Here's what surprised me the most during a weeklong vacation in Argentina and Uruguay: People seem to be following the Middle Eastern conflict in Gaza much more closely – and passionately – than in the United States.
Newspapers in this corner of the world are splashing headlines about the conflict across their front pages, much more prominently than the global financial crisis or local stories. On television, the Israeli attack on the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza after the group's constant rocket attacks is the focus of debates, with most voices criticizing Israel.
Hamas, which the United States and the European Union officially consider a sponsor of terrorism , is often not identified as such in the South American media.
In social dinners with politicians, business leaders and diplomats, I got more questions about President-elect Barack Obama's likely Middle Eastern policy than anything else. It's pretty much the same elsewhere in South America.
Earlier this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – who has signed a "strategic alliance" with Iran, main state sponsor of Hamas – expelled the Israeli ambassador, citing Israel's alleged "genocide" in Gaza. While there were heated street rallies in Miami and other U.S. cities, in South American cities they have been bigger and more violent.
Argentina's government-backed leftist street protests organizer Luis D'Elia, who this week confirmed to Noticias magazine that he had received $1 million from Cuba to pay for anti-American protests during President George W. Bush's 2005 visit to Argentina, on Tuesday led a rally in front of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Protesters threw paint and other objects at the mission.
What is going on? I asked myself. Is it because Argentina and Uruguay have large Jewish and Arab communities? Is it because of a somewhat perverse subliminal feeling of comfort that people in other regions have it worse than South Americans?
Many people told me that it all boils down to politics, and petro-dollars. Chavez and his allies, including Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, are importing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a region where Jews and Muslims used to live in significant harmony.
The region's involvement in Middle Eastern politics has intensified since 2006, when Chavez first hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad has since returned to Venezuela, and has also visited Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, in addition to receiving other Latin American presidents in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad signed several economic and political agreements, including plans to finance new pro-government television and radio stations in Bolivia and other Latin American countries.
Emilio Cardenas, a former Argentine ambassador to the United Nations, says Iran and Venezuela are benefiting from stirring up anti-Israeli sentiment in the region.
When the Venezuelan government-financed regional Telesur television station feeds free footage of Palestinian children hit by Israeli bombs to Argentine and other Latin American television stations, the not-so-subliminal message is that Washington is backing an atrocity, Cardenas said.
"For Chavez, knocking on Israel is knocking on the United States," Cardenas said. "Stirring up anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment is functional to both Venezuelan and Iran's political propaganda purposes."
My opinion: I'm not surprised by what Chavez is doing. He is in trouble because of falling oil prices, and needs a conflict with Washington to try to justify his increasingly authoritarian rule. And I'm not surprised that Argentina's official media are buying Chavez's line: Venezuela has become the Argentine government's main – perhaps only – financial backer recently.
But it's sad that many respected Latin American journalists, while rightly demanding an end to hostilities, are failing to remind their audiences that Hamas is waging a religious war that officially calls for the annihilation of the state of Israel, constantly launches rockets into Israeli territory and triggered the latest conflict by breaking a cease-fire.
If Argentina, Uruguay or any other country were suffering from daily rocket attacks by a group that is openly bent on destroying it, I seriously doubt that it would act any differently than Israel did.
Not to recognize that – and the fact that, unlike Israel, Hamas terrorists intentionally target civilians with rockets and suicide attacks and then use the civilian population as human shields – is intellectually dishonest, and flirts with racism against an ethnic group that not too long ago suffered the biggest holocaust in memory.