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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Israel’s support for the far-right in Latin America goes back decades

Israel has long collaborated with the far-right in Latin America against left-wing forces of change

Middle EastLatin America and the Caribbean

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose for photographers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo by Alan Santos/Planalto Palace.

Across Latin America, the state of Israel’s best friends are, almost without fail, the most reactionary right-wing elements of the ruling classes. This seems to contradict the tolerant brand that Israel has been attempting to cultivate as of late—a pinkwashed, greenwashed marketing campaign that seeks to elevate Israel to the status of an enlightened and democratic outlier amidst an archipelago of benighted authoritarians.

Israel’s own actions in West Asia contradict this narrative daily, revealing the brand as nothing more than a carefully polished sheen on colonial dispossession and racialized domination. As such, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Israel’s apologists to prevent this benign gloss from peeling off the state’s aggressive settler-colonial project.

It certainly does not help their case that Israel’s most vocal champions in the Western Hemisphere increasingly originate from the most right-wing sectors in their respective countries.

Israel and the Latin American right

In Brazil, Israel’s most prominent supporter is the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, a notorious bigot who pines for the days of the Brazilian military dictatorship (with which Israel collaborated extensively). The Israeli government has reciprocated his praise. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even said that Israel-Brazil ties reached “new heights” after Bolsonaro’s election.

For decades Israel has collaborated with the atrocity-prone Colombian military, offering training and supplying them with Israeli-made arms. During the anti-austerity protests of 2021, far-right Colombian President Iván Duque (under whose presidency Colombia-Israel relations “reached the highest point in [their] bilateral relationship”) dispatched the army to repress protestors. Some of these troops had received training in “counterterrorism and combat techniques” from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

In Venezuela, Israel joined the US-led minority of governments that recognized self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president. And at the United Nations in 2021, Israel was once again the only country in the world to join the United States in supporting the economic blockade of Cuba.

These actions follow a long history of Israeli support for some of the most reactionary and anti-democratic states in the Western Hemisphere. These states tend to align with the far-right, and in notable cases such as Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay and the Argentine military dictatorship, even espoused neo-Nazi ideology.

What these actions illustrate is that Israel has long viewed internationalist solidarity and leftist politics—with their focus on economic equality and the restoration of the rights of oppressed peoples—as anathema to its apartheid project. As such, Israel has long collaborated with the far-right in Latin America against left-wing forces of change.

Stroessner’s Paraguay

One illustrative example occurred in Paraguay in 1968. At the time, Paraguay was ruled by Nazi sympathizer Alfredo Stroessner, whose 35-year dictatorship is known as the stronato (1954-1989). In addition to entrenching an oligarchy that still rules the country to this day, Stroessner’s government committed genocide against the Indigenous people of Paraguay, repressed campesino organizations that opposed the concentration of land in the hands of the elite (Paraguay still has the most unequal distribution of land in the world), engaged in systemic torture and killing of political opponents, and abducted as many as 1,000 girls to be raped by military and government officials.

Stroessner’s Paraguay was an open haven for Nazi war criminals, including Hans-Ulrich Rudel, an unrepentant Nazi colonel who represented numerous West German companies across Latin America, and Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz. His regime was also a key ally of the US, Britain, and West Germany during the Cold War. Throughout his rule, the US government denied that Stroessner was perpetrating genocide and continued providing him with military aid.

Despite its fascist character and the Nazi sympathies of its leadership, the Stroessner regime was deliberately courted by the Israeli government in the late 1960s. Israel’s Ambassador to Paraguay, Benno Weiser Varon, claimed that the Israeli state considered leftism first, and Arab nationalism second, to be Israel’s two main enemies, and as a result they viewed Stroessner’s government as an admirable model. Varon insisted that Stroessner’s Nazi tendencies were irrelevant, stating in his autobiography that Israel was “under steady attack from the Communist world” and therefore “the enemy of our enemy had to be our friend.”

Varon’s career in Latin America went back decades. In 1946, the World Zionist Organization sent him to the region to convince Latin American governments to vote “yes” to the UN Partition Plan for Palestine. Afterward, he became ambassador to numerous Latin American countries, including Stroessner’s Paraguay.

Varon met with Stroessner personally and praised his government, stating: “…everybody knows that, under your leadership Paraguay has become a bulwark against international communism. And Israel’s implacable and foremost enemy is the Soviet Union… to cultivate this friendship, Mrs. Golda Meir has sent me to Paraguay.” He compared the role that Stroessner’s Paraguay played in Latin America to the role Israel plays in West Asia, telling Stroessner that Israel was an “impendent to… Communist penetration in the Middle East.”

Varon informed Stroessner that Israel would provide his regime with “technical assistance” if he promised to vote in favour of Israel at the United Nations Security Council. To his delight, Stroessner agreed.

The next year, Mossad reached an agreement with Stroessner to resettle 60,000 dispossessed Palestinians in the Latin American country. These Palestinians would be expelled from Gaza and the West Bank, thereby tightening Israeli control of the Arab populations in the region and allowing Israel to reshape the demographics of the illegally occupied territories.

Pinochet’s Chile

Another of Israel’s closest allies in the Southern Cone was Pinochet’s Chile. In 1976, Israel sold the Pinochet government 100 Shafrir air-to-air missiles. In the early 1980s, Israel sent Pinochet 50 Shafrir missiles, 150 Sherman tanks, and 150 Westwind II aircrafts. In 1989, Eitan Kalinsky noted that the Chilean military used riot-control vehicles manufactured by the Beit Alfa kibbutz to brutalize pro-democracy protestors.

A CIA intelligence report from February 1988 stated that Israel’s military collaboration with Pinochet’s Chile was wide-reaching and unlikely to change. “In our view,” the report noted, “Israel, even under a Labour government, is unlikely to jeopardize its military relationship with Santiago to support a restoration of democracy in Chile.”

The Argentine military dictatorship

In the early 1980s, the military dictatorship in Argentina “imported large amounts of Israeli weapons and military advisors,” even though the dictatorship was openly antisemitic and specifically targeted the country’s Jewish population for imprisonment and persecution. To this day, many Argentine Israelis are still petitioning the Israeli government to release all documents pertaining to its security collaboration with the military junta.

Shlomo Slutzky, who filed a freedom of information request to reveal the extent of collaboration between Israel and the military dictatorship, said: “On the one hand, Israel sold weapons and cooperated with the regime on different issues, while on the other Israeli representatives helped hundreds of people escape” persecution. In short, Israeli officials simultaneously provided arms and military training to the junta while also helping some Jewish people flee the very regime the Israelis were arming.

The Brazilian military dictatorship

Israel provided the Brazilian military dictatorship, which took power in a 1964 coup against left-leaning nationalist João Goulart, with weapons and military training, and even cooperated with the junta on the development of nuclear energy facilities. In its cables, the Israeli embassy praised the military dictatorship and criticized the Brazilian left and anti-dictatorship student protests.

In September 1966, the Israeli embassy wrote that “[protest] slogans are always political and against the regime. There is hardly a doubt that leftist elements are exploiting the bitterness that exists among the students.” In another cable from December 1966, the embassy wrote that “no one cares what happens to ‘democracy’ in Brazil.”

Guatemalans wave Israeli flags near the “Plaza of Israel” in the country’s capital, 2015. Photo courtesy Reuters.

Central America

Israel’s military collaboration with the terror states in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua was long-term and expansive. During the Cold War, the military regimes in these countries faced popular protest, labour unrest, and peasant insurgency on a wide scale and turned to the US for support. While the Reagan administration was eventually banned from providing military aid to these militaries due to their reliance on scorched-earth tactics and paramilitary death squads, Israeli arms exports were often used to fill the gap.

During the Guatemalan military dictatorship—which killed over 200,000 Guatemalans, “disappeared” another 40,000, and committed genocide against the Indigenous Mayan people—Israel was one of the military’s largest suppliers. In fact, from at least 1978 onwards, “Israel had become the main arms supplier to a series of consecutive military regimes,” and many of the death squads that murdered thousands of Guatemalan civilians used Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns.

As Alexander Aviña explains in Liberated Texts, Guatemala’s military leaders spoke of their plans to “Palestinianize” the country’s Mayan population: a strategy of “reorganization of the countryside to facilitate government surveillance and counterinsurgent terror.” This plan reached its horrifying peak in 1981-1983 with a genocidal scorched-earth campaign that utterly destroyed hundreds of villages and displaced around one million people.

In Nicaragua, the Israelis sold weapons to the Somoza regime in order to repress the socialist and peasant-led Sandinista movement. Bishara Bahbah notes that “Israeli arms were so ubiquitous as to have become synonymous with the Somoza dictatorship.” After the Sandinista victory in 1979, Israel switched its allegiance from the ousted Somoza to the fascist Contra death squads.

In late 1982, Israel sent thousands of AK-47 assault rifles captured from the Palestinian Liberation Organization to Honduras for use by the Nicaraguan Contras. This was done with the approval of the Reagan administration. As a senior Reagan official noted in 1983: “at the request of the United States [Israel agreed] to send weapons captured from the Palestine Liberation Organization to Honduras for eventual use by Nicaraguan rebels.” In 1984, Time reported that “Israel funnels arms to the contras through the Honduran army. Israeli intelligence experts have helped the CIA train the contras, and retired or reserve Israeli army commandos have been hired by shadowy private firms to assist the rebels.”

In El Salvador, the Reagan administration used Israel to arm right-wing death squads without congressional approval. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that 83 percent of Salvadoran military imports between 1975 and 1989 came from Israel. These imports included napalm, which was used by the Salvadoran military until 1981.

In 1984, air force commander Rafael Bustillo admitted that the Salvadoran military had purchased napalm from Israel. US Ambassador to El Salvador (and later Israel) Thomas Pickering admitted that the napalm used by the Salvadoran army was “probably of Israeli origin.”

Haiti

Starting in 1968, Israel sold large amounts of weaponry to the right-wing Duvalier dynasty in Haiti: first the father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, then the son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Following the overthrow of the Duvalier family, Israel continued to send thousands of Uzi and Galil machine guns to Haiti—but this time, they wound up in the hands of the military units that eventually overthrow the democratically elected left-wing president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.

In August 2005, it was reported that “weapons of Israeli origin were being smuggled through Florida and ending up with armed gangs in Port-au-Prince… some in collaboration with the junta, and some opposed.”

Israel and the Latin American left

The Latin American left, at least in its more radical forms, is consistently honest about the nature of Israeli apartheid and the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance. The Israeli state evidently understands this and has been collaborating in the repression of the region’s leftist forces for decades on end.

This history⁠—the complicity of Israel in anti-left atrocities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean⁠—helps us form a new understanding of the Israeli state, one which not only comprehends it as an apparatus of racial and religious domination, but ties these apartheid policies to a fundamentally anti-left economic project rooted in settler capitalism and accumulation by dispossession.

As more people in the West realize this, it will be harder and harder for the Israeli state to maintain its virtuous brand, and more and more common for Israel’s most outspoken defenders to come from the indefensible ranks of the far-right.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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