The Politics of the Refugee Crisis in Latin America

By Luciano Melo*

Syrian refugees Uruguay

Syrian refugees arriving in Uruguay. Photo Credit: International Organization for Migration / Flickr / Creative Commons

Several Latin American governments have pledged to accept Syrian refugees – part of one of the largest refugee movements in history – but support for robust resettlement programs appears likely to fall short.  According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 6 million Syrians have been displaced within their country and 4 million more have fled abroad, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.  One million have entered Europe, putting a heavy burden on the EU, and the United States has agreed to settle 10 thousand (although the refusal by 31 U.S. governors to accept them raises questions about follow-up).  Public support for receiving migrants dropped in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November, but France has announced that it will admit 30,000 new refugees in the next two years, a measure that President Hollande characterized as the country’s “humanitarian duty.”

Several Latin American governments also have agreed to absorb refugees.

  • Brazil, with ties to Syrian immigrants since the 19th century and one of the largest communities outside Syria, has promised to accept 20,000 refugees from the current conflict. More than 8,000 have already settled in Brazil.
  • Venezuela also set a goal with the UNHCR of receiving 20,000 Syrians, but President Nicolás Maduro’s defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “the only leader with authority in Syria” suggests low enthusiasm for implementation.
  • Chile and Argentina have had modest programs to settle Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war. Chilean President Bachelet has agreed to settle 100 Syrian families, whereas Argentina’s “Syria Program” agreed to offer permanent residence to 300 Syrians after three years.
  • Uruguay, which resettled Syrian families from Jordanian camps in 2004, recently suffered a setback when refugees in September protested in front of a government building complaining about the cost of living and lack of jobs. Observers estimate that almost 100 Syrians will actually leave the country.

The cost of settling families and individual refugees can be high, and each country will face challenges in meeting their commitments.  Brazil is in a deep crisis – with negative GDP growth expected next year, impeachment processes initiating against President Dilma, and gigantic corruption scandals rocking the political system.  The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, with skyrocketing inflation, and the country appears to be in permanent political crisis.  Chile has experienced an economic slowdown since the price of copper fell, and Argentina has been trying to recover from recession and double-digit inflation rates in the first months of the newly elected President Macri.  Even Uruguay expects lower growth – down to 2 percent from the previously estimated 2.5 percent – and a fiscal deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP.  The good news is that accepting refugees does not necessarily affect the economy negatively.  Turkey and Lebanon, which have resettled 2.2 million and 1.8 million since the war started, are expected to have 4 percent and 3 percent growth in the coming year, confirming that the issue is mostly political rather than economic.  In Latin America, in contrast with the U.S., the crisis has not been used by leaders to polarize public opinion.  In fact, the topic is barely on the radar of common citizens, and the media rarely cover it.  The Syrian war and ISIS terrorism are remote concerns, and more pressing local matters – recessions, corruption scandals, and impeachments – take precedence.

January 4, 2016

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

Latin America United Against Violence in Gaza

By Aaron T. Bell

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer provoked sharp criticism from Latin American governments.  Condemnation came not only from Cuba, a long-time critic of Israel, and from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which have been without diplomatic ties to Israel since cutting them after previous conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2010.  This summer’s UN-estimated 1,500 civilian deaths also provoked outrage from center-left governments, as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru all withdrew their ambassadors.  At the Mercosur summit at the end of July, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina issued a joint statement in which they criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force…which has almost exclusively affected civilians.”  And one of the largest popular demonstrations worldwide against the Israeli action took place in Chile, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian descendants.

Latin American interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is deeply rooted in the past.  Waves of immigration beginning a century ago have made the region home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.  Latin American governments provided crucial support for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, but they roundly condemned the occupation of the Gaza Strip 20 years later.  In the Cold War era, Israel provided military hardware to rightwing military regimes in the region while the Palestine Liberation Organization, more leftist than Islamic in its revolutionary views, lent political and economic support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.  Contemporary Latin American governments have taken a balanced approach in their relations with Israel and the Palestinians.  All but Colombia, Mexico, and Panama have recognized a Palestinian state based on national borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and trade with Israel has flourished.  Brazil is the top destination for Israeli exports, totaling over $1 billion per year.  In addition, Israel signed free trade agreements with Mercosur in 2007 and 2010; became an official observer to the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) in 2013; and in May 2014 approved a four-year, $14 million plan to boost trade with the PA nations and Costa Rica.  Israel’s recent efforts to further trade in Latin America ironically developed out of a desire to shrug off some of its dependency on Europe, where criticism of Israeli policy has become widespread and boycotts of Israeli goods are being organized by advocates of the Palestinian cause.

This summer’s fighting in Gaza chilled diplomatic relations between Latin American governments and Israel.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry described the withdrawal of Latin America ambassadors as a “hasty” decision that would only encourage Hamas radicalism, and it struck a nerve in Brazil when dismissing its “moral relativism” as an example of “why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”  But both Israel and Latin America stand to gain from stronger economic ties, and with the exception of Chile’s suspension of trade talks, there are no pending signs that economic relations will suffer further now that this round of fighting in Gaza has come to an end.  The significance of this summer’s events lies instead in the autonomous decision by Latin American governments of all political stripes to act in favor of peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of civilians enveloped by the violence of war.  The Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens in Syria in recent years provoked a more reticent condemnation from Latin America’s center-left governments and regional blocs, which backed a negotiated solution to the conflict while strongly opposing the possibility of foreign military intervention.  Without the specter of a wider conflict looming over this summer’s Gaza crisis, Latin American governments seized the opportunity to stake out a firmer position.  The region’s reaction to future atrocities – which may come sooner rather than later as the US prepares to battle the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq – will show how durable this new approach will be.

Brazil: A permanent seat litmus test?

Minister Patriota and Secretary Clinton Photo by: Ministério das Relações Exteriores via http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrebrasil/6162800484/

The U.S. State Department is expressing increasing frustration with Brazil for staying on the sidelines of debate on Syria.  Mike Hammer, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, said recently that “a country of Brazil’s stature can have influence, and we want them to be part of this effort – pressing Assad and his military to put an end to this horrible campaign.”  Other critics have linked Brazil’s reluctance to press other countries in South America to condemn the al-Assad government – notably Venezuela, which supports it – with its quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council.  (Brazil kept Syria off at least the public agenda during a recent meeting with Venezuela.)  Jorge Castañeda, former foreign minister of regional rival Mexico, said Brazil is “not ready for prime time.”

Brazil supports the peace plan laid out by Kofi Annan, and has said it would back sanctions or an arms embargo if it were part of that plan.  Brazil also proposed further international delegations to investigate Syrian atrocities, though previous visits have failed.  Itamaraty stresses the risks of confronting the massive Syrian army, and it continues to demand that the Security Council be the sole forum for international action.  Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota announced opposition to sanctions imposed without U.N. authorization.

Brasilia’s position is in keeping with its traditional skepticism about international intervention and the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.”  The notion of using Syria as a litmus test for Brazilian readiness to join the Security Council seems premature as no serious initiatives are before the UNSC and the Annan plan, which Brazil supports, is in play.  If anything, Brazil has demonstrated a commitment to keeping the UNSC at the center of the international diplomacy.  State Department pressure on Brazil to expend political capital to rein in the ALBA countries on a distant issue like Syria is unlikely to bear fruit until clearer international diplomatic strategies emerge.