Will BDS win Latin America?

In many respects, the situation in Latin America today resembles Europe a decade ago.

A US border patrol agent looks over the Rio Grande river at the border between United States and Mexico, in Roma, Texas, US, May 11, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A US border patrol agent looks over the Rio Grande river at the border between United States and Mexico, in Roma, Texas, US, May 11, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The cancellation of a World Cup warm-up match in Israel by the Argentine national football team should be a wake-up call. Most anti-BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) efforts usually focus on Europe and North America, but Latin America is emerging as a site of growing, significant anti-Israel activity.
Diplomatically, Latin America is a mixed bag. Many countries are honored with street names throughout Israel for their votes for the UN Partition Plan and subsequent recognition of Israel. But while strong relations continued for decades, Palestinian violence in the early 2000s prefigured a shift as Latin American governments declared solidarity with Palestinians and regularly condemned Israeli responses to terrorist attacks. Several even recognized a Palestinian state.
Still, countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Argentina have substantial economic or security ties with Israel, and a number of countries chose to abstain in the 2017 UN vote to condemn the US for moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Latin America in September 2017 was in many respects proof of Israel’s strong relations with the region’s governments. However, the furious public demonstrations that greeted the Israeli delegation’s arrival highlighted the growing presence of radical anti-Israel activists.
While not yet as severe as in Europe, there are a growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Latin America actively promoting BDS, lawfare, and various other delegitimization campaigns against the State of Israel. These campaigns draw on a mix of religious antisemitism and local neo-Marxist and anti-colonialist ideologies, accompanied by demonizing, antisemitic rhetoric. They do not speak of a Green Line or two states, but instead define Israel’s very existence as a wrong to be righted.
While it appears that these organizations are not supported by area governments, new NGO Monitor research indicates that their campaigns do benefit from significant, constantly increasing assistance from international BDS groups, as well as from Palestinian, Israeli, European and American NGOs. Many of these international NGOs are themselves supported by European governments.
An overall lack of transparency among both NGOs and government donors within Latin America reflects a lack of accountability.
In the case of Argentina, the phenomenon matured under the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (and earlier, under her husband, Nestor Kirchner), when numerous NGOs – including the Federation of Argentine-Palestinian Entities (FEDERPAL), the Organization of Human Rights for Palestine, and the Palestinian organization Stop the Wall – launched a campaign against the Israeli water company Mekorot.
IN JANUARY 2011, the governor of Buenos Aires awarded a $170-million contract for a water treatment plant to a business consortium that included Mekorot.
Over the next three years, local groups organized against the contract, falsely accusing Mekorot of “criminal actions in Palestine” and denouncing that “public Argentinian money would benefit Mekorot and, through this, finance Israeli apartheid in Palestine.”
The fact that the project would improve infrastructure and access was tellingly erased.
As a result, the deal was suspended and became a model for other Latin American BDS campaigns, including the one targeting Argentina’s athletes.
A similar campaign was held in 2017 against the Mexican cement and construction firm Cemex. The hostile campaign was organized with more than 200 Latin American organizations, including BDS Mexico, BDS University of Chile, the Argentine Committee of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, the Council for the Defense of the Rights of Peoples (CODEP), FEDERPAL, and the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights (LIMEDDH).
That campaign urged Cemex to “end complicity in Israeli crimes” and asked the company to “withdraw its participation in the process of colonization, apartheid and occupation that Israel has carried out for 69 years against the Palestinian people.”
In many respects, the situation in Latin America today resembles Europe a decade ago. Numerous groups that have in the past operated with local, issue-based agendas are beginning to coalesce into a more organized regional framework. The experience and expertise being provided by foreign groups plays a major role in strengthening this trend.
There is still time for those fighting BDS to work with their Latin American counterparts to combat this downward spiral. With information in hand, the importance of greater oversight, transparency and accountability can be enhanced in order to ensure government funding does not wind up with NGOs that seek to harm the economic and cultural ties between Israel and Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, among others.
Without increased intervention, there is a risk that BDS will continue to win over the Latin world, and that the troubling climate of London and Paris will be mirrored in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.
The writer is the international spokesperson at NGO Monitor, an independent research institute which provides information and analysis, promotes accountability and supports discussion on the reports and activities of NGOs claiming to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas.