The Arab Community in the Southern Cone: A History of Influence and Integration
The late 19th century marked the beginning of a significant wave of Arab immigrants arriving in the Southern Cone of South America, forever altering the demographic and cultural landscape of the region. Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, among others, have contributed to one of the most influential communities within these southern lands. This article, drawing from a discussion with experts on Sputnik News, delves into the history and current status of this vibrant Arab diaspora.
The Impact of the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Latin America
The ongoing tension and recent escalations between Israel and Palestine have once again brought the Palestinian issue to the forefront of Latin American discourse—a region that, despite its geographical distance, has consistently shown a keen interest in Middle Eastern affairs. A significant number of Latin American countries recognize the Palestinian state and have hosted Arab communities for decades. Indeed, Latin America, with South America as a focal point, stands as a reference on the global map when considering Arab diaspora, comprising individuals of Arab descent living outside their ancestral homes, regardless of their religion.
An estimated 17 to 20 million Arab individuals call Latin America home, based on academic research and United Nations figures. Brazil, with over half the Arab population of the region, is recognized as the country hosting the most extensive Arab community in Latin America.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, South American nations, seeking to bolster their populations, opened their arms to immigrants, a policy that benefited thousands of Syrian and Lebanese Christians fleeing persecution from the Ottoman Empire. This initial wave primarily settled in Brazil and Argentina but laid the foundation for significant Arab communities to flourish in Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Micaela Becker, with the Middle East Studies Program at the National University of Córdoba, Argentina, highlighted that upon their arrival in South America, Arabs formed “one of the strongest communities, notable for its ability to organize in civil and mutual associations aimed at mutual support.”
Palestinians, many of whom were Christians, followed the Syrians and Lebanese, attracted to the Southern Cone during the early 20th century. The majority of these early Palestinian immigrants settled in Chile, which today has the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world.
Chilean sociologist Pablo Álvarez, a specialist in Middle Eastern history, suggested that Chile offered a more welcoming environment for Palestinians compared to other countries in the region that were more inclined toward European immigration. The commercial opportunities found in Chile also played a significant role in attracting the nascent community.
The Intersection of Politics and Business
Over the course of the 20th century, Arab communities not only established themselves socially but also wove extensive networks within business circles and political arenas.
Becker recalled the impact of the Syrian-Lebanese community on Argentine politics, noting the presidency of Carlos Saúl Menem in the 1990s, of Syrian-Lebanese descent, as a prime example. In Ecuador, too, there was a president with Lebanese heritage, Jamil Mahuad, who led the country from 1998 to 2000.
The Arab Spring from 2010, especially in Syria, spurred nations in the Southern Cone—starting with Uruguay under President José Mujica (2010-2015), followed by Brazil and Argentina—to offer refuge to those displaced by the turmoil.
“Every event that occurs in the Middle East is met with strong action from the Southern Cone region, thanks to the powerful and well-established migrant and descendant communities that play a central role in public life,” Becker reflected.
Álvarez pointed out the influence of the Palestinian community in Chile, noting their dissent during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990) and their reputation as freedom fighters. The Chilean Club Palestino serves as a hub of entrepreneurial, political, and social activity for this community.
Notably, Álvarez mentioned how Palestinian families in Chile, starting with the textile industry, later transitioned into establishing expansive business conglomerates spread across various sectors. The Yarur and Said families are notable examples of this economic expansion.
Between Support and Discrimination
Becker and Álvarez agreed that events like the recent clashes between Israel and Hamas resonate deeply in the Southern Cone, much owing to the strong local Arab communities and the sympathies they evoke among the populace.
The intensification of the Israel-Palestine conflict has increasingly influenced the identities of Arab descendants in Chile and Latin America, as young generations of migrants find a bond with the conflict as part of their identity.
In stark contrast, Becker pointed out that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is deeply embedded in Argentina’s public agenda due to the significant Jewish community in the country, the largest Spanish-speaking Jewish population.
Álvarez added that, particularly in Chile, Palestinians enjoy broad secular acceptance—unlike Muslims who often face discrimination and misunderstanding of their customs.
As these narratives unfold, the Arab community in the Southern Cone continues to navigate a complex landscape of identity, influence, and integration, illustrating its rich history that extends far beyond the boundaries of its ancient homelands.