March 1, 2024

IntelBrief: Leaders in Latin America Speak Loudly on Gaza

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Many countries in Latin America have been highly critical of Israel’s war in Gaza, and several states in the region have supported the ongoing case against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
  • Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Latin sympathies toward the Palestinian cause may also reflect growing autonomy from U.S. influence and the political strength of some countries with Middle Eastern diaspora populations.
  • After Brazil’s president called the Israeli war in Gaza a “genocide” and compared it to the Holocaust, polling indicated much of his population disagreed with his statement, while his far-right predecessor expressed support for Israel at a recent political rally.
  • Argentina – which under a new president is seeking to shore up U.S. relations – has joined El Salvador in backing Israel, two of the few outliers in the region.

Over the past several weeks, Brazilian President Lula da Silva has repeatedly directed sharp criticism at Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Both President Lula and Colombian President Gustavo Petro have labeled the war a “genocide,” with the former recently comparing it to the mass extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust. President Lula’s comments have created a diplomatic spat between Brazil and Israel, with both governments summoning the other’s ambassadors to be admonished. Lula has been banned from entering Israel until he retracts his comments, which have not been well received by the Brazilian population. A CNN poll found that over eighty percent of the population disagreed with his comparison to the Nazis’ genocidal campaign. Brazil pushed for a resolution at the UN Security Council in October calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which was ultimately vetoed by the United States. The conflict was a featured topic of discussion between President Lula and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the latter’s trip to Brasilia last week. In November, President Lula’s political party criticized Israel for refusing to allow over thirty Brazilian nationals to evacuate from Gaza in the days immediately following the opening of the Rafah border crossing to a select group of civilians.

Since the war began, several other Latin American countries have recalled their ambassadors from Israel, including Chile, Colombia, and Honduras, while Bolivia and Belize have cut off diplomatic ties with Israel altogether. The region’s resolute opposition to the war also suggests reduced U.S. influence in Latin America, as the United States remains a steadfast supporter of Israel in public communications, UN forums, and via arms sales and military aid. Other countries have expressed support, as well. Bolivia was one of five states to refer the situation in Gaza to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation in November to determine whether crimes had been committed. In the referral, Bolivia and its peers – including South Africa, the plaintiff in the ongoing case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – cite evidence of crimes against the Palestinians including murder, torture, inhumane treatment, persecution, apartheid, forcible transfer, and the destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage. Mexico and Chile did so as well in January, while the Brazilian and Colombia foreign ministries released statements supporting the genocide case being litigated by the ICJ.

Argentina’s new president, the right-wing libertarian Javier Milei, has meanwhile been a notable outlier, defying the anti-Israel trend in the region. Even more surprising is the stance of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, who has stood behind Israel despite his own Palestinian ancestry. President Milei’s position on the issue may also reflect his desire to bring his country closer to the United States. To restore Argentina’s disastrous economy, Milei pledged to replace the Argentinian peso with the U.S. dollar. During a trip to Argentina last week, Secretary Blinken spoke positively of Milei’s defense of Israel, as well as his economic program – calling reform “absolutely vital,” without putting forth a U.S. opinion on the dollarization proposal. In his statement, Secretary Blinken also suggested there may be opportunities for further U.S. investment in Argentina’s critical mineral reserves. President Bukele, however, has shown no such inclination to align himself with the United States; in the past, he published a WhatsApp thread between himself and a U.S. diplomat who had been speaking out to him directly over the messaging app concerning the president’s anti-democratic actions.

President Lula has sought to reassert the stature Brazil held on the world stage during his previous terms, a role from which it had receded under its former right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. Given the overwhelming international sympathies for the humanitarian crisis underway in Gaza, the conflict has become a powerful rallying point for leaders aiming to demonstrate solidarity with and leadership of the Global South. Lula’s comments have also generated sharp criticism within his own citizenry. Israeli flags could be seen being waved – including by Bolsonaro – at a massive protest attended by approximately 185 thousand people in São Paulo on Sunday. The protest was held to show support for the embattled former president, who is currently under investigation for allegedly plotting a coup against President Lula after losing his seat in 2022. Notably, evangelical Christians make up a significant bloc of Bolsonaro political base, a group that has  historically demonstrated ardent support for Israel in both Brazil and the United States, even in the wake of the current conflict. Demographics may continue to have a role in influencing the direction of these debates. Brazil, for instance, hosts approximately sixteen million citizens of Arab descent, including what may be the largest population of Lebanese-descended people in the world; the official numbers put forth by the state of Brazil are larger than the entire Lebanese population. Chile also has a significant Palestinian population, with more than half a million Chileans having Palestinian roots.

As the conflict in Gaza continues, the region’s stance on the war is likely to remain nuanced, with divisions predominantly falling along the political spectrum. As left-wing governments in Latin America, particularly those of the region’s recent “pink tide" wave remain outspoken in their criticism of Israel, their positions could negatively impact relations with the United States. The decision by the Chilean Senate’s Human Rights Commission to ban companies from importing goods produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories drew criticism from the U.S., with a U.S. State Department official stating that the boycott movement “unfairly [singles] out Israel.” The divisions around the conflict could impede separate U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, such as rallying support for Ukraine, as some view Western support for Israel as inconsistent with their espoused support for international law.