Israel’s deadly storming of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters has unleashed a wave of criticism of the Netanyahu government’s actions from nearly every country in the world. Turkey deplored the killing of several of its citizens on board the Mavi Marmara and referred to the incursion as “inhumane state terror.” A number of Israel’s closest friends joined the chorus of protests with, for instance, UK’s conservative prime minister calling the raid “completely unacceptable” and France’s foreign minister saying that he was “profoundly shocked.” In contrast, the US reaction to the incident has been remarkably subdued. The White House issued a release expressing President Obama’s “deep regret about the loss of life” but was careful to avoid any direct criticism of Israel’s actions. A statement read by a U.S. representative to the United Nations even appeared to shift the blame for the incident to the flotilla organizers.
It is interesting to compare the US administration’s position on this tragic event with the positions expressed by its Latin American neighbors. In the past, Latin America has been generally friendlier to Israel than most developing regions of the world, and countries of the hemisphere considered to be solidly within the orbit of U.S. influence – for instance most of Central America – have been more reluctant to criticize Israel’s policies in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. In this case, though, the vast majority of Latin American reactions to the Israeli raid are fundamentally at odds with the U.S. position.
The first surprise, as we look south of the border, is Mexico’s response to the incident. Mexico and Israel have traditionally been close friends and signed a bilateral free trade agreement in 2000. But on May 31st Mexico’s foreign ministry condemned the Israeli “attack” “in the most energetic terms” and called on Israel to lift its embargo on Gaza. Mexico’s reaction is undoubtedly of particular concern to both Israel and the U.S. as it is a temporary member of the UN Security Council and is in charge of the presidency of that body until the end of June. According to CNN, Mexico has spoken of possibly seeking UN sanctions against Israel.
Less surprising are a number of the statements made by Central American governments. Two of the U.S.’s staunchest regional allies – Costa Rica and Guatemala – issued very cautious statements of “concern” while Honduras, whose post-coup government is only recognized by the US and a handful of other countries in the hemisphere, has made no statement at all. However, Panama, a normally unwavering ally to both the US and Israel, chose to take a harsher stance “deeply lamenting the loss of lives (…) resulting from the Israeli military operation” and calling on the UN – not Israel – to carry out a full investigation. The center-left wing government of El Salvador has issued a statement that “condemns the use of violence”, but pales in contrast with the position taken by Nicaragua, which has followed in the footsteps of Venezuela and announced its decision to suspend all diplomatic ties with Israel.
Few surprises either in the Caribbean, where the pro-US government of Leonel Fernandez in the Dominican Republic has chosen to remain silent about the incident, while the left-wing government of Raul Castro in Cuba issued a statement echoing that of Mexico’s.
South America’s governments are almost universally critical of Israel’s actions against the Freedom Flotilla as reflected in a communiqué issued by the South American regional organization UNASUR which “energetically rejects the intervention of Israeli forces.” The US’ no.1 South American ally Colombia, was the only government on the southern continent that remained silent despite the fact that a Colombian citizen was among the hundreds of activists detained by the Israeli military. Other strong US allies, like Peru and Chile, both issued harsh words of protest, with the former “condemning” the “violent intervention” and the latter “deploring” the “violent reaction of the Israeli forces.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – never one to mince his words – “energetically” condemned the “brutal massacre committed by the State of Israel”. And, in addendum, Chavez tweeted: “Wow, what a terrible massacre that Israel has again committed! Where is the UN? Where is the International Criminal Court?”
Other left-of-center governments, like Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay also issued strong “condemnations” though in a somewhat softer tone than their Venezuelan neighbor. On June 3rd, Ecuador announced that it would withdraw its ambassador in Jersualem for “consultations”.
Finally, we come to Brazil, Latin America’s most populous and economically powerful nation and a long-time close friend and collaborator to the US. However, the relationship has recently soured. Just ten days ago, Brazil irritated the US administration when it succeeded in persuading Iran to agree to a nuclear deal that President Obama had previously backed in a letter to Brazil’s President Lula da Silva.
Although in the past the Brazilian government has rarely engaged in strong criticism of Israel, in this case, it has issued a scathing statement that “vehemently condemns the Israeli action, since there is no justification for a military intervention against a peaceful convoy of a strictly humanitarian nature.” The foreign ministry release goes on to state that Israel’s action “is further aggravated by having taken place, according to available information, in international waters” and calls for an “independent investigation” and the immediate lifting of the Gaza embargo.
All in all, these statements from across the hemisphere – only a small minority of which mirror Washington’s position – appear to further confirm the growing hemispheric isolation of the US on critical foreign policy issues, whether they be regional in scope (e.g., Honduras) or focused on distant but strategic regions like the Middle East.