As Gabriel Boric’s election victory shows, a new hope could be dawning across Latin America. For both the United States government and its Israeli ally, this is not good news
SANTIAGO, CHILE – If its media is any indication, Israel is freaking out over the election results in Chile. “Anti-Zionist Gabriel Boric’s presidential win leaves Chile’s Jews worried,” ran The Jerusalem Post’s headline, going on to explain that the 35-year-old president-elect called Israel a “murderous state” and has the firm backing of the country’s Palestinian community. Only in the final section of the article did it allude to the fact that Boric’s far-right opponent, Jose Antonio Kast, was the son of a Nazi war criminal who escaped justice by fleeing to South America.
The Times of Israel had a similar reaction to the news. “Chile’s new president is bitter Israel critic, whose win has many local Jews worried,” its headline read. It, too, glossed over Kast’s background, describing him merely as a “right-wing, pro-Israel politician” whose father was only “likely” a Nazi. In reality, as The Times of Israel itself had reported only weeks previously, the elder Kast voluntarily joined the Nazi Party and was a senior lieutenant in Hitler’s war machine.
Haaretz was at least more open about who Kast was. However, it treated Boric’s opposition to Israeli Apartheid as similarly problematic, seemingly equating supporting Palestine to perpetrating the Holocaust. “In Chile Election, Jews Must Choose Between a Pinochet Supporter and an Israel Basher,” it wrote, explaining that “Kast’s father was in the Wehrmacht; Gabriel Boric demands that Chile’s Jews denounce Israel’s policies. In an election driven more by who they’re against than who they’re for, the Jewish community is in a bind.”
Other outlets, such as Israel Hayom were similarly concerned by Boric’s victory. The Israeli government did not release any statement.
A clear pro-Palestinian position
Promising to create a new welfare state and move the country away from the free-market capitalist model that has dominated since the days of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, Boric secured a hefty 54% of the vote in last week’s election.
“His politics on several fronts are very progressive and should be commended,” said Dr. Rodrigo Acuña, a Chilean-Australian academic who hosts the Indestructible Podcast, a show about contemporary Latin American politics, adding:
Boric’s biggest concerns are that of the environment, indigenous rights, the rights of the LGBT community and implementing progressive social policies like seeing an end to private pension schemes that have stolen millions of dollars, leaving people with dog scraps for their retirement pensions.”
It is, however, Boric’s long-standing positions on Palestine that trouble Israeli officials. Upon his election to the Chamber of Deputies in 2018, the former student protest leader immediately helped write a bill proposing a boycott of Israeli goods produced in the Occupied Territories and the Golan Heights. He has been a fervent opponent of the occupation, making several public statements against it. Replying to an Israeli embassy social media post claiming that Israeli businesses are offering solutions on how to improve people’s lives around the world, he said, “They could start with Palestine. For example, leaving the occupied territory.” He also shared a picture of a mural containing a list of slain Palestinian children, writing “the violence of the occupation is brutal and you pay with your life.”
Un mural en Palestina con los nombres de niños y niñas asesinados por el ejército de Israel solo el 2014. La violencia de la ocupación es brutal y se paga con la vida. pic.twitter.com/YmGvdYQlzM
— Gabriel Boric Font (@gabrielboric) August 29, 2018
Boric has firmly rejected illegal Israeli settlement building. On his official Instagram page, he published a map showing the gradual annexation of Palestine, describing it as a “flagrant violation of international norms and human rights.”
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Israel violates with impunity all UN resolutions and agreements that have urged it to stop building settlements on Palestinian territory. The violence of the occupation – as the powerful countries look to the side – it is brutal. From Chile we can contribute to change this.”
The new president has also strongly condemned house demolitions, which continue to this day. “How long will the world allow Israel to humiliate and violate the Palestinian people?” he asked.
Boric has seen these demolitions and their effects up close. In August 2018, he was part of an official delegation of 11 Chilean parliamentarians who traveled to Israel and Palestine. While there, he visited the cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Beit Jala, Ramallah and Tel Aviv. He also wished to go to Gaza, but Israeli authorities blocked him from entering.
While in Palestine, he met with representatives of human rights organizations and with President Mahmoud Abbas, who was reportedly heartened by Boric’s “firm and courageous support” to his people’s cause. “The historical relations between our two countries are being strengthened,” Abbas said.
Just weeks after her release, Boric also made a point of publicly meeting with Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian child jailed after slapping an Israeli soldier who invaded her home. “She is not a symbol, she is a living fighter for the freedom of Palestine,” the Chilean said. Israeli officials complained that Tamimi deserved a bullet.
Boric was clearly moved by his time in the Middle East. “It is hard to believe the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The violence, the daily humiliation,” he reflected.
Having such a vocal critic of its policies installed as president could pose a number of diplomatic challenges for Israel, and is a problem the administration of Naftali Bennett could live without.
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Strong popular support
Chile has historically had strong connections to Palestine. The South American nation is home to some 450,000 Palestinians, the largest community anywhere outside the Middle East. Emigration to Chile began in the 19th century, with peaks during the First World War and after the Nakba, the 1948 expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the newly created state of Israel. A large majority of Palestinians in Chile identify as Christian and most came from the cities of Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour.
This expat community has contributed significantly to Chilean cultural and political life. One of Santiago’s most celebrated soccer teams, Club Deportivo Palestino, established in 1920, has been a mainstay in the top division and finished in third place in 2019. Playing in the colors of the Palestinian national flag, the team is widely referred to as Palestine’s second national team and enjoys a strong following. In 2016, Palestino broke the Israeli siege of Gaza, traveling there to play friendly matches, including with the Palestinian national side.
“I think it’s fair to say that in Chile a noticeable percentage of the population are very strong supporters of Palestine and are clear on Israel’s atrocious human rights record,” Acuña told MintPress, noting that the city of Valdivia declared itself “free from Israeli Apartheid” after it abstained from doing business with any company linked to the Israeli occupation. In 2015, it was reported that a Chilean immigration official drew a penis on an Israeli tourist’s passport, complete with the message “Viva Palestinia.”
Palestinians also play a role in modern politics. Daniel Jadue, the Communist mayor of Recoleta, rode a wave of popularity to become Boric’s main primary opponent for the left-wing coalition’s ticket in the recent elections. Jadue accepted his defeat and endorsed Boric, stating:
I believe that Gabriel is going to initiate [a] change of direction, so that Chile starts to move toward a society of social justice and solidarity, a more feminist, equal, plurinational, intercultural, and multilingual country, with a focus on rights.”
Strong institutional, military links
In contrast, there are just around 18,000 Jewish people living in Chile. A local organization, The Jewish Community in Chile, congratulated Boric on his victory. However, the group has historically had a fractious relationship with the new president. In 2019, Boric thanked them for sending him a Jewish New Year gift, but stated that a better present would have been if they asked Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories.
Nonetheless, like Palestine, Israel also has extensive links to Chile. During the Pinochet years (1973-1990), successive Israeli administrations were quietly smuggling arms to the regime, contradicting their own public statements about wishing to see a return to democracy. CIA intelligence reports show that Washington was aware that the Israelis had sold Pinochet hundreds of missiles and tanks, as well as aircraft, despite a global arms embargo. Chilean pilots and army officers also received Israeli training. Acuña, whose family fled Chile after Pinochet’s coup, told MintPress that Israel did the U.S.’s dirty work, helping Pinochet suppress democracy while keeping American hands relatively clean, stating:
When the Carter administration in the White House commenced placing an arms embargo on the Pinochet dictatorship in the late 1970s, that’s when the state of Israel stepped in and happily sold weapons to the general while trade union leaders and leftist dissidents were being brutally tortured and murdered in prisons throughout the country.”
Pinochet was happy to do business because, in his administration’s own words, “Tel Aviv attaches no political strings to its transfers.” While the dictator is long gone, the military still maintains a close relationship with Israel. In 2018, the two nations’ armies signed a new set of cooperation agreements in education, training, leadership and knowledge-sharing. Chilean forces use Israeli equipment – marketed as “battle tested,” ostensibly on the people of Palestine – to suppress their own indigenous Mapuche population. Moreover, as Acuña explained, Chile has a rather fractious relationship with its neighbors Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. “Since the Chilean military views itself as surrounded by three countries that it views as hostile, generals inside the country admire the state of Israel and its capacity to wage war,” he said.
In an attempt to respond to the city of Valdivia and others, the administration of Sebastian Piñera outlawed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Chile in 2018. Piñera was not always in Israel’s good books, however. A year later, he traveled to Jerusalem and met with Palestinian officials at the Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.
“Used to dealing with terrorists”
Israel has played a similar role across South America, helping conservative, pro-U.S. governments stay in power. MintPress’ Dan Cohen recently revealed how Israeli operatives helped far-right paramilitaries in Colombia carry out a wave of political violence that continues to this day. Carlos Castaño, commander of the AUC, perhaps the most notorious and remorseless of all the death squads operating in the country, traveled to Israel to study and was trained by infamous Israeli mercenary and former IDF Lieutenant Colonel Yair Klein, who claims that he was invited to Colombia to train the national police.
The Colombian state relies on large numbers of Israeli mercenaries to carry out political killings, ensuring both that organized resistance to its rule is crushed, and that it retains some level of plausible deniability for the ongoing massacres.
So normalized have Israeli soldiers become in Colombian society that, while still president, Juan Manuel Santos appeared in an advertisement for Israeli mercenary firm Global CST. “They are people with a lot of experience. They have been helping us to work better,” he stated. During the nationwide anti-government demonstrations earlier this year, Israeli-made armored vehicles could be seen carrying around Colombia’s security forces, most of whom carried Israeli weapons and were assisted by Israeli-made facial recognition technology.
Likewise, in Bolivia, one of the first things the new government did after the U.S.-backed far-right coup of 2019 was to formally recognize Israel, and even brought IDF officers to Bolivia to help suppress the ongoing nationwide protests against their rule. “We’ve invited them to help us. They’re used to dealing with terrorists. They know how to handle them,” the new interior minister, Arturo Murillo, said of his guests. Foreign Minister Israel Katz expressed his satisfaction that a new “friendly government” had taken charge in Bolivia. Previous Bolivian President Evo Morales had broken off relations with Israel ten years earlier, citing what he called a “genocide” in Gaza.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro seems almost obsessed with Israel, so much so that he is rarely to be seen at a rally without multiple Israeli flags nearby. The 66-year-old former army officer also opened a trade office in Jerusalem and stated that the embassy would soon follow. Other right-wing states such as Honduras have promised to do the same. Bolsonaro’s children have allowed themselves to be photographed wearing IDF and Mossad shirts. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his appreciation, stating that his country had “no better friends than the people and government of Brazil.”
Israel has been drifting to the right for quite some time, moving towards becoming an ethnostate. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has even warned that the country has become infected with fascism. A 2016 poll found that 48% of Jewish Israelis wanted to see the Arab population ethnically cleansed.
This veer has isolated Israel from much of the world, and even from sections of polite society in the United States. However, it has found new allies among the global far-right. Ironically, many of Israel’s strongest supporters today are antisemitic fascists, who see the country as a model for the sort of ethnostates they wish to create at home. Norwegian Neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Brevik, for example, is enamored with the Israeli state and what it has achieved, even as his manifesto is littered with nonsensical antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews themselves. Meanwhile, far-right English activist Tommy Robinson claims to love Israel and to be a passionate Zionist.
More Bernie Sanders than Che Guevara
At just 35 years old, Boric is the second youngest elected head of state in the world. The tattooed millennial has certainly cultivated a youthful, counter-culture image. He is as likely to be seen sporting a Nirvana t-shirt as a suit jacket, while he carries pictures of his favorite Korean pop bands around with him. Boric is extremely popular online, particularly with the large and often overzealous K-pop community, so much so that the Piñera administration reportedly investigated their role in popularizing the protests against his rule.
However, this branding tells us nothing of Boric’s plans for government. His stated agenda includes the creation of a national healthcare system, stronger collective bargaining rights and anti-discrimination laws, as well as the release of hundreds of protesters Piñera jailed. Identity issues have also been at the fore of his message, with Boric hoping to push through rights for LGBT and indigenous minorities, as well as promising gender parity in his cabinet.
Above all, he has promised to reverse the economic direction the country has moved towards since the days of Pinochet. “Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism; it will also be its grave,” he said after he was selected to lead the leftist bloc earlier this year.
Boric has also presented himself as the heir to Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Marxist president Pinochet overthrew in a bloody, U.S.-backed coup in 1973. “[Allende’s] dreams of a better Chile are what we will continue to build together with all of you,” he said earlier this week, sharing a picture of himself beside Allende’s bust in the presidential palace.
Chile’s new president, however, is far from a radical and has gone out of his way to distance himself from other socialist governments currently under American attack. He has long been a critic of Venezuela and the administration of Nicolas Maduro. In November, he also wrote off the elections in Nicaragua (won by leftist President Daniel Ortega) as a “sham,” even going so far as to extend his “solidarity” to Cristina Chamorro Barrios, leader of an ultra-conservative party and a prominent member of Nicaragua’s most powerful family.
Six Chamorros have been president, including Cristina’s mother, Violetta, who was put in place there after years of genocidal dirty wars, whereby the U.S. funded, armed and trained Contra death squads to pound the country into submission. Some of Cristina’s immediate family members were leaders of those death squads. The Chamorro family also owns much of the country’s media (Cristina is vice-president of La Prensa, the nation’s most influential newspaper). Cousin Carlos Pellas Chamorro is Nicaragua’s richest man. Boric described Cristina approvingly as a “resistor,” while simultaneously considering the Ortegas “a family autocracy of the lowest ilk.” As such, he has already signaled that he will pose little threat to U.S. power in the region, suggesting his brand of socialism will be far more Bernie Sanders than Che Guevara.
Others have raised concerns about Boric’s decision to attend a 2018 event at the Council of the Americas in New York City. “Council of the Americas was a key actor in the coup against Salvador Allende and spent years running PR for crooked Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro. Why was Gabriel Boric schmoozing with them? Why do they support him?” worried Brazil-based journalist Brian Mier.
Acuña also noted that the new president will be limited by a conservative Congress, making it very difficult for the administration to pass transformational legislation. Boric will likely need to build alliances with other political forces, all of whom will have their influence over policy.
A new trend and a new hope
Nevertheless, Boric’s election triumph was likely not the preferred outcome in Washington, and could be understood as part of a broader rising of anti-establishment politics across the region. Recent elections in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Honduras have gone to the political left, while Brazil, the largest and most important nation in Latin America, will choose a new president in 2022. Workers’ Party candidate Lula da Silva, who was imprisoned (with U.S. help) as a consequence of the Lava Jato scandal, is far-and-away ahead in the polls.
Throughout the 2000s, a wave of radicalism swept across Latin America, as country after country elected anti-establishment governments critical of the United States. While the Bush and Obama administrations concentrated on the Middle East, this rebel alliance grew stronger and more vocal. One example of this is on the question of Palestine, with South American nations becoming the state’s most committed backers. All over the region, murals showing solidarity with the Palestinian cause can be seen. And while the rest of the world stayed silent, Latin American leaders spoke out about Israeli crimes. After the 2010 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a public speech declaring Israel a “genocidal state:” “I seize this opportunity one more time, from the bottom of my soul, damn you, state of Israel! And long live the Palestinian people!” he roared.
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This was illustrative of a broader trend across the region. In 2005, not a single South American nation recognized Palestine as an independent state. Today, all do. The U.S. empire struck back in the 2010s, organizing or supporting coups across the region and pioneering a new kind of lawfare – using legal means to bring down governments, as happened to Lula in Brazil. It appears, however, that a new hope could be dawning across Latin America. For both the United States government and its Israeli ally, this is not good news, as it threatens both their economic and geopolitical interests. No wonder Israeli media are so troubled by Boric’s victory.
Feature photo | Chile’s President elect Gabriel Boric, of the “I approve Dignity” coalition, celebrates his victory in the presidential run-off election, in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021. Luis Hidalgo | AP
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.