ASPA III Summit: A Step in the Right Direction for Arab-Latin America Relations

By Stadius, Eric | Washington Report on the Hemisphere, November 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

ASPA III Summit: A Step in the Right Direction for Arab-Latin America Relations


Stadius, Eric, Washington Report on the Hemisphere


The recently concluded Third Summit of South AmericanArab Countries (ASPA III), which met in Lima on October 1-2, highlighted the continued emergence of the often overlooked but increasingly important relationship between Latin America and the Arab world. While historical, cultural, and political ties have previously united Arab and Latin American interests, relations have stalled since the end of the Cold War. However, the strategic importance of the Middle East after 2000, as well as the ongoing regional tumult, has dictated a reemergence of discussion of Arab issues in Latin America. This importance can be demonstrated by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25 when President Rousseff dedicated roughly a quarter of her address to the Middle East. Rousseff mentioned her concerns regarding the Syria conflict, the Israel-Palestine imbroglio, and Islamaphobia resulting from backlash in Western nations over the anti-Islam movie denunciations, further indicating Brazil's desire to become a central player in ongoing geopolitical events concerning the Arab world.

However, this is not to say that these regions possess deep or particularly mature relations. Politically, historical affinities toward a "third way" and recent democratizing patterns have brought Latin America and the Arab world together. Nevertheless, as political relations between these two regions continue to burgeon, economic and strategic ties remain relatively negligible. ASPA III has attempted to address this gap, as regional leaders acknowledged the economic and strategic potential of stronger ties. In previous ASPA summits, political rhetoric has overshadowed establishing legitimate pathways for bi -regional growth. Yet, even with Brazil's geopolitical aspirations and the looming Iran-Israel showdown, not to mention the civil war in Syria, some connected to ASPA III saw significant progress in developing a multilateral forum between these two regions that can only prove beneficial.

Historical Ties: Arab Diaspora, Non-Alignment, and Influential Figures

Arab influence in Latin America began in the mid 19* century during the Arab Diaspora, influencing political ties between the two regions ever since. Many Arabs, primarily Syrian and Lebanese, migrated to South America during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, creating sizable immigrant communities in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Honduras. Upon their arrival in Latin America, the Arab immigrants found in certain ways, a society similar to that of the Middle East, where social relationships were often defined by religion. Most of the Syrian and Lebanese immigrants were already Christian and the few who were Muslim usually converted. Yet, the Arab enclaves tended to reject intermarriage, creating sizable immigrant populations that maintained a predominantly Arab culture. Although the number of immigrants to Latin America never reached the level seen in the United States, the concentration in countries such as Argentina and Brazil helped gain significant political and economic influence for these immigrant communities.

Today, this rich immigrant history has undoubtedly left its mark on Latin American culture. In Brazil, Lebanese staples, such as kibbe, have become entrenched in the epicurean scene, particularly in Säo Paulo, which has Brazil's largest Arab population. Argentina, with roughly nine percent of the population hailing from Middle Eastern or Arab descent, and Ecuador have both elected presidents of Syrian and Lebanese origin respectively. The world's richest man, Carlos Slim, is Lebanese-Mexican. Evidently, Arab populations have gained prosperity in their new countries through making use of economic opportunities, and today constitute an important bloc. Chile is home to the most Christian Palestinians in the world and has a largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East, a particularly influential community in Santiago.

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ASPA III Summit: A Step in the Right Direction for Arab-Latin America Relations
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