Palestinians in Latin America: Between Assimilation and Long-distance Nationalism


Video and Edited Transcript
Dr. Cecilia Baeza
Transcript No. 397 (21 November 2013)


Co-Sponsored by the Institute for Palestine Studies

“Palestinians in Latin America: Between Assimilation
and Long-distance Nationalism”


Dr. Cecilia Baeza
Postdoctoral Fellow
Institute of International Relations of the University of Brasilia

First of all, I’d like to thank the Institute of Palestine Studies and the Jerusalem Fund for this kind invitation. It is really a pleasure for me to be here and to present part of my research.

Latin America hosts the largest Palestinian presence outside the Arab world. Emigration began at the end of the 19th century and reached its peak between 1900 and 1930. Immigration waves have then continued, following the episodes of wars and economic crises in Palestine, but they never reached the magnitude of the first decades of the 20th century. Latin Americans of Palestinian descent claim today to be more than half a million but little to nothing has been written about them and their relation with Palestine.

Sons of a pre-Nakba emigration for the most, predominantly Christians, middle-to-upper class citizens, well-represented among political and business elites, Palestinians in Latin America do not easily fit in a national narrative shaped by the refugee experience. In fact, Palestinian historiography has long seemed uninterested in this diaspora who doesn’t meet the criteria of Palestinianness, as defined by the political necessities of a nationalist discourse centered on the state of dispossession, denial and statelessness of the refugees. This lack of interest also had to do with the scale of analysis: at a national level, emigration to Latin America only represented a small phenomenon in Palestine. We therefore have to adopt a finer scale of analysis to reveal its importance both at the local and transnational level.

My talk today will first present the socio-economic trajectories of these emigrants and their descendants according to periods and countries. As I will show, their modes of incorporation and socio-economic status are fundamental for understanding the position of individuals regarding the Palestinian cause.

I will then explore the journey of their identity over generations and its articulation with long-distance nationalism.

I will finish this talk by discussing the shifty notion of “Palestinian diaspora”, and its relation to Homeland and return.

My presentation focuses on Chile and Honduras. Those two countries host the largest populations of Palestinian descent: in Chile, diaspora organizations claim they represent at least 350 000 people, and in Honduras, historians talk about 280 000 Hondurans of Palestinian descent.

For the coherence of my argument, I will leave aside the Palestinian communities of Brazil and Venezuela, mostly Muslim and post-Nakba, but I will be pleased to answer questions after the presentation.

So, I will divide this talk in two parties, and each one in three periods: 1880-1948; 1948-1970; and from 1970 until today.

Arab emigration from Palestine to Latin America started in the late Ottoman period, around 1870. The majority where Christians and came from the region of Bethlehem, including the villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, and to a lesser extent from Jerusalem, Taybeh and Ramallah.

Why Christians and from these regions in particular? Because with the development of a new modern European tourism to the “Holy land”, the production of religious handcraft increased and a new class of Christian merchants emerged, in particular in Bethlehem.

Some of them early sought to expand their activities to Europe, especially in France; but rapidly, “Amreeka” became the new Eldorado.

It’s important to remind that this happened in the context of the great immigration waves to the “New World”. Just to have an idea of the figures: we are talking about almost 60 million Europeans and 1.2 million Ottoman citizens coming to the Americas between 1860 and 1914.

Palestinian emigration was part of this movement, even though it only accounted for a very small portion of these waves.

It seems that one of the first reasons to cross the Atlantic was to attend international fairs in the US. For example, the Palestinian historian from Bethlehem Adnan Musallam has documented the participation of Palestinian merchants in the International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and the Universal exposition of St. Louis in 1904.

Some of these merchants pursued their trip to the South, and arrived to Mexico and Central America, mainly Honduras and El Salvador.

Another route led them directly to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

All across Latin America, Palestinians arriving with an Ottoman passport were labeled by Immigration Officers as “Turcos”, independently from their self identification. Turcos was then a large administrative and social category including all the Arab immigrants from Bilad al-Sham, but also Armenians, Jews of Aleppo and Greeks.

In all countries, Palestinian merchants started peddling goods, from door to door. Their first goods were religious handcraft, but then they expanded to other manufactured products.

To avoid competition with other Arab immigrants, mostly Syrians and Lebanese who were more numerous and therefore had stronger solidarity networks, Palestinians rapidly left Buenos Aires and São Paulo and cross the Cordillera to establish their business in smaller countries further from the major Atlantic ports.

That’s how Palestinian merchants arrived in Chile circa 1880, and to a lesser extent, in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. This implicit strategy of non-competition between Arab solidarity networks explains why Syrian-Lebanese make the majority of the Arab diaspora in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela – the largest countries of Latin America –, while Palestinians are the majority in Chile, Peru, Honduras and El Salvador.

A common feature of all the Arab immigrants in Latin America is that they became “middleman minorities”, a concept coined to describe those groups whose ethnicity is intertwined with their activity of trade and commerce. Turco literally became a synonym of peddler.

Indeed, until the first decades of the 20th century, retail was terribly underdeveloped in Latin America. Elites were latifundistas (i.e. large landowners) and compradors, but not retailers: the status gap between elites and masses was such, that a direct contact between them was unthinkable.

Turcos suffered from ethnic discrimination. Unlike the European immigrants, they had not been called by Latin American States to occupy and farm the vast portions of cultivable land. Arabs and Jews were particularly unwelcomed by the “criollas” elites who had in mind the stereotypes imported from the European racialist ideologies.  For the rest of the population, however, it was not clear whether the Arab immigrants were white or not, and the pejorative connotation of Turco was more associated with their office as retailers and their cultural manners, than to their alleged racial belonging.

Peddling was then a hard but lucrative job. The majority was able after a few years to open their own shop. Merchants had long hours of work, and very little time or money spent on consumption. The emphasis was put on saving, as their idea was to come back to their hometowns with the accumulated wealth. In fact, they are several success stories of emigrants who returned to Palestine with great amounts of wealth. These individual stories fed the myth of the Latin American Eldorado.
Palestinian emigration gained momentum until the 1920s.

With the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, a new military conscription law was voted in 1909, making military service compulsory for all Ottoman subjects. Christian families were particularly afraid of seeing their sons serving as cannon fodder, and decided to send their children to Latin America where they already had some relatives. Muslim families were also keen to send their sons abroad, but they lack the transnational contacts to do so.

The economic situation in Palestine dramatically deteriorated with the First World War. Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a famous writer from Bethlehem, described in his novel The First Well the poverty of his hometown and the state of abandonment of the houses left by the families who emigrated to Latin America.

This marked the beginning of a “chain migration”: nephews, brothers, cousins and sometimes entire families came to join their relatives. Men were called to work in trade, following the pioneers’ paths, while women mostly arrived as daughters and spouses. Indeed, until 1930, more than 90% of the marriages were endogamous – not necessarily in the sense of the Arab marriage between cousins, but at least ethnically speaking, between Arabs .

So, we can say that Palestinian emigration was the result of a combination of “pull and push” factors – on the one hand, “pull factors” such as powerful economic opportunities for Christian merchants, and on the other, “push factors” such as the fear of religious and ethnic discrimination in the context of a rising Turkish nationalism – but it was also and maybe above all, a product of chain migrations.

The status of “middleman minorities” carried by Palestinian immigrants started to change before 1948, in the decade of the 1930s.

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression, Latin American countries witnessed a change in their economic orientation. The abrupt fall of the exports of commodities obliged political leaders to rethink their development strategy. The response of governments was to re-orient national development towards inward-looking goals through import-substituting industrialization.

This new economic strategy required people with capital to start this industrial adventure. Only few traditional landowners were interested in taking these risks. But immigrant merchants also had some capital, and some of them accepted to become the new partners of Latin American developmental states.

The trajectory of Juan Yarur Lolas is exemplary of this partnership. Juan Yarur and his younger brother Nicolas left Palestine in 1902. They already had relatives in Chile and in Bolivia. After a few years of peddling, the two brothers opened a shop and in 1929, they were able to open a small textile plant in La Paz, Bolivia. In the mid-1930s, the Chilean government of President Alessandri (1932-1938) invited Juan Yarur to install a bigger plant in Santiago: the offer included free custom duties for imported machine tools, low custom taxes for imported supplies and a loan of more than one million dollars from the Banco de Chile, the largest banking institution of the country.

The Yarur accepted the generous deal and founded a company of cotton . In 1948, the plant employed more than 3000 workers and produced 60% of the cotton fabrics of the country. It became the biggest textile plant of Latin America.
According to the registers of the Syrian-Palestinian Commercial Association, 147 industrial plants were created in Chile with “Arab funds” between 1933 and 1937. Two third of them were in the textile and clothing industry.

A similar process took place in Honduras, but with smaller projects. For example, Jacobo Kattan produced and registered in 1930 the first clothing brand of Central America .

In both countries, the birth of these new industries came along with the creation of private banks. Newfound manufacturers needed a financial infrastructure to accompany their investments. As Latin American banking systems were embryonic, Palestinians started creating their own investment banks . In Chile for example, Juan Yarur founded in 1937 the BCI (Banco de Crédito e Inversiones), one of the main Chilean banks until today.

This new economic phase inevitably entailed a process of settlement. After the 1940s, immigrants started to buy new and bigger houses. In Santiago de Chile, a Palestinian ethnic district emerged: the neighborhood of Patronato. Host of the first Orthodox Church built by the Palestinian community in 1917, Patronato was characterized by the presence of small sewing workshops, clothing stores, and the residencies of the first and second-generation Palestinian immigrants.

The Nakba clearly had an impact on Palestinian settlement: it reinforced the option of non-return, even if the window of opportunity had already began to close during the British Mandate (I will develop this later).

For now, what I would like to stress it that from the 1930s to 1970s, we witnessed a process of growing social differentiation within the Palestinian community:

– On the one hand, the industrialists, who slowly started to break into local bourgeoisies, even if they were still discriminated against as Turcos “nouveaux riches”.

– and on the other hand, the small retailers and manufacturers who joined the burgeoning middle classes.

Importantly, most of these middle-class families encouraged their children to go to the university and study Law, Medicine, Engineering, etc. This process has been particularly evident in Chile. The development of universities offered real opportunities for aspirational middle classes. In Honduras as in the rest of Central America, where the quality of higher education was not as good, the preferred strategy was to keep the business and try to make it grow.

The new professional middle classes of Palestinian descent began to show interest in local politics as soon as the 1930s , with several Palestinians elected mayor. In Chile, the first congressmen of Arab descent appeared in the 1940s. But the key decade was the 1950s: two ministers of the government of President Ibañez were for the first time of Palestinian descent. The most important was Rafael Tarud Siwady, Minister of Economy and Mining, known as “El Turco Tarud”.

Entering politics at a national level was not easy. Traditional institutionalized parties were not eager to integrate these sons of Levantine immigrants. The right wing was particularly reluctant. The apparition of prominent politicians of Palestinian descent was made possible only by the upsurge of non-traditional progressive and populist parties, looking for new and fresh faces.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Palestinian community in Chile was thus experiencing growing divisions:

– a process of social differentiation between a new industrial bourgeoisie, and professional and educated middle classes.

– an increasing political polarization, between a new generation of politicians of Palestinian descent leaning towards the left, and industrialists remaining conservative.

This process was definitely deeper in Chile than in other countries like Honduras, where the Palestinian community remained more socially and economically homogeneous.

For Latin America, the 1970s and the 1980s were decades of dramatic political polarization and crises in the context of the Cold War.

In 1970, Salvador Allende, the candidate of a coalition of left-wing parties, won the presidential election in Chile with a strong reformist agenda. Workers dreamed of self-management of industry and started occupying their factories and denouncing exploitation. Under the pressure of workers’ unions, several plants were expropriated by the government. Textile factories were on the frontline on this movement. The seizure of the Yarur factory on April 1971 marked the beginning of a tumultuous process. Then, came the nationalization of the textile plants of the Sumar, Said, and Hirmas families. There are several reasons for this: first, the textile sector was one of the most labor intensive industries, and its workers were among the most unionized. The other reason is less noble: part of the traditional Chilean bourgeoisie didn’t do anything to save the sector. Actually, some were secretly quite satisfied to see these “Turcos” losing the wealth they had acquired so quickly.

In spite of these rivalries among the upper class, you will not be surprised to hear that industrialists of Palestinian descent were harsh opponents of the government of Salvador Allende.

In fact, some of them played a crucial role in the military coup against the democratic government in September 1973. Juan and Alberto Kassis Sabag, for example, two brothers born in Bethlehem, received the dissident generals at their home a few days before the coup. This is not a secret: Alberto Kassis is also one of the founders of the Pinochet Foundation.

However, we can also find individuals of Palestinian descent who supported the government of Allende and were condemned to exile after the coup: the film director Miguel Littin, the poet and ambassador Mahfud Massis, and the former Minister Rafael Tarud, just to name a few.

The military government of Augusto Pinochet rapidly gave the textile factories back to their owners. The paradox is that the neoliberal turn of the regime brought the textile industry to its knees. Faced by international competition, in 1975, production had fallen by 31% and several enterprises went bankrupt. Ironically, this was the result of the policies of the Minister of Economy, Jorge Cauas Lama, himself of Palestinian descent.

The majority of those industrialists recovered from this radical economic change. They diversified their investments and expanded to new sectors, in particular real estate, media, and retail. The best example is probably José Said Saffie, whose family began in the textile industry, but is today the main shareholder of the Said Group, a holding which possesses the third largest Chilean Shopping malls company. Others focused on their banking activities, like the Yarur (BCI), the Abumohor (Corpbanca), or the Rishmague (Union Credit Bank).

In Honduras, Honduran-Palestinian industrialists also experienced an evolution of their activities, but it was less dramatic than in Chile.

During the 1980s, the country evaded the violence that affected its neighboring countries, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. In fact, Honduras even served as a base for US-sponsored Contras in their war against Sandinists in Nicaragua. The hegemonic ideological climate of “anti-communism” and the weakness of pro-guerrilla movements in Honduras prevented the emergence of left-wing leaders of Palestinian descent similar to a Schafik Handal, the historical leader of the Salvadoran guerrilla, or a Moises Hassan, one of the prominent figures of the Nicaraguan guerrilla in the 1980s. On the opposite, Palestinian industrialists strongly supported the anti-subversion policy implemented in Honduras during this period. Miguel Facussé, currently the richest man of Honduras, was the spearhead of this movement.

At the end of the 1980s, the Honduran government decided to expand the Free Trade Zones (ZOLI) to the Caribbean coast, allowing the development of maquilas – that is, factories manufacturing products on a duty-free basis for export. Palestinians were pioneer of the maquila sector.

Anti-communism is still virulent today among these businessmen, who strongly supported the destitution of President Zelaya in 2009. In a context of political tension and violence in the country, this stance favored the emergence of “anti-Turco” and anti-Palestinian feelings. In Honduras, Palestinians are perceived by some sectors of the working class as the “powerful owners” of the country.

Such kinds of feelings would be impossible in Chile: the positions of Chilean-Palestinians are too diverse to be associated with one social class. It does not mean that in Honduras, all the people of Palestinian origin are wealthy, but the concentration of capital makes the exposure of the industrialists much greater.

After having described these socio-economic trajectories, I would like now to look back on these three periods, and explore the evolution of the identification of the Palestinians in Latin America over the generations.

So let’s start with the end of the 19th century until the 1948. This period is crucial, because it constitutes a key testimony of the modes of identification of the inhabitants of Palestine before 1948.

How did self-define the emigrants from Palestine?

If we cannot interview the oldest immigrants who arrived at the end of the 19th century, we still have several evidences of their self-identification:

1/ some notes on the immigration registers
2/ the name of their associations
3/ and the ethnic press, which began to develop in the decade of the 1910s

Until 1920, emigrants from Palestine used to mention alternatively four focuses of identity:

1/ their hometown – in this case, Bethlehem, Beit Jala or Beit Sahur
2/ Syria, in the sense of Bilad al-Sham
3/ their religion (here mainly Orthodox Christianity) and the consciousness of coming from the “holy land”
4/ and finally, their Arabness

References to Palestine were rare but they did exist. By contrast, the identification with the Ottoman Empire was almost inexistent (1904: Charitable Ottoman Society).
This started to change from the 1920s. In 1920, the Club Deportivo Palestino, a professional football club was founded in Santiago de Chile: the name of the club – Palestino – and the colors of the football jersey – those of the Palestinian flag – were clearly a nationalist reference. This new identification gained momentum from 1924. Between 1924 and 1939, dozens of organizations  with a direct and unique reference to Palestine were founded all across Latin America.

How to explain the emergence of this new Palestinian consciousness?

The establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine terribly complicated the life of emigrants, and these new difficulties certainly made them more aware of the political precariousness of their Homeland. The main obstacle faced by the emigrants was the issue of return – temporary or definitive.

Indeed, until the 1930s, emigrants used to move back and forth between their host countries and Palestine: emigrants came back, lived a few years in Palestine, and left again their Homeland to Latin America. This pattern was quite common.

During the Ottoman Ira, emigrants who had kept their Ottoman nationality could legally return to Palestine. However – and this is paradox -, the issuing of a Palestinian nationality by British Authorities in 1925 changed this situation.

Emigrants had then or to ask for a visa, in case they had acquired the nationality of their host countries, or as Palestinian-born, ask for the Palestinian nationality itself. Therein lies the crux of the problem: the conditions for obtaining the nationality as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne were extremely hard to meet for the emigrants.

The application of the treaty created hardships for thousands of Palestine’s natives who were resident abroad. Let’s take the case of Issa Nasser for example: born in Bethlehem, he emigrated in 1913 as a merchant to Chile, with an Ottoman passport which expired with the Treaty of Lausanne. As he did not have the Palestinian nationality, he needed an “emergency certificate” issued by the British consulate in Valparaiso to be able to travel to Palestine. The temporary document clearly specified that it did “not guarantee that the holder would be authorized to land or remain in Palestine”.

Going to Palestine was not the only problem. In some cases such as Chile and Mexico, the inability to provide a valid nationality prevented from renewing the residence permit, or worse, the access to naturalization. This situation led thousands of emigrants to become stateless. In some countries, like in El Salvador, the absence of nationality prohibited the exercise of trade, jeopardizing the main source of income for Palestinian emigrants.

Facing these difficulties, emigrants decided to organize themselves to make them heard. Dozens of complaints were made by emigrants from the British consulates of Latin America and remain deposited in the archives of the League of Nations. Emigrants argued that they still had land in Palestine, and despite the fact that they were currently involved in trade activities in their host countries; they still planned to return home in the near future.

In Palestine, emigrants received the support of young nationalists, including ‘Issa al-Bandak from Bethlehem, who launched in 1927 “The Committee for the Defense of Emigrants Rights to Palestinian Citizenship”. The Committee collected the grievances of emigrants and presented them to the British High Commissioner for Palestine. British Authorities lightly relaxed the conditions for obtaining the nationality, but it did not make a big difference.  Following the outbreak of the Great Arab Revolt, ‘Isa Bandak renewed the petition in 1936 to the Peel Commission. Without any significant result.

As a consequence, only a very limited number of emigrants were able to get Palestinian nationality; in 1946, it was documented that only 465 persons of those who were born in Palestine and were residing abroad could acquire Palestinian nationality. It did not mean that it was impossible for emigrants to come back, but it certainly dissuaded more than one.

The temporary situation of statelessness of some emigrants made Mutaz Qafisheh, Professor of International Law at the Hebron University, speak about the “first generation of Palestinian refugees”. I understand the interest of such a provocative stance that allows pointing out a situation that was completely neglected, but I am not sure that it can be really used, because as we have seen, the logics of emigration cannot be reduced to the result of an expulsion.

This Palestinian nationality eventually disappeared with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. But for emigrants, it was clearly the first political experience of their Palestinianness, independently from the fact they succeeded to have it or not. The struggle for nationality was itself meaningful.

In fact, the decade of the 1930s witnessed the development of a very dynamic nationalist ethnic press in Latin America. The best examples are Al Islah (the reform) in Chile, published from 1930 to 1942 and also distributed in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and Rumbos published in Honduras from 1939. The press diffused political information from Palestine. This clearly had an impact: for example, in 1939, Palestinians in Chile and in Honduras collected funds for the families of martyrs of the Great Arab Revolt.

The result of all of this is that, as the end of the 1930s, we have a population who increasingly claimed its belonging to the “Palestinian nation”, while they were more than ever intended to settle in their host countries. A clear sign of this paradox is the fact that a good part of the nationalist ethnic press was written in Spanish: the second generation born in Latin America was already losing its ability to read and write in Arabic. The cultural distance with the Homeland was widening and in Latin America, the immigrants were about to seize new economic opportunities.

The last significant political battle of this period was the mobilization against the Partition of Palestine, voted in the General Assembly of the United Nations in nov. 1947. The mobilization against this resolution in Latin America was in reality a last-minute campaign launched by Akram Za’ayter, who came from Palestine to convince Latin American leaders not to vote the Partition. And in fact, it had some results: thanks to the strong mobilization of Palestinian communities, Chile and Honduras decided at the very last moment to abstain the UN resolution. But this was in vain, as we know, since the resolution was adopted.

The following decades were marked by the deepening of cultural assimilation. In 1970, exogamous marriages – that is, marriages between Arabs and non-Arabs – had become the norm. According to a recent investigation, today, in Chile only around 30% of Palestinian descendants have both parents of Palestinian origin.

The new generations whose fathers were immigrants became Chileans, Hondurans, Peruvians, in a nutshell: Latin Americans of Palestinian descent. Not even Palestinian-Chileans, like one can be Arab-American. Hyphenated identities don’t exist in Latin America: in multi-racial and multi-ethnic Latin American societies, national identification comes first.

However, it does not mean that identification with Palestine was lost. Palestinian identity survived through ethnic networks of friends, families, and business partners; through social clubs, like the Estadio Palestino in Santiago  or the Club Hondureño Arabe in San Pedro Sula; and also through cultural practices like food, a vector maybe less powerful than language and religion, but that produced embodied and affective feelings of connection with Palestine. Every Latin American of Palestinian descent will always start speaking about its Palestinian identity with souvenirs of lunches at the grand-parents’ place eating maqluba, stuffed marrows and eggplants.
These elements of cultural identity were not necessarily visible in the public space, but they were very present in the private sphere.

During the 1950s, the political dimension of the Palestinian issue became less relevant. The nationalist ethnic press declined, and eventually disappeared in Honduras.

At the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, the Palestinian question started to find some echo again, through Arab nationalism first, and then on its own. The emergence of a generation of intellectuals of Palestinian descent, combined with the arrival of new immigrants, revived the political interest for the situation in Palestine.
For example, as soon as 1963, Juan Tuma, a member of the Chilean congress, paid a tribute to the commemoration of Nakba at the House of Representatives in Chile. In March 1964, Fuad Habash an emigrant and the Chilean poet Mahfud Massis even founded the FRELIPA, the Front for Liberation of Palestine. The organization had its own newspaper, Palestina Patria Martir (Palestine, Martyr Homeland). Fuad Habash, who was a communist teacher of Arabic in Jerusalem arrived in Chile after having spent four years in the Jordanian jail of Al-Jafr, also ran a radio program, “The Voice of Palestine”.

But in spite of their efforts, these activists only formed a small group and had a limited influence among the Palestinian community. While a majority was not really interested by political issues in Palestine any more, the most powerful businessmen were frankly frightened by the communist and anti-imperialist dimension of this Palestinian nationalism.

In 1966, two years only after the creation of the PLO in Cairo, arrived in Chile the first delegation of Palestinian officials representing the new organization . Their objective was to elect three representatives for the Palestinian National Congress. Delegates from Honduras, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil were also present for this “first Palestinian congress in Latin America”. However, this visit to Chile was disappointing: they only met the few members of FRELIPA and did not awake the interest that they expected among the rest of the community.

This changed from the second half of the 1970s and even more during the 1980s.
Unlike in other regions, it is not directly the Six Day War of 1967 which really made a difference, but the recognition of the PLO in 1974 by the United Nations as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

Indeed, it allowed the PLO to open Palestine Information Offices all across the continent (1975 in Brazil, in 1976 in Cuba, in 1979 in Peru, etc.) and to develop a network of representatives. The re-politicization of the diaspora was part of their mission. The objective was political but also to collect funds from the wealthiest businessmen.

The Palestine Information Office opened in Chile in 1978, in the context of the dictatorship. The first years were not easy: the Palestinian Thawra powerfully echoed the political struggles of the left in Latin America.

Working or not with the PLO created tensions among the community. The tensions were such that some individuals even denounced their fellows from the Palestinian Club to the Chilean political police. Jael al-Arja, a member of the PFLP who regularly came to Latin America since the beginning of the 1970s, was killed in 1976 during the Operation Entebbe against the hijacking of an Air France flight by PFLP members. You can imagine how terrified were the Palestinians in Chile who had known him.
The PLO was seen as subversive. Aware of this obstacle, not only in Chile but also in other Latin American countries, the PLO decided to send the Father Ibrahim Ayad, a Catholic priest born in Beit Sahour and close to Yasser Arafat, to change the PLO’s image among this predominantly Christian diaspora.

The turning point was 1982 and the massacres of the Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon. The killing of women, children, and the elderly provoked an emotion that went beyond local political divisions. In Chile, it fostered the first demonstration of unity among Palestinians.

In 1984, the Palestinian Club of Chile and the Federation of Brazilian-Palestinian associations called for the first congress of Palestinian entities from Latin America and the Caribbean. The congress took place in São Paulo, and resulted in the creation of the COPLAC (the Latin American Confederation of Palestinian Institutions). Eleven representatives from Latin America were designated to be members of the Palestinian National Congress of the PLO .

This new institutionalized connection with the PLO provided a big momentum, especially among the youth. Tens of groups of dabke were formed in Brazil, in Chile and in other Latin American countries. Many belonged to Sanaud, a transnational cultural movement created by the PLO for young people of Palestinian descent to reconnect with Palestinian culture.

In Chile, university students went even beyond and founded the local branch of the General Union of Palestinian Students, GUPS-Chile.

This process of politicization of the youth through culture did not happen in Honduras. Why? It has to do with both the economic status of the Honduran-Palestinians and the regional political context of the 1980s. The business class of Palestinian descent felt very uncomfortable with the fact that the PLO had close political relations with the leftist guerrilla in Nicaragua. By an irony of history, the same days of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, a Honduran guerrilla close to the Sandinists held about 100 hostages, including three top officials of the Honduran Government, in the Chamber of Commerce building of San Pedro Sula. Many businessmen of Palestinian descent like Emilio Jaar and Taufik Canahuati were among them.

This coincidence prevented any strong mobilization against the massacres in Lebanon. It also closed the door to the strengthening of the relation of the Palestinian community with the PLO. Until very recently and the recognition of the Palestinian state by the Honduran government, any reference to the Palestinian cause was still very stigmatized among the community.

Chile currently is the country where a core group of individuals of Palestinian origin is the best organized to defend the Palestinian cause. We are witnessing a process of professionalization of the pro-Palestinian movement since the beginning of the 2000s. Palestinian-Chilean politicians can be found across the full political spectrum from the right to the Communist Party, but they cooperate when it comes with Palestine. A Palestinian-Chilean Inter-parliamentarian Group was constituted and is today the most numerous among the bi-national groups of the Chilean congress. In 2001, wealthy Chilean-Palestinian businessmen created the Palestine Bethlehem 2000 Foundation, a charity organization for Palestinian children that also does political lobbying and cultural work towards the community. The Foundation publishes a monthly magazine called Al Damir, which aims at diffusing success stories of Palestinian Chileans as well as briefings about the activities of the community and the humanitarian situation in Palestine.

There is also a Palestinian-Chilean News Agency as well as two other websites that provide daily updates and op-ed’s regarding the situation in Palestine. These are the main sources of information for Palestinian Chileans as well as other people who are interested in the situation in the Middle East.

Again, political divisions and debates still exist within these diaspora organizations; but it doesn’t hamper their work and their impact.

There is clearly today a growing interest among the youth about their Palestinian origins. Internet, social networks, and also the possibility to travel to Palestine have facilitated this reconnection, even if very few still have close relatives there. The biggest problem today is probably the difficulties to enter Palestine, as Israeli authorities tend to discriminate visitors according to their ancestry. Over the last 5 years, four young Chilean women were deported from Tel Aviv or the Allenby Bridge because of their Palestinian surname.

To conclude, I would like to discuss the idea of “Palestinian diaspora” and its application to the case of the Palestinians in Latin America.

“Diasporas” can be defined as transnational social arrangements based on the idea that their members share an ancestral cultural and geographical origin (real or imagined). Time has to pass and several generations are needed to distinguish such kind of social arrangement from immigrant communities. Following the morphological characteristics proposed by Emmanuel Ma-Mung, a French geographer, a diaspora also needs to show a multi-polar dispersion and interpolarity of relationships, that is, the existence of relationships between the various poles of the diaspora.

The main purpose of this definition is to avoid rigid reifications that characterize diasporas as “ethnic groups” with objective frontiers. I agree with Roger Brubaker (2005) who rather defines diasporas as “an idiom, a stance”, as a category of practice “used to make claims, to articulate energies, to formulate expectations, to mobilize energies, and to appeal to loyalties”. In the case of the Palestinians in Latin America for example, we have a very culturally and politically active minority, but the majority only has a loose connection with Palestine: a surname, a family memory, some culinary practices. Should we consider, as observers, that they are not Palestinians anymore? I don’t think so, because according to circumstances, they could revive this Palestinian connection.

Identities are fluid, and that is why the question of numbers – such as proclaiming that more than 350.000 Palestinians live is Chile is complicated. For sure, this number can be a key demographic indicator, but it doesn’t tell the whole story about identification.

Now, the expression of “Palestinian diaspora” also raises other issues
First, in Arabic, the word “diaspora” does not exist. They are several other words that are used according to the context. Shatat (dispersion) is probably the most common.

The expression “Palestinian diaspora” to describe Palestinians abroad is sometimes used as a mirror of the Jewish experience: the objective is then to use the evocative power of the terminology that associates the term of diaspora with the idea of “disaster”, as the word “al Nakba” also evokes.

However, this position is not unanimous. Many authors also believe that the use of the word “diaspora” is a way to make Palestinians renounce to the “right of return” and accept the permanent settlement (Tawtîn) of the refugees in their host countries, a question which we know is extremely taboo. This theme has become particularly hot in the years following the Oslo Accords in 1993. And some political scientists, such as Bassma Kodmani-Darwish, have ventured to consider that the future of Palestinian refugees was their “diasporization”, a process understood as their permanent settlement in their host countries.

If we try to avoid the politicization of this notion, and just focus on the theoretical aspect of the debate, I tend to agree with saying that the notion of “diaspora” don’t apply to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. There is a question of time (their expulsion from Palestine is still relatively recent), and of legal status, that makes the notion of “refugees” much more accurate than the word “diaspora”.

By contrast, I find the notion of “diaspora” particularly relevant when it comes to Palestinians in Latin America. The notion is useful to explain the dynamics of permanent reactivation of the myth of origins.

What about the question of return? In the construction of their identity, the very notion of “return” doesn’t have the same meaning and importance for Palestinians in Latin America that it can have for refugees. Considering that they already are first-class citizens of their countries of residence – with which, they also fully identify as nationals –, a process of massive return to a future state of Palestine would not make any sense, at least for now.

However, there is indeed the individual desire of some of them to go to Palestine, for personal reasons that range from identity to political aspirations. If Israeli authorities were not making almost impossible for foreigners to come to live in the occupied territories, I am pretty sure that many more young Latin Americans of Palestinian descent would travel to Palestine.

In a nutshell, I think that there is a great diversity of situations of Palestinians abroad, and we need to use the same variety of lexicon to capture the current spatial, social, legal, and subjective realities of Palestinians outside their homeland.

Cecilia Baeza is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the University of Brasilia (UnB). Between 2003 and 2009, she was associate professor at Sciences Po Paris, where she concluded her PhD in Political Science in 2010. Her dissertation focused on Palestinian immigrants and their descendants in Chile, Honduras and Brazil, and their relation with Palestinian nationalism. She now works on the redefinition of the South American foreign policies towards the Palestinian issue since the 2000’s. She also analyses the role of the Arab diasporas, through their mobilizations and networks of influence. Cecilia Baeza is cofounder of RIMAAL, a research network on Latin America and the Arab World. Among her recent publications are “América latina y la cuestión palestina (1947-2012)“ (Araucaria, 2012) and “O reconhecimento do Estado palestino: origens e perspectivas“ (Boletim Mediano, 2011). She is currently preparing a book on the Palestinian diaspora in Latin America.