What does Latin America’s leftist tide have in store for Palestine ? 

Hussein Sameh

+972 Magazine  /  January 16, 2023

From Brazil to Chile, Palestinians have good reason to be excited for left-wing victories. But the new governments’ many challenges may temper those hopes.

The world watched in horror last week as, in what many have called an attempted fascist coup, supporters of Brazil’s former far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, attacked and occupied the national congress, presidential palace, and supreme court in the capital Brasília. The attack came days after Luiz Inácio da Silva (popularly known as “Lula”) was sworn in as president of Brazil — returning to office after a previous tenure from 2003 to 2011 — having beaten Bolsonaro in the October 2022 elections. The coup attempt appears to have been foiled for now: hundreds of insurrectionists have been arrested, and Lula has promised to apply the full force of the law to both those who were physically involved, and those who may have bankrolled the attack. 

Despite the shocking events in Brasília, Lula appears to have secured his democratic transition — one that comes in the wake of a slew of electoral victories for left-wing parties and leaders in Latin America, from Gabriel Boric in Chile to Gustavo Petro in Colombia. With further leftist gains in Bolivia, Argentina, and Honduras, as well as the socialist governments of Venezuela and Cuba, Palestinians and their allies have grown hopeful for what this newly arranged left-wing bloc — now with the region’s most powerful state at its helm — might be able to achieve vis-à-vis Palestine.

Considering Lula’s last tenure in office and Bolsonaro’s reactionary position toward Palestine, this hope isn’t entirely unfounded. Nonetheless, Palestinian excitement around Lula’s return should be tempered by the reality of his actual position on their cause, as well as the larger constraints he faces as a returning president. Such cautionary expectations should also apply to Latin America’s other leftist governments, though they, too, can offer important signals and lessons for Palestine.

The Bolsonaro years

During his four years in office, Bolsonaro made Israel an integral part of both his foreign and domestic policy platforms, mirroring the politics of other far-right and authoritarian leaders from Hungary to India. On the international stage, Bolsonaro promised to follow the Trump administration’s footsteps by moving the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem (a pledge which ultimately was not fulfilled), and opened a new trade mission in the city; he supported Israeli efforts to block the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes in Palestine; and he joined the United States in opposing UN resolutions condemning Israel (as a parting gift, the outgoing Bolsonaro abstained on a General Assembly vote to refer Israel’s occupation to the International Court of Justice). 

These pro-Israel stances extend to others in his family. During a presidential visit to Israel, Bolsonaro’s sons were seen donning IDF t-shirts; one of them — Flavio, then a member of Rio de Janeiro’s Legislative Assembly and political ally of the president — infamously tweeted in response to Hamas’ condemnation of the visit that he “wanted them to explode”.

Domestically, Bolsonaro’s passion for Israel has much to do with his courting of Brazil’s large and powerful evangelical Christian constituency, for whom — just like in the United States — Israel holds sacred reverence as the harborer of the rapture. His wife Michelle, a devout evangelical, was photographed wearing a t-shirt with an Israeli flag when casting her ballot in last October’s election, a clear dog whistle to this base. Similarly, despite being a Catholic himself, Bolsonaro chose to be baptized in the Jordan River during his visit to the region. 

Beyond the messianism, Israel is hailed as a model state for Bolsonaro’s ethno-nationalist aspirations: a bastion of militarism, racist, and theocratic policies which align comfortably with the reactionary idea of the “cidadão de bem” (“the good citizen”). It is no wonder that Israeli flags have become a common sight at far-right demonstrations — including among the coup-mongers in Brasilia last weekend.

In stark contrast, Lula has consistently cited his support for the Palestinian cause and, in the run-up to the October election, met with members of Brazil’s Palestinian community to reaffirm his commitment. Lula’s party, the “Partido dos Trabalhadores,” or PT, is also firmly supportive of Palestine; during the government of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s political protégée and successor, she famously refused to accept the nomination of Israeli ambassador Dani Dayan due to his links to the settler movement. In his previous stint in office, Lula exerted Brazilian diplomacy on Middle Eastern geopolitics, including by helping to broker the Iranian nuclear agreement. He is expected to pursue a similarly proactive policy in the region, looking to break the relative isolationism of the Bolsonaro years.

Despite all of this, it is important to recognize, first of all, that the Lula of 2023 is not the Lula of 2003. Although he comes from a radical tradition of trade union organizing at the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Lula’s politics had softened substantially even before his first presidential victory in 2002. 

This isn’t to deny that he can once again give Brazilians the chance to dream of a better future, or to downplay his many achievements in his previous terms in office that had a substantial impact on the lives of Brazil’s most marginalized people. But Lula has moved noticeably to the center, to the extent that his former political adversary, Geraldo Alckmin from the traditional right wing, is now his vice-president. He also faces a huge challenge in the legislature, with far-right candidates often representing the Christian evangelical vote performing strongly in both the upper and lower house in the recent election.

Moreover, although Lula is undoubtedly a major improvement from Bolsonaro, Palestinians must remember that Lula also approved a free trade agreement between Israel and Mercosur (South America’s chief regional trade organization) in 2010, and trade between Israel and Brazil has remained near-constant. Whether under Lula or Rousseff, business as usual seems to have prevailed in dealings between the two states. This includes military ties and numerous security contracts: according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2009 and 2018, Israel supplied Brazil with 6.6 percent of its major conventional weapons.

Domestic challenges, external limits

Looking around regionally, 2022 also saw the inauguration of Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, a former student protest leader, and Colombia’s first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla leader. Boric has long been vocal about his pro-Palestine politics, and last year postponed accepting the credentials of the new Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, in response to Israeli forces’ killing of 17-year-old Odai Trad Salah in the West Bank town of Kufr Dan. Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez have said very little about Palestine specifically, but the progressive platform they ran on and their geopolitical moves in relation to Cuba and Venezuela are positive signs of how Colombia could align itself globally.

Thus to varying degrees, the majority of Latin American states currently have center-left to left-wing governments. But just like Lula in Brazil, each one is contending with their own specific set of challenges, including their confrontations with a resurgent and reactionary far right. In Chile, Boric recently lost a referendum on a new constitution to replace the inherited one formed under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In Argentina, Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (having recently survived a failed murder attempt) has been sentenced to six years in prison on charges of fraud relating to her time as president from 2007 to 2015.

In Peru, meanwhile, Pedro Castillo — despite beating Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the former dictator Alberto Fujimori, in the 2021 presidential elections — has already been stripped from power and imprisoned, leading to state-sanctioned murder at mass demonstrations from within his campesino and indigenous base. And just this week, Colombian Vice President Márquez is herself reported to have evaded an assassination plot. Added to recent experiences in Bolivia and Brazil with former presidents Evo Morales and Rousseff, respectively, and longstanding U.S. efforts to destabilize Venezuela and Cuba with sanctions, the threat to left-wing governments thinking of pursuing any kind of radical or even modest agenda that threatens local economic elites or U.S. interests — which are often, though not always, one and the same — looms large.

What ultimately unites these different states, though, is their contending with the legacies of settler colonialism. Despite the progressive agendas of the varying governments, they all need to grapple with their inherent contradictions as states built upon the destruction of indigenous civilizations, and on the backs of enslaved African and indigenous labor. In a capitalist world economy, this exacerbates the tensions many of these governments feel in relation to the preservation of and respect for indigenous land, marginalized communities, the environment, and so-called “development,” from the Mapuche in Chile to the Amazon’s indigenous peoples.

Faced with the existential threat of climate change, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, rampant inequality and poverty, and systemic racism, it should come as no surprise that Palestine is hardly going to be a top priority for Latin America. Indeed, in the case of Brazil, Lula may even feel it unwise to provoke the Christian evangelical right over foreign policy regarding Israel and Palestine, when there is so much he needs to achieve domestically.

Lastly but significantly, a crucial challenge facing this new cadre of left-wing Latin American governments vis-à-vis Palestine is the continued failure and lack of imagination of the official Palestinian leadership, represented by an incapacitated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its pseudo-governmental body, the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

Following the “pink tide” between 2009 and 2011, a period which saw a swing to the political left across the Americas, there was a slew of recognitions of the State of Palestine in line with the PLO’s diplomatic push at the United Nations. But though this was important symbolically, the PLO’s discourse has yet to move on substantially from an increasingly defunct Oslo framework, while the PA has only become further entrenched as a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation.

The weakness of the PLO has been particularly debilitating to international mobilization. The organization’s recognized status as the “sole representative” of the Palestinian people is not just a formal title for international bodies like the UN; on the contrary, it holds political and popular weight in much of Latin America and the Global South because of the PLO’s historical support for and solidarity with revolutionary and anti-imperial movements in the region, the legacies of which can be found in many of the current left-wing governments.

This status, however, makes it even harder for today’s wave of progressive Latin American governments to take positions beyond the insipid vision of the official Palestinian leadership. This is exemplified by Lula’s pronouncements on Palestine fitting firmly in the framework of the failed two-state solution, and Boric’s statement during his UN address last September effectively echoing the PLO’s two-state line.

There is still much that these Latin American states can do, but as long as the PLO undermines, co-opts, or tempers civil society initiatives such as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and pursues doomed negotiations for a statehood project, then there is little real basis or incentive for Latin American governments to move beyond their current positions, especially when there is little that Palestinians can materially offer in return.

Inspiration for political organizing

Nonetheless, there are real reasons to be hopeful for Palestine in Latin America. In most of the region, there is a relative absence of the kind of hostile policies and shrinking space against Palestinian activism that we have seen implemented in North America and Europe.

In fact, in 2021, the Chilean congress drafted legislation to ban goods and services from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Cuba and Venezuela, meanwhile, continue to have zero ties with Israel, having severed relations with the state in 1973 and 2009, respectively. Furthermore, the new progressive governments are arguably more receptive to popular demands from Palestinian grassroots movements, and compared to their right-wing predecessors, may be more open to being swayed, negotiated with, and having their Israel policies pushed back on. 

Above all, Palestinians and their allies can draw strength from the movements and campaigns that have both accompanied and driven these governments into power. Unions and social movements in Brazil, like the “Movimento Sem Terra” and “Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto,” threw their support behind the Lula candidacy and have been back on the streets this week to defend his elected government. And after hundreds of years of settler colonialism and four years of brutal assaults on their land by the Bolsonaro government, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are continuing to resist and call for sovereignty.

In Chile, Boric was elected on the back of Mapuche demands for self-determination and years of student organizing and social protests dating back to 2011. Similarly, in Colombia, the Petro-Márquez government was propelled to victory following a year of uprising against the reforms of neo-liberal president Iván Duque, as well as decades of Afro-Colombian and indigenous organizing against extractivism and state violence. Feminist organizing has also exploded across the region with the “Ni una menos” movement, culminating in the legalization of abortion in Argentina in 2020. And in Haiti, protestors have been consistently calling for democracy and better living conditions in the face of further U.S. intervention.

With these and other anti-racist, abolitionist and LGBTQ+ rights movements, Latin America is showing the world the power of organized people. And in doing so, it is providing Palestinians and their allies with abundant opportunities to build truly internationalist and collective struggles. An inspiring example of this was witnessed in 2021, when solidarity connections were forged between diaspora Palestinian and Colombian communities in Europe and North America, during the Unity Intifada and the height of the Colombian uprising. Marching together on the streets, these communities highlighted the links between their struggles against militarism, settler colonialism, and state terrorism. 

Just as importantly, the gains of the left in Latin America should not only provide inspiration to Palestinians and their allies for harnessing people power for material gains, but should serve as a model for Palestinian advocacy and grassroots activism for the future. If any progressive Palestinian government is to win and retain power in the face of huge local and international challenges, it will need to rely on social movements such as these to ensure its strength and popularity. And that is where Palestinians must invest their solidarity.

Hussein Sameh is a British Palestinian based in London; his research and writing has focused on foreign policy between Latin America and Palestine, and the Israeli regime