region’s solidarity towards the Arab state.
“Latin America has always had a special position towards us as its people have suffered dictatorships, they’ve felt the pain of the Palestinian people. We [Palestinians] have always had popular support,” he said.
Inigo Alexander is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Spain, Latin America, and social justice. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Local, and NACLA, among others
Follow him on Twitter: @Inigo_Alexander