Perspectives from the Global South: Latin America’s Fragmented Approach to Palestine

The stances of Latin American governments toward Palestine vary widely. Since the outbreak of the current Gaza war, three relatively distinct positions have been prominent: 1) strong support for Israel and its right to self-defense; 2) insistence that the Israeli occupation and the violation of Palestinian rights must end, and 3) a search for equidistance from all sides. Which of these positions each country has adopted can be explained by a mix of domestic and external factors.

The top political leadership has played a pivotal role in this regard, with Latin American countries’ constitutions usually giving broad prerogatives to heads of state. Their preferences and worldviews are crucial to explaining diplomatic approaches and public stances towards the war. For instance, Colombian President Gustavo Petro referred to the liberation struggle of Jewish people against Nazi rule in his framing of Palestinian reality and resistance today. Being a former member of a guerrilla movement undoubtedly contributed to this analogical reasoning. In turn, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – notably of Palestinian descent – established a parallel between the horrifically violent Salvatrucha gangs and Hamas, whose members he describes as “wild beasts” and “animals.” In this case, his analogy serves the political purpose of attempting to obtain international legitimacy for his profoundly autocratic regime. In Mexico, it is President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s deep lack of interest in international issues which helps explain his country’s initial reaction, or lack thereof, to the war.

What can also be observed is that Latin American governments’ stances toward the Gaza war are not associated with their general positioning on the political spectrum. We do not find homogeneous positions among rather progressive governments (Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and until recently Argentina) nor homogeneous positions among rather conservative governments (Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala). This is not new. The Latin American Left has always been a plural force, and it is not only left-wing leaders who have worked towards rapprochement with the Middle East and Palestine. For instance, right-wing Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) made the first visit by a Chilean head of state to the Palestinian Territories in 2010. His Peruvian counterpart Alan García (2006-201) did the same. Apart from Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, the Latin American Left has generally tried to avoid the extreme politicization of its ties, as demonstrated by the good relations with Israel it has normally sought to keep. The exception in the current Gaza war, however, seems to be Colombia with left-wing President, Gustavo Petro.

Latin American public opinion is also far from being the dominant factor in Latin American foreign policy decision-making regarding Palestine. There is consistent Orientalist framing and patterns in the media narratives prominent in several Latin American countries. This Orientalism is fed by movies, soap operas, and network television series, as well as many national opinion leaders who, endowed with privileged platforms on printed and electronic media, play a decisive role in framing and structuring the coverage of the war, and even in setting the terms of its debate.

Domestic non-state actors, namely Jewish and Palestinian diasporas, with their transnational dimensions, also seek to influence the debate and policies, especially during critical periods. Their impact must be accounted for in relation to trends at the political, economic, and social levels – which is reflected by the varying degrees of condemnation against Israeli military operations in Gaza. For instance, in Argentina, which has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, left-wing President Alberto Fernández – who was just recently succeeded in office by Javier Milei on December 10 – was one of the first Latin American presidents to show his support for Israel. Meanwhile in Chile, with the largest Palestinian diaspora in Latin America, President Gabriel Boric and his Minister of Foreign Affairs Alberto van Klaveren have repeatedly denounced Israel’s indiscriminate violence against civilians.

Latin American Evangelical groups are also a political factor, consistently and stridently lobbying for increased ties with Israel, such as in Guatemala and Brazil in recent years. Their influence on government positions vis-à-vis Israel varies, however, depending on the type of government and the strength of state institutions. My colleague Dr. Kevin Parthenay (Université de Tours) and I have studied how recent increased diplomatic engagement with Israel by Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has been associated with democratic regression and the extreme centralization of decision-making.

In Latin America’s geopolitical scenario, one must also consider the predominance of the United States. It is a determining factor explaining the stances of several Latin American governments in the present and past wars in Gaza, whether that be calling for the occupation to end, insisting on Israel’s right to self-defense, or clinging to a position of equidistance. A Latin American country’s varied dependence on the US in the economic and migration realms can often explain the differential treatment it gives to Hamas, Palestine, and Israel.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.