While breaking away from the Cold War era and subsequent expectations, both the Middle East and Latin America have “increased their mutual relations as well as their international activism.” Editors Marta Tawil Kurti and Élodie Brun have compiled research by various authors on Latin American foreign policy towards the Middle East, as US hegemony in the region dwindles and Latin America discovers more scope in terms of forging relations with other developing countries.
Latin American Relations with the Middle East: Foreign Policy in Times of Crisis (Routledge, 2022) devotes chapters to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico and Venezuela and their relations with the Middle East, delving into a brief historical background to give context to the more recent years.
While political power and dependence have played a role in Latin American and Middle Eastern foreign policy, immigration from the Middle East to Latin America was one influential factor, aside from participation in the Non-Aligned Movement. In more recent years, political instability in Latin America, as well as social protests, happened at a time when the Middle East was facing its own political and social turmoil, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Palestine and Israel are also prominent in terms of Latin American foreign policy, where despite the region’s upholding of the two-state paradigm, diplomatic relations with Palestine and Israel shifted depending on the political spectrum and allegiances to the US.
One such example discussed in the book is Argentina, which focuses on the period of Mauricio Macri’s right-wing government from 2015 until 2019. The political projected shift from anti-colonial identity to Western identity was emphasised with Macri’s erroneous depiction of South America as European. Likewise, Argentina’s relations with Israel found common ground over issues such as technology, surveillance, security and the neoliberal economic model. Its political allegiance with Israel also led to Argentina designating Hezbollah as a “terror” organisation.
In Brazil, which is home to 12,000 Syrian refugees, politics are influenced by the diaspora. Brazil’s interest in the Middle East lies in trade, technical cooperation and diplomacy. Exports to Brazil increased during Lula’s first term as president, while during Bolsonaro’s presidency, which was supported by the Trump administration, relations with Israel were at their highest. As Trump and Bolsonaro’s interests aligned, so did Brazil’s support for Israel due to presidential support for all of Washington’s unilateral actions. However, Bolsonaro’s support for Israel stretched way back: in 2014, for example, he sent an apology to the Israeli government after President Dilma Roussef’s openly pro-Palestine stance on Operation Protective Edge.
Chile, home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in Latin America, is one country where both neoliberalism and the elite Arab community makes for one of the biggest economic lobbies.
Engagement with Palestine has been considerably high, although the government’s diplomatic and trade relations linked to security and surveillance are also an integral part of Chile’s foreign policy.
On the other hand, countries such as Colombia, for example, maintain limited foreign policy scope due to US influence in their politics. The book notes that US allegiances, a pro-Israel stance, a lack of knowledge regarding the Middle East and personal and presidential preferences have influenced the country’s relations.
Likewise, Costa Rica, whose foreign policy has been largely directed by Israel since 1948, has otherwise limited diplomatic resources, including embassies in the Middle East, although the opening of embassies in Turkiye, Qatar and the UAE facilitated economic trade opportunities. Peru’s US allegiance in 2011 dominated its foreign relations when the country severed ties with Libya during the NATO invasion of the country. Moreover, Peru’s diplomatic relations with Middle Eastern countries mostly centre around US allies in the region. Mexico is another country that is considered as having prioritised US appeasement in its relations with the Middle East, particularly Israel.
Uruguay is described as having amicable but low intensity diplomatic relations with the Middle East, mostly prioritised during the presidency of Jose Mujica. Along with Chile and Costa Rica, Uruguay is noted for its long-standing tradition of institutionalised party politics, while its foreign relations are marked by presidential or US influence. Its criticism of Israel was strongest during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Cuba and Venezuela stand out as the countries with anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist politics which in turn influence their relations with the Middle East. Cuba under Fidel Castro, as well as the island’s involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement, were of particular importance in later stances, particularly during the Arab Spring, with its opposition to NATO and foreign interference. Cuba’s relations with countries such as Algeria, Palestine, Syria and Iran expanded later to the Gulf monarchies in terms of infrastructure, trade, health and energy matters. Venezuela’s relations with the Middle East under Hugo Chavez were based on anti-imperialism and strong support for Palestine, Iran and Syria. His demise and the subsequent presidency of Nicolas Maduro altered Venezuela’s foreign policy slightly as survival became the primary concern due to US interference in Venezuelan politics.
US allegiances and the opposing side of the spectrum, which the book deems to be “critical voices”, tend to shape Latin American relations with the Middle East. However, economics is a driving factor upon which countries are basing their relations, as the book notes, “by privileging trade over political issues and adopting a more salient economic approach.” One major factor in this approach is the possible interdependence in this regard, as well as security issues, and how such agendas play out in terms of civil society, where human rights abuses and surveillance systems which link governments in the Middle East and Latin America are creating issues of concern back home.