Home inFocus Latin America: Our Southern Neighbor (Winter 2021) Latin America and Israel, More than Friends

Latin America and Israel, More than Friends

Mark Klugmann Winter 2021
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in 2019. (Photo: Alan Santos/Planalto Palace)

September 2017 brought the first ever visit to Latin America by a sitting Israeli Prime Minister. En route to Buenos Aires, Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters, “This trip marks a new era in relations between Israel and Latin America.” 

Early signs of that new era came a couple of months later when the United Nations General Assembly voted en masse to condemn the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Argentina, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay won praise from Washington for abstaining. Two countries with embassies in Israel (plus a few microstates) joined the United States in voting “no” on the Jerusalem resolution: Guatemala and Honduras. 

Over the next three years, Guatemala and Honduras followed the United States in moving their embassies to Jerusalem. Paraguay briefly did the same, though it was reversed following a change of government. Brazil and Colombia opened official trade and commercial missions in the Israeli capital. And the Dominican Republic, whose recently elected President is the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant, announced that it, too, was considering moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Before the end of 2020, Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay had designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Brazil and Honduras stood with Israel in opposing a hostile, politicized resolution in the World Health Organization. Argentina and Uruguay adopted the Working Definition of Antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). A senior official of AIPAC ranked Latin America as the most pro-Israel region in the world.

Hemispheric Security

For the United States, the significance of countries electing pro-Israel leaders is that each such victory adds to a critical consensus on hemispheric security: Each government so disposed simultaneously demonstrates an organic resistance to chavismo, Iran, Hezbollah, and other regional threats. The posture of Latin American countries with regard to Israel correlates well with their stance on key aspects of regional security and geopolitics of importance to the United States. 

The hostility of the Latin Left toward Israel predates – and predicts – the close ties that Hugo Chavez would forge with Iran. In 1973, Cuba terminated relations with Israel, as did Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime in 1982. Throughout the 1980s Managua under the Sandinistas was a haven for Middle Eastern terror groups. When Nicaragua’s democratic opposition took power in 1990, relations with Israel were restored. After Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, Nicaragua maintained relations with Israel for several years before breaking them again in 2010. In 2017, following quiet negotiations, and likely with one eye on Washington, Nicaragua restored relations with Israel. 

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales each broke relations with Israel in 2009. Ten years later, when Morales, who had denounced Israel as a “terrorist state,” fell from power, the new interim government promptly restored Bolivia’s relations with Israel. With the return to office of the Morales bloc following the most recent Bolivian elections, relations with Israel have been maintained, but a future controversy in the Middle East may once again provide the pretext for a new rupture. Similarly, while the Caracas regime of Nicolas Maduro has no relations with Israel, the virtual government of Juan Guaido does.

Geopolitics is alive in Latin America and often spinning on a Middle Eastern axis. The 1992 terror bombing of the Israel embassy in Buenos Aires which left 29 dead, and the 1994 terror bombing of the Jewish AMIA center in that city which killed 85 people, have been linked to Iran and Hezbollah. In the decades since, Venezuela has scaled up the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the region, creating what Joseph Humire of the Center for a Secure Free Society describes as “a central hub for the convergence of transnational organized crime and international terrorism.” Though the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay has long had a concentration of Hezbollah activity, the introduction of nonstop flights connecting Caracas with Teheran and Damascus adds a new dimension.

National security analysts Magdalena Defort and William Preston McLaughlin warn that “Iran’s presence in Latin America is an imminent threat to peace and political stability in the Western Hemisphere.” They fear that some countries in the region serve as “a base for Iran’s asymmetric attacks on the United States and other Latin American countries, as well as a laboratory and warehouse for the Islamic Republic’s WMD programs, and a haven for many illicit activities of its terror proxy, Hezbollah.”

Elections Matter

Policy officials in Washington attuned to the penetration of Iran and Hezbollah in the region will see that each political contest in Latin America that offers a choice between contenders who seek deeper ties with Israel versus rivals who would turn their backs on her carries larger strategic implications. 

In surveying the list of U.S. allies that joined in the terrorist designation of Hezbollah, it should be noted that in essentially every instance, the president who made that decision had won election against a rival coalition aligned in the opposite direction. 

Elections matter, and many countries in Latin America are no more than one election away from possibly changing their alignment. That would include two of Israel’s and the United States’ most steadfast allies: Guatemala and Honduras. The most recent changes of government in Argentina and Bolivia have seen friends of Israel replaced by the other side. Only with direct U.S. lobbying did the new government of Argentina accede to maintaining the terrorist designation of Hezbollah.

Awareness of the stakes of each election provides the logic for sustaining a regional alliance supported by a stable, coherent policy posture that encourages the success of one’s natural allies. These will be the easiest and earliest victories in the battle against international terrorism and violent subversion in our hemisphere. 

It should be noted that support for Israel in Latin America is not explained by the political weight of Jews in each country. The few countries with a Jewish community of relevant size (yet still less than 1% of the population) such as Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico, have not generally produced the most pro-Israel governments – and under Leftist governments have been hostile. 

The most important megatrend in Latin America’s tilt toward Jerusalem is the rise of evangelical Protestant churches. For example, both Honduras and Guatemala are majority evangelical, and for President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, evangelical support was essential to his victory. The interest of the Dominican Republic in Jerusalem cannot be explained by the handful of Jews in that country, but rather by support from an active Christian constituency. Evangelicals, just 3 percent of Latin America in 1990, are by some estimates now 20 percent, and it may be higher than that.

Relationships Matter 

However, demographics alone are not sufficient. The personal connection to Israel of a national leader is often essential in understanding why some countries join with Israel on issues like Jerusalem, Hezbollah, UN votes, and so forth, while others do not. 

El Salvador (to say nothing of Nicaragua), despite having similar levels of Protestantism as Guatemala and Honduras, leans differently with respect to the Middle East. While his two neighbors have forged a strategic alliance with Jerusalem, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, though keeping proper and amicable relations with Israel, has cultivated a close connection with Qatar.

The case of Paraguay also underlines the significance of the personal dimension. Shortly before his term ended in 2018, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes moved his embassy to Jerusalem. When the new President took office, he immediately reversed that decision. Early in his career, Cartes had reportedly gotten business support from a pro-Israel Jewish family, and formed a lasting friendship. Later, as a candidate for President he worked with Israeli political consultants, which, in turn, led to him having a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu during his 2017 visit to Buenos Aires. 

Israeli efforts to cultivate and build personal connections can be remarkably fruitful. In 1991, the Israeli development agency MASHAV invited a group of young Latin Americans to participate in a two-month leadership development program in Israel. One of the participants, Juan Orlando Hernandez, decades later became President of Honduras, and his country soon became one of the five UN members that most often abstained from resolutions opposed by Israel. In 2018, when Honduras was next in the standard rotation for the presidency of the UN General Assembly, an anti-Israel bloc enlisted a rival candidate and Honduras was defeated 128-62.

A significant anti-Israel media apparatus is also at work in Latin America. Iran operates a Spanish-language network called HispanTV, founded in 2011. In 2005 the late Hugo Chavez created TeleSur. Qatar-based Al Jazeera created a digital media platform called AJ+ Español, directed, it says, at “los jóvenes de (the youth of) América Latina.” The assessment of Leah Soibel of pro-Israel Fuente Latina is that when “HispanTV airs slanderous stories about Israel, like alleging that IDF soldiers harvest Palestinian organs, or that Israel is behind the coronavirus, they do so with one purpose in mind – to fuel anti-Israel sentiments in the Hispanic world.”

The economic dimension of the regional contest was structured by Venezuela’s chavistas in partnership with Iran, and largely executed through its ALBA trade and investment alliance. When petroleum prices were high, grants of oil won the late Hugo Chavez a strong voting bloc in the OAS. However, in recent years, as the U.S. ramped up oil production, driving down prices, the chavistas lost their war chest, and the populists lost their mandate. 

Complementing the growth of evangelical Christianity in Latin America, the economic and technological success of Israel has added new allure for partnering with the “start-up nation.” In addition to the longtime interest in security and military cooperation with Israel, Latin America looks to Jerusalem for trade, investment, technology and tourism, as well as technical assistance in areas like water and agriculture.

Building Alliances

But behind the favorable trends, it must be emphasized that the turn toward pro-Israel governments in Latin America took place one country at a time and one election at a time. A high price is paid when official Washington, in its bilateral relationships, seems indifferent to the stakes or, worse, has worked against the political health of the forces that support the larger web of security alliances. 

Indeed, there has been no permanent or comprehensive effort to guide the formation of a de facto trilateral alliance joining the interests of Latin America, Washington, and Jerusalem. It is overdue. To do so would hardly be unprecedented and could be bipartisan and stable if driven from Capitol Hill. Though different in form and context from what might be done with respect to Latin America, the unanimous Congressional approval of the TAIPEI Act with regard to Taiwan demonstrates that Washington still sees the utility of building strategic alliances, as it did during the Cold War. And compared to the complexities of the recent brokering of relations between Israel and some Arab allies of the United States, active support for the partnering of Latin America and Israel would be simple.

Former Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen noted that if every pro-Israel member of Congress would also extend a hand to the friends of Israel in Latin America, “it would lead to better governments and stronger regional security. The governments most hostile to Israel have typically mistreated their own people, while the political forces in Latin America that are good friends with Israel are also good allies for the United States.”

The multi-dimensional clout of the United States throughout the hemisphere, together with the natural affinity for Israel in much of Latin America, can and should be leveraged in favor of regional political forces that will support a strong security alliance.  

Mark Klugmann is a former speechwriter for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and has advised seven presidents in Latin America.