Bukele presidency masks complex history of Palestinian involvement in Salvadoran politics
Written by Jacob Norris
With approval ratings still in the high 80s after three years in office, El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is officially Latin America’s most popular president. He’s also one of the most controversial, both within El Salvador and internationally. His brand of right-wing populism has seen him adopt bitcoin as national currency, bring the military into parliament, stack the judiciary with compliant judges, impose press censorship, defy the constitution by declaring he will run for a second term, and embark on a campaign of mass incarceration of gang members under emergency laws.
Media descriptions of Bukele often mention in passing his Palestinian roots (his paternal grandparents emigrated from Palestine in the early 20th century) – something that seems to contrast with his approach to foreign policy. As mayor of San Salvador, Bukele carried out an Israeli-sponsored visit to Jerusalem in which he was photographed praying at the Western Wall and was declared “a friend of Israel” by his Israeli counterpart. Since taking office as president, he has struck medical and military deals with Israel and has remained silent in the face of Israel’s bombardments of Gaza.
For those more familiar with the large Palestinian communities of Central America, these seeming contradictions may not come as a surprise. In countries like Honduras and El Salvador, Palestinians have long constituted an economic elite, often characterised by political conservatism. While the majority celebrate their Palestinian heritage through food and cultural events, they have largely steered clear of more politicised commitment to the Palestinian cause. In the Latin American context, Palestinian fedayeen (revolutionary fighters) have looked dangerously similar to Latin American guerrilla movements in the eyes of Palestinian business owners.
People of Palestinian origin have frequently reached the highest levels of political office in Central America (including two presidents in El Salvador and one in Honduras), but have done little to challenge Israel’s historically close relations with their countries as a major provider of arms, technology, and security apparatus. In this context, Bukele appears not as an exception but rather as a logical continuation.
Here ends the story as far as most scholarship on Palestinians in Latin America is concerned. But in my own research I have been finding a quite different picture. Central America, as across Latin America more broadly, is littered with examples of people of Palestinian origin embracing radical leftist politics and connecting this to the Palestinian struggle. Following preliminary work in El Salvador and Nicaragua, I am now planning a book project that tracks the transnational movements of these actors in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as they crisscrossed both Latin America and the Middle East. In doing so, I am coming to realise Palestinians have a far more complex history of political engagement in Latin America than is usually assumed.
Take Fuad Habbash. Born in Jerusalem in 1925, he was exiled from his Palestinian homeland during the Nakba of 1948, eventually finding refugee in Chile where he formed the Frente de Liberación Árabe along with Palestinian-Chilean poet Mahfud Massis. The two went on to run a pan-Latin American radio station, La Voz de Palestina, and publish the anti-colonial, third-wordlist newspaper, Palestina Patria Mártir. Or take Anton Daoud, the mysterious Colombian-born revolutionary who took part in numerous operations against British and Zionist forces in Palestine in the 1930s and 40s before later joining Fidel Castro’s guerrilla units in Cuba.
These individuals remain largely invisible in scholarship on the Palestinians in Latin America, as their frequent border hopping means they fall through the cracks of studies focused on a single ‘host country’. Even in diaspora studies, the shadow of methodological nationalism looms large.
Schafik Handál is one Palestinian revolutionary who has garnered some historical attention. But this exists purely within the confines of Salvadoran national politics. As leader of the Salvadoran Communist Party in the 1960s and 70s, commander of FMLN forces during the Civil War, and later presidential candidate in 2004, Handál is a towering figure in El Salvador’s modern political history. But his significance stretches far beyond El Salvador’s borders. He was an important figure within a global Third Worldist movement that was propelled, in part, by the Tricontinental Conference in Cuba of 1966 that brought Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans into closer contact under the umbrella of anti-colonial activism. Handál spent lengthy periods in Vietnam, China, Cuba, Chile, Algeria, Lebanon, and Palestine. By the early 1980s, he was playing an important role as an intermediary between the PLO and its expanding network of influence in Latin America.
My early findings suggest figures like Handál, Habbash, Massis and Daoud are just the tip of the iceberg. By the late 1960s, Palestine had cemented itself, along with Vietnam, at the vanguard of the global anti-colonial struggle. Anyone in Latin America interested in leftist politics could not help but be aware of the new Palestinian fedayeen fighters catching the world’s attention. All the more so for men and women of Palestinian origin who had grown up in Latin America and were now coming of age in the era of Third World revolution.
But forging revolutionary solidarities was no easy task for diaspora Palestinians, not least when their participation in leftist politics was frequently met with fierce resistance within their own communities. Schafik Handál’s involvement with the Salvadoran Communist Party caused a major rift in his family as the national guard ruthlessly pursued him, stoking fear and anxiety among relatives in the eastern town of Usulután. It was only once he went into exile in Chile in the early 1950s that he was able to formulate a global vision of revolution, thanks to his ability to mix more freely in Santiago with revolutionaries from all over Latin America and beyond.
Today, the Handáls are once again the target of the Salvadoran government’s ire, sending a new generation of the family into exile as part of a wider crackdown on leading figures in the leftist FMLN. The fact that the head of this government, Bukele, is himself Palestinian should not be seen as paradoxical. Since their arrival in Central America in the late 19th century, Palestinians have adopted a diverse range of perspectives, worldviews, and political positions. Their astounding success as merchants, entrepreneurs and industrialists should not flatten their political contributions into a singular brand of conservatism.
Historically, Palestinians have campaigned and fought on all sides of the political divide. From the 1950s, the region’s politics was inextricably linked to a global wave of anti-colonial struggle, drawing numerous young men and women into a life of activism, clandestinidad and exile. Retracing their passages across borders and oceans allows new understandings of how solidarities have been forged across the global south.
Author Jacob Norris was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, ILCS, from September to December 2022. He is a historian of the modern Middle East and its entanglements with global history. His current research looks at the flows of Palestinian migrants to Latin America and their impact upon revolutionary politics across the region in the 1950s and 60s. As part of this project, he is researching the early life of the Salvadoran-Palestinian politician and guerilla leader Schafik Handal. Jacob's publications include two books: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development (Oxford University Press, 2013) and The Lives and Deaths of Jubrail Dabdoub, Or How the Bethlehemties Discovered Amerka (Stanford University Press, 2022).
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