By Ray Hanania
I am sure most people in the Arab world today are not thinking about Venezuela; but they should be. The Arab world owes Venezuela not only its moral support but its economic support too.
Once one of the most influential countries in South America, Venezuela today is undergoing a massive economic crisis that is not only threatening the stability of its government, but also the lives of millions of its citizens.
Among Venezuela’s population of 32 million are nearly 1.6 million expatriates from the Arab world, who fled the violence that has plagued the Middle East since the 1940s. These Venezuelan Arabs have settled in the country, built strong businesses, paid homage to their ethnicities and religions, and engaged in their adopted country’s government and politics.
Arab settlement in Venezuela goes back to at least the 1940s. Palestinians fled to Venezuela to survive Israel’s intentional destruction of more than 400 Arab civilian villages between 1947 and 1950, and to seek refuge from Israel’s racist apartheid policies ever since.
Venezuela has also opened its arms to Syrians and Lebanese. Arabs fled the violent turbulence in war-ravaged Syria following its independence in 1946, as well as the rollercoaster turmoil that has plagued Lebanon since its founding in 1943.
In an unprecedented exodus, millions more Arabs fled those countries in the Middle East to seek safety in Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Argentina. Today, it is estimated there are more than 30 million Arabs living in South America — a continent that has provided political balance to the racism of its North American cousins in Canada and the US.
The US, often with Canada’s support, has led the persecution and racism against its Arab immigrants and battled the struggle for justice fought in the UN by standing in defense of Israel’s unprosecuted war crimes and atrocities against civilians. Meanwhile, South American nations, led by Venezuela, have endured American vengeance by doing the opposite, speaking out forcefully in defense of Arab, Muslim and Palestinian rights.
My mother’s family fled their homes in Bethlehem in the 1960s to the safety of Venezuela and Colombia. They were given support, treated like equal citizens and provided opportunities that allowed them to thrive. They built businesses and raised money, much of it going to support the needs of civilians living in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, who were victimized by Israel’s military assaults.
Bethlehem, near Jerusalem in the West Bank, was not occupied physically by Israel until June 5, 1967. But, between 1948 and 1967, Israel engaged in regional terrorism, striking Palestinian targets in the West Bank with impunity, in part to destroy Palestine’s will to survive. Israel’s military assaults and threats undermined Bethlehem’s economy, discouraging tourism and investment and forcing the Palestinians to live there in constant fear of Israeli terrorism and air strikes.
Israel, with American help, did the same in Lebanon and in Syria before and after 1967. Just because the biased mainstream American news media did not waste its newsprint reporting on Israel’s vicious conduct against those populations does not mean that it should be forgotten.
What is most important, however, is that the Arab world should not forget what these South American countries did to provide shelter for millions of Christian and Muslim Arabs who fled the Western-fueled violence in the Middle East.
There are more than 12 million Arabs living in Brazil, while Colombia hosts nearly 2 million. This is one of the reasons why these nations have been so outspoken in the defense of Arab, Muslim and Palestinian rights in the UN. Venezuela, one of the strongest South American countries, led the fight against Israeli aggression and spoke out frequently about Israeli terrorism and injustice. Those South American voices gave resonance to the moral wall of shame that Israel continues to face today, although with impunity and arrogance.
While Central American nations like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama attended the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, most Central American countries have tried to withstand American pressure. The US exerts more economic pressure on Central American countries because of their proximity to the American nation. Only two South American countries, Paraguay and Peru, attended the offensive Jerusalem embassy opening, which violated international laws and served to reinforce Israel’s racist policies against the Arab world.
The remainder of South America stood up to American and Israeli bullying, including threats from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley that foes of Israel would face repercussions. Many South American countries originally recognized Israel’s statehood in 1948, but only because they at the time were also under the control of American regional influence.
Chile maintains an embassy in Tel Aviv but also an office in Ramallah. Many South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, Uruguay and Ecuador, recognized Palestine as a state in 2011, confounding American and Israeli bullying.
In response, the US has used the power of its anti-Arab and racist entertainment industry to fuel vicious stereotypes of South America as a haven for Nazi refuge, accusing South American nations that have criticized Israel of doing so because of “anti-Semitism.”
Despite the Israeli propaganda and lies, many South American countries have identified with the suffering of Arabs from the Middle East. They have been open to Muslim and Christian Arab immigration, providing shelter, support and a safe haven away from Israel’s military assaults. The populations of those early Arab settlers in South America have increased tenfold and have given the fight for Arab human rights a powerful voice.
Instead of turning our backs on Venezuela at this time of crisis, the Arab world should stop reading American propaganda or believe the lies of the mainstream American news media. The Arab world should recognize the truth that South America has supported Arab rights. It is time to act to support South American rights and, for Venezuela, the Arab world’s help could not come at a more important moment.