South Africa’s decision to bring a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was an important step not only in efforts to halt the current assault on Gaza but also as a sign that global South countries can and should denormalise relations with Israel.
South Africa’s genocide case, which the ICJ mostly corroborated, gathered support from more than 90 states, including some Arab signatories of the Abraham Accords. Latin American countries have also played a role in supporting the case and denouncing the plight of Palestinians – but much more can be done.
Latin American states do not share a homogeneous position when it comes to Palestine and Israel. In some, the influence of the United States has fostered proximity to Israel: in 2018, for example, Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay moved their embassies to Jerusalem after Donald Trump did the same.
Others less susceptible to US hegemony and with strong leftwing parties and social movements of their own have elected leaders sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Cuba, itself the target of a US imperialist blockade, has since 1973 refused diplomatic relations with Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians. Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua all supported South Africa’s case.
Alignment with the US is not the only predictor of how Latin American countries engage with Israel and Palestine, however. Disputes between the far-right and leftist governments within the region are another factor, and often lead states to switch positions. In Bolivia, Evo Morales was elected president in 2006 with broad support from indigenous movements though over the course of the 2000s, Morales moved closer to Chávez’s Bolivarian project of “21st-century socialism”.
In 2009, after the Israeli massacre in Gaza, Morales broke off relations with Israel and promised to take it to the Hague for genocide. Relations between Israel and Bolivia, however, were reestablished during the brief period that the far-right and Christian fundamentalist Jeanine Áñez was president, between 2019 and 2020, after a US-backed coup against Morales. Now, in the face of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, president Luis Arce announced the end of diplomatic relations with Israel and made Bolivia the first Latin American country to support South Africa’s case in the ICJ.
The election of progressive presidents in the region after a period of solidly rightwing governments has helped to bring about this new phase of solidarity with Palestine. Where Brazil’s former president and far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro was very close to Israel and actively supported the Zionist cause, his successor called for a ceasefire, recognised the current situation as being a genocide and moved to support South Africa’s case, all of which have got him significant flak from Zionist organisations in Brazil. Lula has not been totally fearless, however.
When the assault began, Brazil had the presidency of the UN security council and focused its diplomacy both on the efforts to repatriate Brazilian nationals in Israel and Palestine and on the drafting of the ceasefire resolution that the United States notoriously vetoed. Lula, though often perceived outside of the region as a major supporter of the Palestinian cause, has mostly been restrained in his criticism of Israel (his description of the current escalation as genocide was a rare departure from this), choosing instead to keep alive the dreams of the long-dead Oslo process by supporting calls for a two-state solution, although it is not clear what exactly Lula means by two states, what their borders would be or what would guarantee Palestine secure borders alongside the Zionist state.
This moderate approach, while better than the far-right alternative, often lacks the courage to denounce decades of apartheid and acknowledge that the colonial thirst at the core of the Israeli state is a fundamental impediment to Palestinian freedom. Its result is that Brazil can question Israel’s genocide without any sign that it will revoke the military cooperation agreements it signed with Israel under Bolsonaro. After the ICJ ruled on provisional measures, Lula called for compliance, but offered no concrete measures from the Brazilian state to pressure Israel, be they economic sanctions or the simple act of recalling Brazil’s ambassador. While the normalisation of Israel is threatened at the ICJ, Brazil provides an example of how most Latin American countries still face difficulties in severing diplomatic ties with Israel.
Other states have been only marginally bolder. In Colombia, president Gustavo Petro was expected to sever ties with Israel in 2023 after his expressions of solidarity with Palestine caused a diplomatic conflict with the Israeli ambassador. Petro decided instead to recall the Colombian ambassador to Israel and open an embassy in Ramallah (Israel suspended its security exports to Colombia in response to Petro’s comments). More recently, Petro issued a strong declaration of support for the genocide case against Israel and welcomed the ICJ’s ruling as a “triumph of humanity”. In a somewhat surprising move, Benjamin Netanyahu wrote to Petro on 11 January that “Colombia has a common cause with Israel” regarding Hamas’ release of Israeli hostages, one of whom applied for – and was granted – Colombian citizenship in November 2023 in the hopes that it would facilitate his release. While Colombia seems to act a little more radically than Lula’s Brazil, the general line is still one where the international community finds it easier to invest in improving its relationship with the fragile Palestinian Authority than to disrupt its relationship with Israel.
Since the largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East lives in Chile, one would expect the Chilean state to be leading the charge against Israel in Latin America, but this is not the case. Identification with the Palestinian cause in Chile defies conventional distinctions between left and right and challenges our understanding of authoritarianism and colonisation. This is in part due to the Chilean Palestinian community’s class composition: several wealthy Palestinians financially supported Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, for example. Chile’s chamber of deputies has a Chilean-Palestinian inter-parliamentary group, made up of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum; representatives of both leftwing and rightwing Chilean parties have friendly relations with the Palestinian Authority and make regular visits to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Even figures from Chile’s traditionally Pinochetist right have spoken out in favour of the liberation of Palestine. In this context, it would seem easy for the country’s president Gabriel Boric of the leftwing Social Convergence party, to radically denormalise relations with Israel – but for the most part, he hasn’t.
So far, Boric, like Petro, has recalled the Chilean ambassador from Tel Aviv but has failed to cancel Chile’s military cooperation agreements with Israel, even after pressure from indigenous leaders, who drew parallels between Israel’s colonial violence against Palestinians and Chile’s against the Mapuche, the second most affected indigenous people by socio-environmental conflicts in South America. Chile did not express support for South Africa’s case at the ICJ. Instead, after pressure from civil society, including lawyers who filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Benjamin Netanyahu, Chile’s foreign ministry indicated support for an ICC investigation into war crimes committed by “Israelis or by Palestinians” – the same position as that set out by Mexico.
Latin America’s history of anti-colonial struggle and its new cadre of progressive leaders promised far more than what has been delivered since 7 October. Calls made to acknowledge the current situation as genocide and to negotiate a ceasefire have had an impact – Zionists’ forceful denunciations are sufficient proof of that – but more can be done. Revoking commercial and military cooperation agreements would be a good place to start: trade between Israel and Latin America amounted to $6bn in 2022, while Brazil alone purchased $60m in Israeli arms that year.
The insistence by Latin American countries to continue military cooperation and arms trading with Israel even as some of these states denounce the impact of Israeli weapons on Palestinians suggests a profound political dissonance. Solidarity with Palestine is either confined to carefully worded statements or standard diplomatic approaches. Support for charging Israel at the ICJ (or investigating the possibility of war crimes at the ICC) signals that momentum for actually questioning Israel’s colonial legitimacy is closer on the horizon, but it is still unclear whether governments will walk the talk. If Colombia, Brazil and others that have supported a ceasefire are serious, the next step is to break all ties with those preventing it from happening.
Sabrina Fernandes is a Brazilian sociologist and political economist working on just transitions, ecosocialism and Latin American politics. She is the head of research at the Alameda Institute.
Bruno Huberman is professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil. He is the author of The Palestinians and East Jerusalem: Under Neoliberal Settler Colonialism.