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From the Editors
This double issue of Middle East Report, “The Latin East,” is a collaboration with the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). We publish it in tandem with the current issue of NACLA Report on the Americas, which is available for free online at www.tandfonline.com/toc/rnac20/50/1. With the kind permission of Routledge, we reprint in this magazine two essays originally appearing in NACLA’s issue of “The Latin East.”
In January 2009, thousands of protestors packed into crowded streets holding signs in support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Since first taking office in 1999, Venezuela’s firebrand president had led an unprecedented political transformation, what has been called the Pink Tide. Following decades of neoliberal rule, one country after another in Latin America elected left-wing governments of various stripes, all linked by a new focus on social spending, wealth redistribution and state power. In the process, Chávez earned the ire of venerable political and economic elites, who derided him as a populist, and the admiration of the popular sectors who came to see in Chávez a champion for the poor and the disenfranchised. On its own, that scene was unsurprising. What makes it noteworthy is that it took place not in Caracas or even elsewhere in the Americas, but half a world away in Ramallah, in the heart of the West Bank.
Approval for Chávez in Ramallah in part reflected the late president’s full throated endorsement of Palestinian statehood. As early as 2006, he expressed his support in fiery speeches denouncing occupation, by hosting delegations of Palestinian activists, students and politicians in Venezuela and through the provision of economic aid to Gaza and the West Bank. He severed diplomatic ties with Israel over what he called its “cruel persecution of the Palestinian people” following a three-week military offensive in Gaza in 2009. By 2012, Venezuela had opened a diplomatic mission in Ramallah.
Chávez’s rhetorical and material solidarity with Palestinians formed part of a much broader, and often fraught, relationship forged between Latin America and the Middle East at a time of deep flux in both regions. As the Pink Tide reached its crest in the mid-2000s, left-wing governments throughout Latin America increasingly made generating a multipolar world to disrupt US hegemony a central part of their agenda. Outreach to the Arab world in particular figured prominently in those efforts. Chávez led the way by hosting the Organization of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) heads of state in Caracas in 2000 in a bid to file the long-dormant organization’s teeth. He also met with longtime US nemesis Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and later staged massive rallies in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iran and elsewhere in the region where crowds, showcasing rifts and dissatisfaction with local leaders, proclaimed him “Chávez of Arabia.”
But Chávez was far from alone. Over the years, other Pink Tide countries and leaders in Latin America followed suit, developing economic, political and cultural ties with Arab countries more broadly in a clear bid to flex newfound geopolitical muscle vis-à-vis the United States. In 2005, leaders of Arab and Latin American nations met in Brasilia for a first-of-its-kind gathering, the Summit of South American-Arab Countries (ASPA), which was repeated in 2009 in Doha and in 2012 in Lima. In response to Israeli military operations in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, several Latin American countries besides Venezuela broke diplomatic ties with Israel. Iranian presidents, first Mohammad Khatami and later US antagonist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, traveled throughout Latin America in unprecedented official state visits. In 2010, Brazil, Turkey and Iran brokered a deal to curb nuclear weapons acquisition. Though US pressure ultimately scuttled that agreement as well as other multilateral initiatives by the two regions, the efforts powerfully showcased a new era of autonomous cooperation between Latin America and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East entrenched power regimes teetered against a wave of social and political movements that began at the end of 2010 and were broadly identified as the Arab spring or Arab uprisings. The uprisings had precursors to be sure—the post-war twentieth century Middle East was far from the docile region that is often portrayed in popular discussions or academic analyses. Nevertheless, the uprisings upended a regional equilibrium and revived the role of mass movements. Authoritarian regimes, regional powers and international intervention have managed to shatter the early promise of the uprisings, bringing back a suffocating political climate in places like Egypt and engineering social and humanitarian catastrophes in Yemen, Syria and Libya.
Of course, the fact that many of these teetering regimes were the primary partners in Latin America’s outreach efforts exposed uncomfortable realities about the mostly state-to-state rather than people-to-people nature of that relationship. As the Arab uprisings deepened, widened and turned ever more deadly, it increasingly appeared that dissatisfaction with the status quo in the Arab world had been obscured by solidarity that was limited mainly, it now seemed, to shared antagonism against US foreign policy in both regions. The perspectives included in this issue of Middle East Report and the companion issue of NACLA Report on the Americas allow us to dive deeper into the origins and development of various relationships between the regions and allow for a rethinking of assumptions about what was possible in the past, what is possible now, and what may be possible in the future between Latin America and the Middle East.
Above all, Latin America’s striking and strategic outreach to the Middle East during the Pink Tide invites questions—as yet largely unasked, much less answered—about how the role and image of Latin America in the Middle East changed in the process. Moreover, as the Pink Tide recedes, and in the case of Venezuela and Brazil—two major drivers of Latin American outreach to the Middle East—enters deep crisis, and as renewed conflict and authoritarianism grips the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings, the time is ripe to consider the origins, contours and legacies of their relationship.
This special double issue is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between MERIP and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) that seeks to explore the roots of Latin American outreach to the Middle East and the larger processes, problems and possibilities inherent in ties between the two regions. NACLA and MERIP have much in common. Through our print magazines, we have offered independent reporting and analysis of Latin America and the Middle East over almost half a century. We have brought together prominent and up-and-coming scholars, journalists, artists and activists to cut through the imperial gaze to which both regions have long been subjected by both mainstream media and policy circles in the United States.
Our reporting has consistently interrogated the underlying assumptions and consequences of US actions in both regions and presented deeply informed alternative viewpoints. Our coverage extends far beyond a focus on US endeavors, however. Both NACLA and MERIP provide informed and critical perspectives that crucially emphasize the view from the region. We seek to shed light on underreported crises, long-term challenges and struggles for social change ranging from the politics of garbage collection in Lebanon and Sahrawi activism for self-determination in Algeria and Morocco to contestations over welfare state politics in Kuwait. In NACLA, recent coverage has included the influence of #BlackLivesMatter in Brazil, the deep history of border wall politics between the United States and Mexico and old and new machinations of resurgent right-wing movements across Latin America.
In this collaborative publication of Middle East Report and NACLA Report on the Americas we have pooled our resources, expertise and experience to explore links both new and longstanding between parts of the world infrequently considered side by side. Our collaboration is organized around three themes: Latin America in the Middle East, comparative regionalism and recent history.
Due to the legacy of successive waves of migration from the Middle East to Latin America in the twentieth century, most accounts of the relationship between the regions have focused on the influence of the Middle East in Latin America. As contributors to the first theme reveal, however, Latin America’s influence in the Middle East, direct and indirect, is deep, longstanding and wide ranging, appearing in politics, economics, culture and ideology. Writing in NACLA, Fernando Camacho-Padilla draws on his long experience teaching courses on Latin America at Iranian universities to offer a rich account of how elite and popular perceptions of Latin America, going back decades, inform present day views about the region. Houzan Mahmoud and Ismail Hamalaw, Kurdish writers and activists, reveal longstanding fascination with Latin American revolutionary leaders, and especially literature, among Iraqi Kurds in their quest for autonomy and independence from Baghdad. Lena Meari, too, traces widespread and serious study of Latin American revolutionary tracts and testimonio literature among Palestinian prisoners during the first intifada against Israel in the 1980s, an influence and readership that continues today among new generations of Palestinian youth. Meanwhile in Middle East Report, Iraqi novelist and poet Sinan Antoon explores the haunted memories of Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus and his poetic tributes to the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.
Comparative regionalism is our second organizing theme. It features contributions that focus on how democracy, neoliberalism, post-neoliberal development, political parties and social movements manifest themselves similarly or differently in both regions. In Middle East Report, Hiba Bou Akar and Roosbelinda Cardenas describe their experience co-teaching courses that compare ethnographic texts on Latin America and the Middle East and how the specter of violence appears again and again as an analytic yoke tying both regions together, in ways largely detrimental for comparative reflection. Kevan Harris uses the lens of inequality to examine different contours of democratization and forms of integration into the global economy, yet also finds similarities between the regions in the challenges presented by violence, unequal relations with the global North and conglomerate forms of capitalism. While Latin American texts made their way to Israeli prisons during the intifada and after, Sara Awartani traces how Palestinian struggles for national liberation influenced Puerto Rican activists seeking independence from the United States.
Nadim Bawalsa, writing in NACLA, digs even further—spatially and historically. Drawing on newspapers published by Palestinian migrants in early twentieth century Chile, he uncovers a fascinating story of how a community that self-identified in pan-Arab terms came to see itself as explicitly Palestinian, powerfully shaping what is by far the largest and most tightly organized community of Palestinian descendants in the Americas. Omar Tesdell, too, reads deep into the twentieth century to uncover how Mexican and Palestinian agronomists sought to turn dry-farming techniques into a political tool for land tenancy, development and eventually national identity formation, as the Mexican revolution raged and the Ottoman empire collapsed. Mexico also features in Marwan Kraidy’s essay, which examines the meanings of modernity in both regions through the lens of two prominent intellectuals who have shaped discourse and policy in the Americas and in Egypt, in particular, with wider impact across the Middle East. Egypt is also a key site of comparison for Paul Amar, whose explosive piece considers how the return of military dictatorship in Egypt in 2014 and the resurgence of right-wing rule via parliamentary coup in Brazil in 2016 are two sides of the same coin of military capitalism with striking, and troubling, parallel trajectories in each region. Finally, Omar Dahi and Alejandro Velasco demonstrate how both regions confront not just a changed global economy, but a global South landscape greatly altered from that of the Third World era, and the possibilities and challenges that have come with the dramatic rise of China as a global industrial power.
Our third thematic area examines recent history. Here, contributors consider social movements, political, economic and cultural exchanges, and transnational solidarity and diaspora politics in light of the Arab spring and winter and against the backdrop of nearly two decades of left-wing governance in Latin America. Writing in NACLA, Tariq Dana offers a sweeping appraisal of factionalism in the Palestinian liberation movement. His essay provides a crucial corrective to the kind of surface-level solidarity that has long informed Latin American views not only of Palestine but of political movements in the Middle East more broadly. This kind of solidarity has obscured fraught internal dynamics and their harmful effects in the region. In Middle East Report, Cecilia Baeza and Paulo Pinto shed light on the practices, repertoires and forms of mobilization of diaspora populations through an examination of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s regime within the Syrian-Lebanese community in Argentina and Brazil. Paulo Farah examines the potential and challenges of the Summit of South American-Arab Countries (ASPA) and sheds light on the possibilities of state-led South-South solidarity.
Finally, our jointly published issues of NACLA and Middle East Report are only the first of a two-part collaboration. On April 27 and 28, 2018, contributors to both magazines will assemble in New York City for a major conference, jointly sponsored with Jadaliyya, to present their work and to launch a platform for future projects. Thus we begin a game-changing initiative to kick off both publications’ next 50 years of publishing in the same way as we have our first half century: by bringing you cutting edge coverage and analysis of the Middle East, Latin America and the wider world that you will not find anywhere else.