Why Chile’s Response to the Israel-Hamas War Stands Out
The country is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside of the Middle East.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Chile’s large Palestinian diaspora reacts to the Israel-Hamas war, Ecuadorians prepare for a presidential runoff, and a Brazilian gymnast rivals U.S. star Simone Biles.
How the Mideast Is Seen From the Southwest
In the aftermath of Hamas’s gruesome Saturday morning attack on Israel, governments across Latin America began issuing statements reacting to the event. As is common in the global south, most Latin American countries diplomatically recognize Palestine. Many of their official statements, in addition to condemning Hamas, went further to urge de-escalation and dialogue to peacefully resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena, for example, tweeted that “Mexico advocates peace, dialogue, and the protection of civilians without qualification. We urge an end to indiscriminate attacks and violence against civilians by Hamas and by the Israeli army in Gaza.”
“I was shocked by the terrorist attacks carried out today against civilians in Israel,” Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tweeted. “Brazil will not spare efforts to prevent the conflict from escalating.” Of any Latin American country, Brazil carries the most potential to influence the Israel-Hamas war in its capacity as temporary chair of the United Nations Security Council.
Brasília has used that space to try to advocate for immediate de-escalation—but in the first emergency session it chaired on the war, members failed to agree on a joint statement. An envoy for the United States, which had pushed for language strongly condemning “these heinous terrorist attacks committed by Hamas,” said that some countries on the council did not support that phrasing, so no statement was made.
The few Latin American leaders who stopped short of directly condemning the Hamas attack were those of countries with a hard anti-Western or anti-American streak in their foreign policies. Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are perhaps unsurprising members of this list, while Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—who has prided himself on publicly standing up to the United States—swerved away from his foreign ministry’s line and spoke only vaguely, saying he would not take sides in the conflict.
Meanwhile, Colombian President Gustavo Petro—while generally calling for peace—has sent dozens of tweets this week criticizing Israel’s 15-year blockade and current siege of the Gaza Strip and comparing Israeli actions this week to those of Nazis during the Holocaust. This equation prompted open criticism from both Israeli and U.S. diplomats, while 12 former Colombian foreign ministers published a letter of repudiation saying broadly that recent comments from Petro and the foreign ministry, which often took its cues from the president, “weaken the institutionality of our diplomacy.”
Some leaders’ statements highlighted the Palestinian and Jewish diasporas in their countries. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele pointed out his own Palestinian background before saying that Hamas should be treated using the same harsh means that he employs to deal with armed gangs.
In Argentina, home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population—and where a Jewish community center was bombed in 1994 in an act that investigators in multiple countries have blamed on Hezbollah—President Alberto Fernández emphatically condemned Hamas’s attacks and pledged the solidarity of all of the Argentine people with Israel. He added that Argentina stood for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Chile, for its part, is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside of the Middle East. Migration peaked in the early 20th century, and the Palestinian Chilean population is estimated at between 300,000 and 500,000 people. The size of the community has impacted Chilean culture, domestic politics, and foreign policy for years. A first-division soccer club is named Palestino FC, and its logo features the colors of the Palestinian flag. The Chilean legislature boasts a large Palestinian caucus. In 2005, Chile became one of the first non-Arab countries to join the Arab League as an observer.
A smaller Jewish community of some 20,000 people also live in the country, and Chile has deepened its relationship with Israel in recent decades, in part through trade. Chile’s Palestinian and Jewish communities have at times had their public disagreements, often related to contemporary Israeli-Palestinian relations. But for the most part, they have managed to coexist.
Powerful Chilean congressional and private sector groups have campaigned for Palestinian human rights for years, and the public conversation about the escalating situation in Israel-Palestine over the past week has often taken a more long-term, historical perspective than elsewhere in the Americas, including in the United States.
Chilean analysts who have appeared on television and radio programs and written in newspapers following this weekend’s attack have spoken not only about Hamas’s rampage through southern Israel but also about its broader context. They mentioned the more than 15-year Israeli military blockade on Gaza and fears that mass atrocities are now unfolding there. Israel has placed Gaza under a “complete siege”—cutting off electricity and banning food, water, fuel, medicine, and humanitarian support from entering—and is relentlessly bombing the territory, which Gazans cannot leave.
That’s not to say that Chile’s public debate was without major rifts and controversies. The Palestinian Chilean mayor of a municipality within the Santiago metropolitan area, Daniel Jadue, tweeted immediately after the attack that “the people of Palestine have a right to resist” before later condemning violence against civilians. When asked about Jadue’s comments, the Israeli ambassador said “they crossed all the lines” while acknowledging that many other Chilean Palestinians had directly condemned the Hamas attacks.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric, meanwhile, tweeted that he condemned Hamas’s “brutal” attacks as well as the Israeli army’s indiscriminate violence against civilians in Gaza. He pledged to work for a two-state solution in which “all people will have a dignified and safe life.” The day of the attack, Chile’s foreign minister tweeted that the use of force against civilians was never acceptable in armed conflicts, be it by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Israel, or anyone else. A statement from the foreign ministry that same day called for a “just, full, and definitive peace” that includes an Israeli state and a Palestinian state “within mutually agreed upon and internationally recognized secure borders.”
Reflecting on what Chile can contribute to the global conversation on the future of Israel-Palestine, a Chilean reader wrote a letter to newspaper El Mercúrio that was published on Tuesday. “Our society has stood out for hosting Israeli and Palestinian migrants for more than a century,” it said. “It has been a beautiful heritage to share with them and also to have given them the chance for safe coexistence, as well as absolute peace and kindness.”
Sunday, Oct. 15: Ecuador holds a presidential runoff election.
Monday, Oct. 17 to Tuesday, Oct. 18: Chilean President Gabriel Boric and Argentine President Alberto Fernández attend the Belt and Road Forum in China.
Sunday, Oct. 22: Argentina holds a presidential election.
What We’re Following
Tensions in Ecuador. As Ecuadorians prepare to vote in a presidential runoff election this weekend, security remains the leading public issue. Last Saturday, seven men who had been charged with killing former presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio earlier in the campaign were found dead inside two different Ecuadorian prisons.
The government was responsible for these men’s safety while they awaited trial, and the event appeared to underscore gangs’ ability to carry out their own justice instead. The prison holding six of the killed men was known to be controlled by organized criminal groups. Villavicencio himself had been unusually vocal in denouncing Ecuador’s gangs by name immediately before his death.
The runoff candidates are center-right businessman Daniel Noboa and Luisa González, a socially conservative protégé of left-wing former president Rafael Correa. Both have pledged to increase funding for police and deploy military forces to the country’s critical infrastructure, such as ports, but González favors more state spending than does Noboa, who is friendlier to the private sector.
Venezuelans in Brazil. The Biden administration announced last week that it will start deporting unauthorized migrants back to Venezuela, following an announcement late last month that some 472,000 Venezuelan migrants currently living within U.S. borders will be given a temporary shield from deportation.
Elsewhere in the Americas, countries have responded differently to Venezuelan migrants. Brazil has become the third-largest receiver of Venezuelans among countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. An estimated 477,500 Venezuelans live in the country, where they have relatively easy access to work permits and full access to public education and health care.
Jordi Amaral of the Americas Migration Brief wrote last week that, in part because of Brazil’s size—and especially the farther away you get from the shared border—the large Venezuelan migrant population has encountered less xenophobia than in other receiving countries. Brazil has a voluntary program that sends Venezuelan migrants to work in cities across the country rather than keeping them gathered near the border, Amaral noted. One 2021 survey he referenced found that Venezuelans in the program worked at similar rates to Brazilians, albeit more informally.
A match for Simone Biles. Brazil’s 24-year-old Rebeca Andrade won gold on the vault Saturday at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium. Her five-medal haul was the most of any Brazilian at a single global gymnastics competition in history. In addition to the hardware she will bring home, Andrade captivated viewers in Brazil with a floor routine set to the tune of Brazilian funk music.
Andrade’s performance at the competition put her in direct competition with another gymnastics star, the United States’ Simone Biles. But the athletes were friendly to each other, and Brazilians on social media shared images of them dancing together at a post-meet party.
“I think people create this type of battle and rivalry,” Andrade told GloboEsporte. “She’s so inspirational. It’s incredible to have her at a competition.”
Question of the Week
Brazilian Finance Minister Fernando Haddad is of Middle Eastern descent. Where are his ancestors from?
Brazil’s Lebanese population is one of its most visible diasporas. Members also include former President Michel Temer.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- What You Need to Know About the Israel-Hamas War by Daniel Byman and Alexander Palmer
- Israel Could Win This Gaza Battle and Lose the War by Stephen M. Walt
- The Geopolitics of Palestine, Explained by Allison Meakem
In Focus: Belt and Road Initiative at 10
Many Latin American leaders and envoys, including Boric, are among those headed to China this weekend for a summit that marks 10 years of Beijing’s infrastructure lending program geared toward developing countries, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, Chinese development finance institutions lent more than $331 billion between the BRI period of 2013 and 2021, often strengthening China’s political and trade relations with them in the process.
Beijing’s paper celebrates the fact that the BRI—in its view—has strengthened Chinese influence in partner countries while also providing them with improved infrastructure. It also listed a series of operating principles for the program that appear to respond to some international criticism of its projects, such as the arguments that they lack transparency and harm the environment. The paper listed a commitment to green development and “zero tolerance for corruption.”
BU’s independent analysts found that the BRI had significant benefits for borrowing countries as well as risks that should be addressed going forward.
On the upside, BRI infrastructure projects appear to be on track with a previous World Bank projection that, if the projects announced up to 2019 were fully completed, they could lead to an increase in global trade between 1.7 percent and 6.2 percent, boosting global economic growth by between 0.7 percent to 2.9 percent, the researchers wrote.
Moreover, BRI projects are often more focused on infrastructure (such as creating a port or an electric grid) than World Bank lending, which supports a wide range of projects that can include education, health, and agriculture. This means that “Chinese finance is thus more associated with economic growth, addressing infrastructure bottlenecks and increased energy access than World Bank lending,” according to the BU report.
The BU researchers noted that the risks of BRI funding include debt distress, higher risks to biodiversity and Indigenous lands, and increased carbon emissions, due to an initial favoring of financing fossil fuel-powered plants over sources of clean energy. Although Western diplomats have often tried to warn developing countries away from Chinese loans by saying that China is engaging in harmful “debt trap diplomacy” whereby sovereign assets might be seized, the researchers rejected the term. Still, they acknowledged that many countries are experiencing debt crises in which Chinese debt is one ingredient.
Both China and borrower countries can take clear steps to make the BRI program better for both sides going forward, they stressed.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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