Arab–Latin American Relations

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Arab–Latin American Relations

The first links between Latin America and the Middle East were made through immigration. Arab immigration began in the mid-nineteenth century and intensified after World War I. According to Omar el Hamedi, president of the Congress of Arab Peoples, some 15 million Latin Americans are of Arab descent. Former president Carlos Saúl Menem of Argentina, the Mexican actress Salma Hayek, and the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim are prominent examples of Arab assimilation into Latin American society. Arab immigrants called for the extension of diplomatic recognition to the newly independent Syrian and Lebanese states after 1945. However, there was little diplomatic interaction between Latin America and the Middle East until the 1960s, when, after helping to found the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Venezuela worked closely with Arab oil exporters, and Cuba's new revolutionary government attempted to solidify contacts with the more radical Arab governments and groups. In the 1970s some Arab countries launched a diplomatic offensive in Latin America as elsewhere in an effort to line up support against Israel in the United Nations (UN), and many Latin American nations began to identify with the third world movement. Economic relations increased after the rise in oil prices in 1973–1974 as nations such as Brazil and Argentina realized they could offset trade deficits with Arab oil producers by increasing their exports to them and sought to attract investment. The Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979 brought increased relations with Arab nations and Iran, and the breaking of relations with Israel.


Since 1974 annual Arab-Pan-American congresses have been attended by officials from Arab countries as well as by Latin Americans of Arab descent. The first congress established an Arab-Pan-American Federation of Arab Communities in Latin America. Committees of friendship with Arab countries, such as the Arab-Uruguayan Friendship Association, exist in a number of Latin American countries as do joint cultural institutions. Arab countries have encouraged the furthering of Arab studies at universities, and cultural exchange programs have been developed in cooperation with the Arab League and the Organization of American States (OAS). The Arab League publishes Spanish- and Portuguese-language journals and has financed the publication of translated Arab books. Saudi King Faisal donated $100,000 for the construction of the first mosque in Buenos Aires.


Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, Syria, and Libya are, in decreasing order of importance, the Arab countries most heavily represented in Latin America. The Palestine Liberation Organization is represented in seven countries and the Western Saharan Polisario in three. The Arab League has four missions—in Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Mexico City. Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia have observer status in the OAS. Since the Iranian revolution, Iran has sought to expand its relations in Latin America. Brazil and Venezuela have had the longest diplomatic representation in the largest number of countries of the Middle East, with Argentina, Mexico, and Cuba also having extensive diplomatic representation in the region.

Membership in the Group of Seventy-Seven and the Nonaligned Movement and in the UN provides opportunities for gaining mutual support on issues of importance. Representatives of the 115 developing nations that are members of the Group of Seventy-Seven assemble to coordinate policies prior to major UN meetings. Latin American nations with membership in the Nonaligned Movement have taken the most consistently pro-Arab stance. In 1975 Arab nations succeeded in obtaining the support of Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Grenada, and Guyana for a UN resolution condemning Zionism. This was repealed in 1991, with Cuba the only Latin American nation voting in opposition. During the 1970s, Augusto Pinochet's Chile and the military regime in Argentina sought to prevent the Arab world from supporting international condemnation of their human rights record. Argentina succeeded in obtaining support against Britain for its stance on the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) from all the Arab nations with the exception of Oman. During its conflict with the United States, Nicaragua was able to obtain Arab support for resolutions in the UN and for winning a seat on the Security Council in 1982.

The United States has expressed concern about Islamic radicalism in Latin America. In 1992, in what was the largest attack ever on an Israeli diplomatic post, Islamic Jihad bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. The United States suspects that Islamic radicals have established an enclave in the border region between Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. Many proponents of tighter security along the U.S.-Mexico border have expressed concern over the possibility that Islamic radicals and terrorists could sneak into the United States.


Cubans have been involved in training Palestinian guerrillas and in combat operations in the Middle East. Cuban military personnel were sent to Syria and the Republic of Southern Yemen and assisted pro-Marxist guerrillas in Oman as well as Eritrean separatists until Cuba transferred its support to the Marxist government in Ethiopia. Some Sandinistas trained in Palestinian camps and participated in operations in both the Middle East and Europe. Later, Palestinians as well as Libyans worked with the Nicaraguan armed forces in training in the use of Soviet-bloc weapons. Libya and Algeria supplied tanks and other arms. Saudi Arabia in turn funded the purchase of light arms and planes for use against the Sandinista government.

Chile sold both Iran and Iraq cluster bombs during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq provided missiles to Argentina in the Malvinas war and helped to fund development of a medium-range guided missile. However, during the Gulf War, Argentina sent two warships, the only Latin American nation to participate in the coalition against Saddam Hussein. Brazil, the world's sixth largest arms exporter, sells one-third of its weapons to the Middle East. Although Brazil's largest customer, in 1989 Iraq defaulted on weapons bills and after the invasion of Kuwait, Brazil agreed to honor the UN embargo.


Until the Iran-Iraq war disrupted supplies, Brazil imported half of its oil from Iraq, financed largely through arms sales. Braspreto, the overseas subsidiary of the state oil company, has drilling concessions in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Algeria. After the UN embargo on Iraq, Iran replaced that country as Brazil's leading foreign supplier of crude oil and became an important market for Brazilian manufactures and technology. Argentina has not depended as much as Brazil on oil imports from the Arab world, but has succeeded in selling agricultural as well as industrial products there, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran being the largest customers. Argentine scientists have assisted Iranian nuclear research since 1976. The Libyan Arab Foreign Bank joined with Argentine capitalists to form a Libyan Argentine Investment Bank and with a variety of other sources to form the Arab Latin American Bank with headquarters in Lima. Iran helped Peru finance the Trans-Andean pipeline and with Venezuela established a jointly owned maritime oil transportation company.

There have been frequent diplomatic exchanges to promote trade between the two regions. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, this has been especially important for Cuba because of the long-standing U.S. embargo. In the 1990s and early twenty-first century Venezuela pushed OPEC to lower oil production to help bolster oil prices. In 2005 the Brazilian government hosted a summit to promote greater economic relations between the Middle East and Latin America.

See alsoNicaragua, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) .


Roger W. Fontaine and James D. Theberge, eds., Latin America's New Internationalism: The End of Hemispheric Isolation (1976), esp. pp. 172-196.

Edward S. Milenky, "Latin America: New World or Third World in International Affairs?" in Europa-Archiv (1977).

Edy Kaufman, Yoram Shapira, and Joel Barromi, Israel-Latin American Relations (1979).

Fehmy Saddy, ed., Arab-Latin American Relations: Energy, Trade, and Investment (1983); "Arab League takes closer look at region; Syro-Lebanese & Palestinian immigration no longer ignored," Latin America Weekly Report, 23 April 1987.

Damian J. Fernández, Cuba's Foreign Policy in the Middle East (1988).

Damian J. Fernández, ed., Central America and the Middle East: The Internationalization of the Crises (1990).

Joann Fagot Aviel, "Arab-Iranian Relations with Nicaragua," in Review of Latin American Studies 3, no. 2 (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Agar Corbinos, Lorenzo, and Raymundo Kabchi. El mundo árabe y América Latina. Madrid: Ediciones UNESCO, 1997.

Klich, Ignacio, and Jeff Lesser, eds. Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America: Images and Realities. London and Portland, OR: F. Cass, 1998.

Ramírez, Ma. Dolores, María M. Caballero, and Pablo Beneito. Raíces mediterráneas en Latinoamérica: Cultura árabe, cultura italiana. Sevilla, Spain: Mergablum, 2001.

Roberts, Lois J. The Lebanese Immigrants in Ecuador: A History of Emerging Leadership. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.

Velcamp, Theresa Alfaro. "Immigrant Positioning in Twentieth-Century Mexico: Middle Easterners, Foreign Citizens and Multiculturalism." Hispanic American Historical Review 86, no. 1 (2006): 901-911.

                                        JoAnn Fagot Aviel