Israel’s Foreign Policy in Latin America — Another Reason to Take the Call to Boycott Seriously

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Les W. Field. Les is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at U New Mexico. He pursues collaborative research projects in South, Central, and North America, and in Palestine. Field has also co-organized two field schools for UNM undergraduates and graduate students in the occupied West Bank.]

Many Latin Americanist anthropologists and other scholars are unaware of the state of Israel’s substantial, long-term relationships with certain forces and governments in Latin American countries. Yet knowing of these relationships will aid scholars seeking more background information as they consider their position within the AAA debate over whether the Association should boycott Israeli academic institutions. Israel’s involvement in Latin America initiated quickly after its 1948 establishment, after which it built alliances with right-wing and military regimes that have consistently displayed anti-left, anti-indigenous and anti-democratic characteristics. The comparative thrust of the discipline of anthropology should lead Latin Americanist scholars to ask whether Israel’s record in Latin America is consistent with Israeli policies towards Palestinians inside Israel and the Occupied Territories. As an ethnographer of social change in Nicaragua during the 1980s, it was Israeli support for the Contra insurgency that first led me to read widely and critically about the question of Palestine. I came to see important resonances between Israeli foreign policy in Latin America, on the one hand, and the systematic dispossession of Palestinians from their lands and other resources, including the implementation of apartheid-like policies in the lands controlled by Israel, on the other.

In what follows I offer significant examples of Israel’s involvement in parts of Latin America where I and many other anthropologists have worked, often with indigenous peoples. In the conflicts of which this involvement is a part, the AAA took significant stands in defense of human rights.[i] I argue that if in Latin America, successive Israeli governments have supported brutally violent even genocidal campaigns against indigenous peoples (which the AAA has often opposed) and also supported the most right-wing even anti-Semitic regimes, pay attention to what Israel does in the Occupied Territories because foreign and domestic policies are, I would argue, part and parcel of the same nationalism.  Latin Americanist anthropologists, indeed all anthropologists, should learn about the effects of Israeli foreign policy upon the places where they work, then learn about the parallels with Israeli domestic policy. This knowledge is critical when making any decision to boycott or not, because as anthropologists, we know that states operate in complex international arenas but often reproduce their own exclusionary nationalisms in doing so. I decided to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions on the basis of what I have learned, and I submit the following aspects of Israeli foreign policy in Latin America since the 1980s, that may similarly educate other anthropologists.

The 1980s: Israel’s Involvement in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Argentina

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Israel’s policy of arming the Guatemalan military and providing sophisticated telecommunications and computer technologies was part of an overall strategy that targeted that country’s indigenous populations as inherently subversive. Israel’s military programs in Guatemala supported the uprooting of tens of thousands of indigenous individuals and their resettlement in garrison outposts where intensive daily surveillance constituted a central element of government policy, all under the rubric of counter-insurgency. Benjamin Beit-Hallami’s 1987 book, The Israeli Connection: Who Israel Arms and Why, is an informative source for the Israeli-Guatemala relationship.

The creation of barricaded intensively monitored indigenous enclaves in 1980s Guatemala where interrogation and disappearance were routine aspects of daily life seems in retrospect like the dress rehearsal for the fragmentation of the West Bank after the 1994 Oslo Peace Accords, after which Palestinian life has become tightly regulated in enclaves ringed by Israeli settlements, settlers’ roads, and military bases.

         In Nicaragua, Israel was the last country to provide weaponry for the dying Somoza dynasty prior to the Sandinista triumph in July 1979. After the Sandinista government began the revolutionary transformation of Nicaragua, Israel provided much of the hardware and logistical support that launched and sustained the Contra rebellion in southern Honduras/northern Nicaragua, which specifically targeted the achievements of the revolution in health, education and agricultural production. John Booth, Christine Wade and Thomas Walker , all authoritative Central Americanist scholars described this sequence of events in their volume Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change (reissued in 2014). That involvement was symbolized by Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon’s high profile visit to Honduras in 1982, and the promises he made while touring the Contra camps on the Honduran-Nicaraguan frontier. The Israelis later sent weaponry seized from the PLO during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon directly to the Contra camps, as Jack Colhoun’s 1987 article “Israel and the Contras,” (Race and Class: Class 28(3): 61-66) reported.

Israel’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras was mirrored in the Israeli support for right-wing Phalangist militias in Lebanon in the 1980s and ‘90s; by the same token, the Contras attacks on the institutions of Nicaraguan civil society prefigure the manner in which Israeli settler para-militaries “price tag” attacks seek to undermine the agricultural and social foundations of Palestinian life.

Israel sustained an intimate relationship with the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976–1983, and provided logistical and hardware support for Argentina during the Falklands War of 1982. The Argentine junta was ideologically anti-Semitic, and routinely brandished Nazi and other fascist symbols . During la Guerra Sucia (the Dirty War), the military imprisoned, tortured and persecuted a higher percentage of leftist, progressive or non-political Jewish Argentine citizens han they did non-Jewish Argentines. In their dealings with the Argentine military, Israel’s leaders showed very clearly that they distinguished between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and were fully capable of supporting a government that was radically anti-Semitic within its own borders and pro-Israel in its foreign policy. The most poignant descriptions of torture were published by Jewish Argentine journalist Jacobo Timmerman in his volume, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number; recently Hernan Dobry’s 2011 book Operación Israel: El Rearme Argentino Durante la Dictadura 1976-1983, has more fully elaborated the Israel-Argentine military relationship.

Three decades later, the underlying motivations for Israeli support of the Argentine military regime during the 1980s are underscored by Netanyahu’s recent behavior in France following the Charlie Hebdo and other terrorist attacks: Israeli foreign policy appears to consider anti-Semitism as an opportunity for recruitment of global Jewish populations to the Israeli national project.


Israel and Colombia in the 21st Century

In Colombia, where I have conducted research worked since 1989, Israel has been intricately involved in the development of the ideology of security and its institutionalization in states, as well as the expanding interventions of ultra-right paramilitaries, the latter pioneered by the Israeli-armed Nicaraguan contras of the 1980s. The post-Cold War ideological formulation of “national security,” paradoxically called forth the creation of privatized militaries in the US, Colombia, Israel, Iraq, and elsewhere. The alliance between Colombia and Israel was thus established via national security states that relied as much upon the relationships forged between paramilitaries and private military contractors in the two countries as upon formal state-to-state relationships.

The US has been main supplier of weaponry to the Colombian government, the national army and the police during the decades of violent conflict with left-wing guerrilla groups. Israel has been the Colombian government’s second most important source of weaponry and logistical technology, providing approximately 38 percent of all weapons purchases made by the Colombian state. Wikileaks reveals that since the turn of the century, the Colombian government has also intensified its relationships with private Israeli military contractors owned and managed by retired Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officers.

In Colombia armed right paramilitaries have also been important players on their own, in collusion with the army’s battle with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC and other groups, and as shock troops for corporate interests. In the late 1970s the paramilitares organized into an umbrella organization, Auto-Defensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), co-founded by Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, among others. In his 2001 biography, Mi confesión, Castaño describes his year of training in Israel in 1983–84, both in military schools and at the Hebrew University, and details Israel’s influence on his own ideological formation and that of his movement. The Israeli security firm Spearhead, led by retired IDF colonel Yair Klein, started training paramilitaries from the AUC in the mid–1980s, the same era in which Castaño received his education.

By the early 2000s, under the administration of two-term strongman President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian government was dealing directly with the privatized arm of the Israeli security state, epitomized by retired General and former Director of Operations for the IDF Yisrael Ziv, whose firm Global Comprehensive Security Transformation, was co-owned with Brigadier Yossi Kuperwasser. Ziv also was part of a think tank called Counter-Terrorism International, and a member of the Task Force on Future Terrorism created by the US Office of Homeland Security in 2005. During this same period, an Israeli private firm in Guatemala, GIRSA, formally associated with IDF, arranged for mass arms shipment to AUC. Since 2010, official government to government relations between the two countries seem to have become ever more intimate. Via personal contact between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzon, the Colombian government arranged to buy Israeli made drones —comprehensively and strategically tested in the Gaza War also known as Operation Cast Lead—for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions against the FARC. Additional high-level contacts between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Shimon Peres, guaranteed that Colombia refused to join the rest of Latin America in recognizing the State of Palestine in the UN General Assembly in 2010-11. These relationships have been reported in the pages of Israeli newspapers Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post, as well as in the pages of NACLA reports.

In the 21st century, Colombia under Uribe profoundly militarized the countryside. The operations of the national army and police were accompanied by the activities of privatized para-military forces operating in much of the country as a para-state, with Uribe’s tacit approval.. Uribe’s politics connected with Israel’s own security ideology, its own mix of state and privatized military and state functions in the Occupied Territories. Colombia’s refusal to recognize the State of Palestine took place as the ongoing dispossession of Palestinian land and disenfranchisement of Palestinian populations accelerated.


Consider Boycott

Common apologetics for Israeli foreign policy in Latin America include an economic rationalization that claims Israel must sell weapons to whomever has the money to pay for them in order to survive economically, and a geopolitical rationalization that proposes that because Israel’s enemies have so successfully isolated the Jewish state, Israel does not have the luxury of choosing its friends. On the contrary, this discussion suggests that Israel’s list of friends and partners in Latin America reflect deliberate and systemic political, economic and ideological commitments to military and right-wing regimes that have violently defended social systems based upon profound racial, economic and political inequalities. Together these comprise a coherent and proactive policy, rather than a series of provisional or extemporaneous compromises with harsh realities.

Such an analysis should lead scholars back to questions about Israel and Palestine and the resonances between Israeli foreign and domestic policies historically and at the current time. Both the national army and the paramilitaries in Colombia, trained and armed by Israeli contractors under the rubric of the state-to-state partnership between Colombia and Israel, have been conducting shockingly violent campaigns against indigenous and Afro communities for almost three decades Latin Americanist scholars, as well as other anthropologists, can fruitfully understand the violence against Palestinian communities conducted by both the IDF and the settler para-militaries through the prism of Israel’s historic alliances in Latin America, and the current relationship between Israel and Colombia. Because of the profound effect of these historical and current relationships, I would also argue that it is incumbent upon Latin Americanist scholars to consider supporting the call from Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions, where the military resources for all of these actions – in Palestine and in Latin America – are developed and nurtured.

[i] This is a very partial list of AAA Resolutions and Motions regarding Latin American and Middle Eastern crises in which Israel, as described in this article, has played an important role in support of military and right-wing regimes:


  • Resolution on Argentina (1990, passed)
  • Motion to Create a Task Force on Guatemala (1982 AAA Annual Meetings, passed)
  • Motion on Lebanon (1982 AAA Annual Meetings, passed)
  • Motion on Academic Freedom in Israeli-Occupied West Bank 1982 (AAA Annual Meetings, passed)
  • Resolution: Latin American Governments Supplied with US Arms and Military Equipment (1969 AAA Annual Meetings, passed)
Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

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