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May 26, 2018

Latin American states in quandary over US embassy move

Latin American states in quandary over US embassy move
'Guatemala, whose President Jimmy Morales is seen here alongside Washington's UN ambassador Nikki Haley in February 2018, is one of two countries that have mirrored the US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem' - By: AFP/File Johan ORDONEZ

US President Donald Trump's decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, enraging Palestinians, has left several Latin American countries pondering whether to follow suit.

To date, two nations have done so: Guatemala and Paraguay, both looking to strengthen ties with Washington even at the risk of alienating the 128 countries that backed a UN resolution condemning its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

And experts believe more countries in the region could yet follow.

Monday's ceremony to inaugurate the US embassy was marred by violent clashes along the Gaza border that left 52 Palestinians dead from Israeli fire and thousands wounded, in the conflict's bloodiest day in years.

Guatemala will inaugurate its embassy in Jerusalem on Wednesday -- with its President Jimmy Morales attending -- hot on the heels of the US, while the government in Asuncion said Paraguay's embassy would switch to Jerusalem at the end of this month.

Honduras, which voted with the US and Israel on the December 21 UN resolution, is yet to decide on relocating from Tel Aviv, despite parliamentary approval for the move.

Significantly, Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela, is to attend Wednesday's opening of the new Guatemalan embassy as Morales' guest.

- 'Servile' Morales -

Jerusalem's status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Marcio Palacios, a political scientist at Guatemala's San Carlos University, described Morales' decision as "servile" and said it was in part governed by his evangelical religious beliefs.

The president "does not distinguish between what he represents and what he believes in," Palacios said.

Evangelicals want to see the Jews rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, which according to their beliefs would facilitate the Second Coming of Christ.

"It's a servile action by the president, who has his hands tied to the policy of the United States," said Palacios.

Morales' decision is also seen by some as a gesture to elicit US support at a time when he stands accused by Guatemalan prosecutors of accepting illegal campaign contributions.

Former Guatemalan foreign minister Gabriel Orellana said Morales' decision has the effect of banishing his country "to the fringes of the United Nations".

"Guatemala is sacrificing its place in a multicultural world for a bilateral relationship. That doesn't bring great benefits to the country and puts it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis other countries of the Arab world," he said.

He also warned that beyond possible trade repercussions on Guatemala's important cardamom exports, the embassy move raises the possibility the country could become a target for terrorism.

"Until now, we have fortunately been spared by such events, but the world has become so polarized that we cannot with any certainty say nothing like this will happen in Guatemala as a result of this situation."

Guatemala and Paraguay "are following the United States' agenda," because they are relatively small and poor, said Patricio Navia, of the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL).

"The weaker these countries are, the more they are under pressure," he said.

Navia too said he feared countries that followed the US cue could pay a price.

"Not only Guatemala, but these countries that supported this decision will be targeted in the future. We hope that we're wrong."

- Will other countries follow? -

Both Israel and the Palestinians have lobbied hard for support in the region.

"We hope that some countries of the American continent will not transfer their embassy to Jerusalem because this is contrary to international law," Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas said last Monday during a visit to Caracas, flanked by Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro.

Abbas was on a tour of Venezuela, Chile and Cuba.

Most Latin American countries condemned the idea of moving the US embassy when Trump first broached it in 2017, and insisted they would keep their own missions in Tel Aviv.

But countries with fragile economies are likely to be further tested.

Last September, Benjamin Netanyahu made the first visit by an Israeli premier to Latin America, dangling lucrative trade contracts along with a delegation of 30 business leaders.

Gaspard Estrada, head of the Observatory on Latin America at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, said Israel was "taking advantage of a swing to the right in the region" to court its leaders.

Navia said he wouldn't be surprised "if other Central American countries follow suit, but it seems to me that it is more difficult for the bigger and more powerful countries in the region to do so."

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