Colombia joins efforts to boycott Israel — but other countries in the region take a more cautious approach 

Countries across Latin America are increasing their support for Palestinians as the current war between Israel and Hamas continues. Some leaders in the region have described the conflict as an uneven fight between a powerful nation and a group of people that is struggling to obtain its independence.

The World

At a recent march in Bogota, Colombia, activists banged on drums while wearing kaffiyehs — the black and white scarves that have come to symbolize the Palestinian struggle.

The group marched towards the Israeli consulate, carrying signs that demanded an end to the bombings in Gaza.

Activists play their drums as they march towards Israel’s consulate in Bogota, Colombia on June 6. As thousands of civilians are killed in Gaza, many people in Latin America have begun to side with the Palestinians.Manuel Rueda/The World

“We want the genocide to stop,” said Rosa Piedrahita, a former Colombian rebel fighter who showed up at the march carrying a doll covered in red paint to resemble blood.

“We know what it’s like to be targeted.”

Rosa Piedrahita, former Colombian rebel fighter

“We know what it’s like to be targeted,” she said. “And we want the women and children in Palestine to survive.”

Rosa Piedrahita, a former member of a rebel group, showed up at a pro Palestine rally in Bogota, Colombia on June 6. She said she was tired of the killings of women and children in the Gaza strip.Manuel Rueda/The World

Latin American nations have traditionally sided with the Palestinian cause. But last year, many countries in the region condemned the Hamas attack on Israel that led to the current war in Gaza. Since then — as thousands of civilians perish in Israeli bombings and the carnage shows up on social media — many people are now actively siding with the Palestinians.

Pro-Palestinian activists in the region have also received the support of some Latin American governments, who have spoken out against Israel in international forums and even joined efforts to boycott the Middle Eastern nation.

“As people from the Global South, it is our duty to come here and show our solidarity with the victims of Israeli terrorism,” said Camilo Gonzales, a recent graduate of Bogota’s National University of Colombia. 

Students in Bogota’s National University have set up a small campsite to raise awareness about the war in Gaza. They want the university to stop exchange programs with Israeli universities.Manuel Rueda/The World

He’s staying at a campsite on the university campus, where about 50 activists organize lectures on the conflict and protests throughout the city.

“We were also a colony once,” Gonzalez said. “And sometimes, other countries still tell us what to do.”

Sending a message

This anti-colonial sentiment also seems to be shared by some Latin American leaders, who have described the conflict in the Middle East as an uneven fight between a powerful nation and a group of people that is struggling to obtain its independence. 

During an African Union conference earlier this year, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva described the situation in Gaza as “a war between a highly trained army” on one side and “women and children on the other”, adding that Brazil will defend Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Activists of all ages wave Palestinian flags as they march towards Israel’s consulate in Bogota, Colombia on June 6.Manuel Rueda/The World

Colombia has gone further, with President Gustavo Petro breaking off diplomatic ties with Israel last month. In a Labor Day speech, Petro told supporters that he couldn’t sustain relations with a “genocidal government,” adding that his country could not “turn a blind eye” to the “extermination” of the Palestinian people.

Colombia’s government also said last week that it will stop coal exports to power plants in Israel.

President Petro said that shipments of coal will only resume if Israel complies with a recent ruling from the International Court of Justice that ordered Israel to cease its offensive in Rafah.

An activist in Bogota holds a sign that says, “History will not forgive those who are indifferent and we are not among them,” during a pro-Palestinian rally at Bogota’s airport, May 12, 2024.Manuel Rueda/The World

Manuel Rayran, an international relations professor at Bogota’s Externado University, said that with these protests, countries like Colombia and Brazil are trying to send a message to world powers.

“These smaller countries are trying to remind the more powerful countries that international law should be respected,” Rayran said. “And that they should stop their allies from violating rules that everyone else has been asked to follow.”

Activists stage a pro-Palestinian rally in Bogota’s international airport on May 12. They were there to welcome Palestino, a soccer team from Chile that was founded by Palestinian immigrants.Manuel Rueda/The World

Reliance on Israeli weapons

But within Latin American countries, there are also many people who are unhappy with the latest moves against Israel.

Colombia has bought more than 20 fighter jets from Israel over the past three decades that depend on Israeli companies for maintenance. And its military also relies on the Middle Eastern nation for assault rifles and intelligence equipment.

By breaking relations with Israel, Colombia could be hurting its own defense capabilities, said Julio Londoño, a former Colombian foreign minister. 

“I think it was a mistake,” Londono said. “The president took the decision in one moment, without consulting members of the military or the ministry of foreign affairs.”

An activists at Bogota’s National University holds up a poster of Aaron Bushnell, the US serviceman who self-immolated himself to protest the war in Gaza.Manuel Rueda/The World

Marta Tawil Kuri researches the relations between Latin American countries and Middle Eastern states at the Colegio de Mexico University. 

She said that Colombia is not the only country in the region that relies on Israel for its security.

“Chile has bought Israeli drones to patrol its border with Bolivia and Peru in the fight against drug trafficking,“ she said, “while Mexico has developed an increasing dependence on Israeli espionage” software.

Tawil Kuri said that most countries in the region are not likely to break ties with Israel or join Colombia’s efforts to boycott it — because they benefit from their relationship with the country.

An activist chants pro-Palestine songs at a rally in Bogota’s airport, May 12, 2024. Many in Latin America see the war in Gaza as a conflict between a powerful nation and a group that has long struggled to gain its independence.Manuel Rueda/The World

“The worsening of insecurity in the public space in many of these countries has led several governments in the region to invest more in defense and intelligence diplomacy, something that has brought governments in the region from the right or left, closer to Israel,” Tawil Kuri explained.

Plus, many Latin American countries don’t want to jeopardize their relations with Israel’s main ally: the United States.

“If the United States changed its agenda, for instance, stopping all arms sales, all economic or military cooperation … I think the Latin American countries would start to be much more assertive,” she said.

High school students in Bogota carry a poster that says, “Our America joins the Palestinian resistance,” during a protests on June 6.Manuel Rueda/The World

Tawil Kuri added that Latin American governments are making both domestic and international calculations before  they weigh in on the conflict in the Middle East. 

And while Colombia is now participating in efforts to boycott Israel, others have preferred to take a more discrete approach.

Related: US army official resigns over ‘unqualified’ US support for Israel’s war in Gaza

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