'Israel Is One of Our Principal Partners When It Comes to Reinforcing Democracy'

On his first trip to Jerusalem, Organization of American States leader Luis Almagro praises Israel's commitment to democracy and to human rights. In Latin America, he says, the 'temptation of totalitarianism is taking root'

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States.
Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States. Bloomberg

On a long-planned 36-hour whirlwind visit to Jerusalem, Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, praises Israeli democracy as he sees Venezuela sinking to dictatorship. Bilateral ties between his organization and Israel, he says, “are essential for us—and Israel is our essential partner in the Middle East—due to its commitment to democracy and to human rights.”

It was his first visit to Israel since assuming leadership of the organization, that represents the 35 nations on the American continent, in 2015. “These are our organization’s basic values, and Israel is one of our principal partners when it comes to reinforcing democracy,” he said.  

Israel has been a permanent observer at the OAS since 1972. Einat Weiss, counselor for political affairs at the Israeli embassy in Washington, who coordinated Almagro’s visit, says that then-Prime Minister Golda Meir was “a brilliant visionary, seeing then how young, small Israel would be able to integrate itself into affairs of the world.”

Through the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (Mashav) Israel is a major contributor to teams of election observers in Latin America. In 2014, for instance, Israel supported such missions in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Colombia and Peru.

Almagro, a member of the left-wing Frente Amplio party, served as Uruguay’s foreign minister from 2010 to 2015. His lightning visit to the Middle East came amid the worst political crisis Latin America has experienced in decades, as Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, who has jailed his opposition and established an alternative parliament, completes the transformation of his oil-rich nation into a destitute autocracy. The disaster has colored his entire tenure.

When asked about Israel’s role in the world at a meeting of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which operates under the World Jewish Congress on, Wednesday night, Almagro exclaimed, “I can’t believe the first question isn’t about Venezuela!”

“It is a dictatorship, there’s no other definition for Venezuela today,” Almagro said in an interview with Haaretz. “My roots are in the left in Uruguay, and for me this is a brutal ideological reverse, something we thought we had overcome since the beginning of the 1990s, when the continent’s dictatorships fell.”

“The left,” he said, “flinched on democracy and human rights.”

“Events in Venezuela today represent a dire regression, probably the most significant regression of the Latin American left you see the temptation of totalitarianism taking root, and the temptation of authoritarianism. It is one of the worst political developments taking place on the continent.”

The OAS has led calls for an end to Maduro’s regime and has called on its 35 member states and the international community to enforce strict sanctions against Venezuela and its leader. Venezuela earlier this year said it may quit the OAS.

Last week, the United States imposed personal sanctions against Maduro, a penalty that until now was reserved for Syria’s Bashar Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

There is some controversy about their efficacy. The last American reporter accredited to work in Venezuela, Hannah Dreier, recently moved to New York, asserts that sanctions, which are “very important symbolically” are also “kind of a gift.” 

The U.S. “said that they were going to freeze all of Maduro’s assets, and all the headlines were: 'Maduro’s Assets Frozen.' There’s no reason to think Maduro has any U.S. assets. This is a man who railed every day against the U.S. empire. Why would he put his money in Miami property, or anything here?”

Almagro demurs. “There are satisfactory indications sanctions have a direct effect,” he stresses. “No country feels comfortable in this situation. Venezuela tries to keep claiming it’s a democracy trying to find an ideological validation, but that does not mean the sanctions don’t hit hard and hit those specific places that most affect the regime. No state and no authority is happy to be sanctioned.”

But “dictatorships fall because you push from within, not because of external pressure,” he acknowledges, “unless you bomb the country, and that is definitely, completely, outside the scope of action we recommend.”

Luis Almagro with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
Jorge Novominsky

On his visit to Israel, and in his first meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Almagro sought to “consolidate strategic links in several of the organization’s programs, including business training, technological innovation, education, and security, with an emphasis on the effort against cyber terrorism.”

Netanyahu and Almagro signed an agreement to increase “collaboration focusing on cyber, water, crisis and disaster management, education and innovation with the Young American Business Trust, a fund that invests in young entrepreneurs in South America,”  to which Israel is the largest in-kind contributor, offering, among other benefits, fellowships and professional training.

The visit comes as Israel is turning away from its traditional allies.

“We hope to make links with Latin America grow like our relationship with Africa,” says Boaz Modai, an ambassador in the Foreign Ministry’s Latin America division, referring to Netanyahu’s two recent trips to Africa in the span of less than a year.

Latin America has long been on Israel’s radar. According to the OAS, Israel has made $170,000 in financial contributions and $3,857,020 in total in-kind contributions to developing Latin America since 1999.  

Since 2010, Israel has contributed $432,000 in cash to these efforts. In 2014, the Israeli government approved a three-year 50 million shekel ($14.4 million) package “to strengthen economic ties with Latin American countries and reduce its dependence on the European market.”

Over the weekend, the Argentine newspaper Clarín announced that Netanyahu will travel to Mexico and Argentina next month, in what would be the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to the subcontinent.

The Foreign Ministry confirms that such a trip is “under consideration.”

A pivot to South America “is the aim,” says Modai, who accompanied Almagro in Jerusalem. “The first trip ever of an Israeli prime minister makes it significant and historic, and we know this sort of visit gives a major push to relations.”

In the trip comes to fruition, in Argentina Netanyahu will encounter Mauricio Macri, a friendly, modernizing president with close ties to Latin America’s largest Jewish community.

Mexico has become a regional economic powerhouse. Only last week, the Mexican conglomerate Mexichem bought 80 percent of the pioneering Israeli drip irrigation giant Netafim for $1.5 billion.

In Mexico, however, Netanyahu will have to mend some fences. Last January Mexico’s Foreign Ministry rebuked Israel for Netanyahu’s tweet supporting Trump's plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea," Netanyahu tweeted.

Mexico’s prosperous and historically generous Jewish community was so affronted it suspended donations to Keren Hayesod. President Reuven Rivlin eventually apologized to Mexico, but Netanyahu has yet to make amends.

Israel’s principal interest in Almagro’s visit, says Modai, is “fomenting cooperation,” through Almagro’s status as a sort of supra-president.  

“Cybersecurity interests the entire continent, for example,” Modai said, “and Almagro heads an organization that represents the entire continent. This man is central: he is listened to on the entire continent. A single positive statement he makes has much more weight than if the president of Mexico, Brazil or Argentina said something.”

The amiable, soft-spoken Almagro is that rarity among Uruguayans, a vegetarian. “They usually have some vegetable roasting for me at the asado," he says, chuckling.

He encountered Netanyahu less than a day after the Tel Aviv rally in which the prime minister decried an “unprecedented, obsessive witch hunt against me and against my family,” and accused the left and the media of plotting a coup to unseat him.

Almagro took it in stride. “Here’s the thing,” he said, on his way to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. “Israel is a democratic state in which the institutions function. The functionality of institutions and the balance of powers are fundamental for us and are the paradigm of the health of a democracy. So we’ll allow the institutions to operate and democracy to work.”