Saturday, September 06, 2008

dangerous liasons (and anti-semitism) in latin america

The New York Times today has an op-ed highlighting some of the big stories that may have flown under the radar the past few weeks due to the conventions in the U.S. One of the stories he mentions is this:
A THREAT IN VENEZUELA Hezbollah, the radical Shiite militia sponsored by Iran, has a new base of operations in the Americas: Venezuela. Western intelligence officials told The Los Angeles Times that President Hugo Ch├ívez has formed “a strategic partnership” with Iran, and that Hezbollah is exploiting the new ties. The group intends to create a special terrorist cell to kidnap Jewish businessmen in Latin America and take them back to Lebanon, the intelligence officials said. Another danger, they say, is that Hezbollah could use Venezuela as a base from which to insert terrorists into the United States.
I don't claim a lot of studied understanding here - I don't know much about what's going on in Venezuela, and I find it very hard to know what to make of Hugo Chavez. I don't trust the guy a whole lot. People who've staged military coups make me nervous coming from the left or the right. And he is just such a classic example of the "caudillo," or Latin American "strongman" model of leadership. But I also know that Chavez and Venezuela are portrayed in an extremely distorted way in the U.S. And distortions about Bolivia are often due to it being analyzed exclusively through the lens of Chavez's friendship with Evo Morales. It is true, though, that both presidents have reached out to Iran.

Now, the U.S. has warned from the start that friendship with Iran equals a terrorist threat in South America. Whether or not this is true, it is received with a lot of skepticism down here. Latin Americans are very aware that "terrorism" has replaced "communism" as the bogey man used to justify all sorts of things on the U.S. agenda, from fast-track trade agreement authority for the president and pushing for broader international trade organizations, to pre-emptive war and torture. There is a tendency to take offense when the U.S. tells Latin Americans who they can and can't be friends with, and to read such a warning as a threat from the U.S., and assign imperialistic motives to that threat.

In the case of friendship with Iran and the possible side-effects thereof (Hezbollah activity in the region being a prime example - aiding and abetting the development of nuclear weapons being another), both sides - the U.S., and Latin leftists like Morales and Chavez and their supporters - may be partly right.

I think the intentions of Chavez and Morales are basically benign and self-interested -- it's about oil and gas alliances -- and that, while there is a thumbing-noses-at-the-U.S. element involved, this is definitely not about wanting to become terrorist states. Iran, too, is demonized in unhelpful ways in the U.S. press (I would argue this is nearly always true when we simply characterize people as hateful nutjobs and refuse to even attempt to understand them as rational actors, however problematic, with whom negotiating can actually work), but I do think there is real danger there. I don't trust Ahmadinejad or the Iranian revolutionary government. I think both the nuclear and terrorist concerns regarding Iran are serious.

I think there may actually be some serious naivete on the part of the Latin Americans here. And in a way, I think this is tied to the U.S. and may be an example of what is called "blowback." It's not as simple as "my enemy's enemy is my friend," although that's part of it. People like Chavez and Morales, I think, like governments like Iran's 1) because they see alliance with them as economically strategic, 2) because they like people who stand up to and are feared by the Yanquis, and 3) because the U.S. has done so much to establish itself as a bad guy and a distorter of truths both in the Middle East and in Latin America that it is now too easy for Latin American leaders to disregard anything the U.S. says about states like Iran, chalk it up to hawkish imperialism and blind support of Israel, and to turn a blind eye to any observations they might otherwise make themselves of disturbing behavior by those governments. In short, I fear leaders like Morales and Chavez may be in denial regarding the realities of terrorism, and I think the U.S. is largely to blame for that state of denial.

Of course, along with the U.S., the Israeli government has done a lot of shooting itself in the foot in similar ways. Here in Latin America, like in most of the "two-thirds" world, there is deep sympathy for Palestine, and a much greater awareness than in the U.S. of the abuses of Palestinians by Israeli settlers and the Israeli state. There is, then, also a fair amount of sympathy for Israel's Arab and Persian adversaries.

And, at the risk of overgeneralizing based on anecdotal experience, it is my impression that the heightened awareness here - accurate, I think - of the plight of the Palestinians, which I generally admire as good global awareness largely lacking in the U.S., is sadly coupled with a general ignorance regarding Israel's own plight and the plight of any Jews, both currently and historically. In fact, I think there is a lot of anti-semitism in the Latin American left. It is usually just stupid, ignorant anti-semitism born of an overly simplistic understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many people here who are otherwise anti-racist and well-informed, simply fail to distinguish between Jews and the Israeli state. I have personally heard several otherwise-generally-enlightened Bolivians say terrible, sweeping things that basically amount to, "I hate Jews. They control everything. They control the U.S., international finance, and they are killing all the Palestinians." To be even more sensationalistically anecdotal: I have actually even heard more than one human-rights-activist-type Bolivian say, maybe half-joking, that Hitler should have finished the job. Imagine that.

So, on the one hand, when I read a news piece like the one above about Venezuela and Hezbollah, I am skeptical. I want to know the source. I want to dig deeper. I fear the hand of U.S. anti-Chavez operatives. On the other hand, I must confess: one fear I do harbor about leaders here is that they will really - perhaps inadvertently - tread into deeper waters than they can handle, and end up feeding into the real dangers of anti-semitism and international "Islamist" terrorism. In such a case, everybody loses.

P.S. If you want to read a fantastic book about one instance of anti-semitism in South American politics, I highly recommend Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.

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