Diaspora Drum: Latin America's Arab cohort stirs support for Palestinians
Bolivia severed diplomatic relations with Israel last week to protest Israel’s military strikes in Palestinian Gaza. Chile, Colombia and Honduras recalled their ambassadors to Israel.
It was a reminder that Latin America, especially governments on the left, usually sides with Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which last month erupted into full-throttled war after militants from Hamas, which rules Gaza, massacred more than a thousand Israeli civilians, and Israel responded with a bombardment of Gaza that in turn has killed thousands of civilians there.
Latin Americans tend to share a geopolitical underdog identity with Palestinians. And many also see the dispute as an opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of the U.S., Israel’s staunchest ally and a power still widely regarded in Latin America as imperialista.
But there’s another important reason — one you can hear, for example, in Arab-infused pop culture hits like the song “Ojos Así” by Colombian megastar Shakira.
Shakira is Lebanese-Colombian — and she’s part of a large Arab diaspora that accounts for almost 5% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean. It includes other notable names like Mexican film star Salma Hayek and former Brazilian President Michel Temer.
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Perhaps more than any other factor, that broad cohort helps generate sympathy in Latin America, which is mostly Christian, for the cause of the Palestinians, who are mostly Muslim. It’s true in Shakira’s coastal hometown, Barranquilla, Colombia, where Palestinian-Colombian Odette Yidi directs the Colombian Arab Culture Institute.
“In Latin America, Palestinians come in all shapes and colors," Yidi told WLRN in an interview from Barranquilla.
"But we’re all united in that collective desire for Palestinian self-determination — and the urge to stop the spiral of violence on both sides of this conflict.”
Yidi, a social sciences researcher, stresses that she and most Arab-Colombians denounced last month's slaughter in Israel by Hamas, an organization the U.S. State Department has designated as a terrorist group.
“We would never, ever support that," she insists.
But Yidi also emphasizes that most Arab-Colombians, and Arab-Latin Americans, oppose what they call Israel’s segregationist, if not apartheid-esque treatment of Palestinians. And they support their struggle for an independent Palestinian state.
At the same time, Yidi points out Latin America’s Arab diaspora is not a political or religious monolith. Yidi, for example, is a politically conservative Christian Palestinian whose family hails not from Gaza but from Bethlehem.
“We’ve never seen the situation in Palestine as a conflict between religions," she says.
"It’s more about culture — about our Arab identity, about our past and most of all the Arabic language.”
“Latin American Arabs and Palestinians come in all shapes and colors — but we’re all united in that collective desire for Palestinian self-determination.”Odette Yidi
That Arab past helped steer Arabs — mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians — to Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America more than a century ago. Spain and Portugal, after all, were ruled by the Arab Moors for most of the Middle Ages. More than 4,000 words in Spanish, in fact, come from Arabic.
So when Arabs began emigrating out of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century — and when a second wave left the Middle East in the mid-20th century, largely a result of the Nakba, the mass displacement of Palestinians after the Arab-Israeli war and the establishment of Israel in 1948 — Latin America was a major destination.
“That affinity actually goes both ways," says Wilfredo Ruiz, Florida spokesman for the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
"Many Latin Americans feel connected with Arab culture in our DNA — like, for example, the shared importance of the extended family,” adds Ruiz, who is Muslim and Puerto Rican. Indeed, in recent decades Latinos have accounted for as much as a fifth of new converts to Islam in the U.S. Latin American countries, like Colombia, have also seen an appreciable number of converts.
“That’s another reason why you see a lot of Latin American governments — not necessarily the far left — identifying with the Palestinians,” says Ruiz.
It was, in fact, a conservative president, Sebastián Piñera (who does not have Arab ancestry), who had Chile recognize Palestine as an independent state in 2011. Chile, not coincidentally, has the largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East. And as any Palestinian-Chilean will remind you, one of Chile’s best pro soccer teams is called Palestino.
“Every time that I go out with my Palestino T-shirt, people cheer," says Matías Tumancaret.
"To be a Palestinian in Chile, it’s a beautiful experience, to be honest.”
Tumancaret, who spoke from Santiago, Chile’s capital, where he owns a sporting goods store, points out Palestinians have also built one of the country’s strongest political lobbying forces.
“We are everywhere — you can find Palestinians in every town in Chile," he says.
"So we make Chileans really understand the Palestinian struggle.”
There is an underside to this, however. Many Arab-Latin Americans WLRN spoke with said too many left-wing politicians there twist support for Palestinians into support for the anti-Semitism and terrorism of groups like Hamas.
They point to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Colombian President Gustavo Petro — who last month called Israeli leaders “Nazis” — as a prime example of Latin American leaders who they say have “hijacked” the Palestinian cause.
Even so, that cause has a broad and deep home in Latin America.