As Jews usher in the year 5779 and Central Americans mark the 197th anniversary of their independence from Spain, there’s plenty to celebrate about Israel’s relationship with the region.
In late 2015, Panama signed a free-trade agreement with the Jewish state — its first with any nation in the Middle East. Then in March 2017, Israel and Nicaragua restored diplomatic ties after a seven-year hiatus, following months of secret talks between the two.
Last December, Honduras and Guatemala were among only nine countries that voted in the United Nations General Assembly to support the Trump administration’s decision to transfer the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (128 countries condemned the move).
Finally, this past May, Guatemala followed its declarations with action, moving its own embassy to Jerusalem’s Malha Technological Park in the presence of the country’s Christian evangelist president, Jimmy Morales. At the inauguration ceremony — which took place two days after the U.S. Embassy’s own ribbon-cutting — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “this is the beginning of something extraordinary.”
Last night, some 130 diplomats, dignitaries and other invited guests gathered at the Tel Aviv Sheraton to mark 197 years since five countries — Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — officially broke away from Spain.
“On Sept. 15, 1821, a small group of nationalists signed a declaration of independence that officially ended three centuries of colonialism. As a native Central American, it is an honor to be here tonight,” said Costa Rica-born Ariel Bennie Goldgewicht, director of the Latin American department of Keren Kayemet L’Israel-JNF. “We are honored to share our knowledge and experience to create a better world for all of us.”
Four diplomats on stage
Three ambassadors attended the event: Costa Rica’s Esteban Penrod, Guatemala’s Mario Adolfo Bucaro, and Mario Edgardo Castillo of Honduras. El Salvador, which has no ambassador in Israel at the moment, was represented by its chargé d’affaires, Héctor Enrique Celarie. Nicaragua wasn’t represented at all.
After the national anthems of all five countries were played on a computer screen, everyone joined in singing “Hatikva”— Israel’s anthem — and then Bucaro took the stage.
“Tonight, we are delighted to celebrate our declaration of independence in 1821, when our founding fathers united a region full of natural wealth and history under the ideals of peace, liberty and development,” he said. “It is our goal to strengthen the bonds that unite us, and we look forward to finding solutions to our common problems through cooperation.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, addressing the dignitaries in Spanish, spoke on behalf of the Israeli government.
“In the name of the people of Israel, we salute you on the 197th anniversary of your countries’ independence, and especially the president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, for historic decision to restore Guatemala’s embassy in Jerusalem,” Levin said to loud applause. “Each country has a right to determine its capital, and it’s incomprehensible that many countries have not respected Israel’s decision to establish its capital in Jerusalem — the eternal city of the Jewish people.”
Levin recalled how Guatemalan diplomat Jorge García Granados convinced other Latin American countries to support the 1947 UN partition of Palestine, which led to the establishment of Israel the following year. He also singled out for praise Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for supporting the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, as well as the late Col. José Arturo Castellanos — a diplomat from El Salvador who saved thousands of European Jews from Nazi deportation during World War II by issuing fake citizenship papers.
“Israel is deeply appreciative to all these countries for their help,” Levin said. “Despite the great geographical distance between our countries, this friendship has deep roots.”
Serious problems confront region
Thirty years ago, all of Central America, with the notable exceptions of Costa Rica and Belize, were military dictatorships. Today, democracy reigns in all seven countries, whose combined population is about 50 million — roughly the same as Colombia’s.
Yet poverty, natural disasters, drug trafficking and widespread gang violence still plague most of Central America. Climate change has caused severe drought across much of the region.
These multiple crises sparked a fierce immigration debate in the United States earlier this year as the Trump administration instituted a policy of forcibly separating thousands of undocumented Central American parents from their children at the U.S. border with Mexico — then had no choice but to backtrack after an outcry from both Democrats and Republicans.
The leaders of both Guatemala and Honduras — countries with dubious records on human rights — are mired in corruption scandals and desperately need U.S. support. Many analysts say deepening ties with Israel and supporting Trump’s position on Jerusalem is one way to curry favor with Washington, even as internal violence rips the region apart.
In 2017, according to InSight Crime, Honduras and El Salvador had the world’s second-highest homicide rate (after Venezuela), with 3,947 murders — or a rate of 60 per 100,000. In Honduras, the per-100,000 rate was 42.8, and in Guatemala, 26.1.
Homicides were also up in Costa Rica (12.1 per 100,000) — the highest ever recorded for a country generally regarded as the Switzerland of Central America (in Israel, by comparison, the homicide rate is only 2.4 per 100,000).
Nicaragua, whose 2017 homicide rate was a relatively low 7 per 100,000, is experiencing a dramatic wave of political violence. Police officers and paramilitary forces — masked, armed men in pickup trucks — have unleashed a wave of bloodshed against student protesters opposed to President Daniel Ortega, the same leader who re-established ties with Israel a year and a half ago.
Well over 300 people have died in the civil unrest — though not a word was said about Nicaragua at last night’s event.
An evangelist Christian ambassador
Guatemala’s Bucaro, who spoke to this reporter after the reception, took up his new job as ambassador on Aug. 1, replacing his predecessor, Sarah Solís Castañeda.
The 40-year-old lawyer, who specializes in arbitration and international mediation, has no previous diplomatic experience, other than having served as honorary consul of the Caucasus republic of Georgia.
Like Morales, Bucaro considers himself a Christian evangelist who believes in the Biblical prophecy that all Jews will eventually return to the land of Israel.
“The president asked me to serve here,” he said. “By sending an ambassador who has a heart for Israel, we hope other countries will follow our example.”
He pointed out that Guatemala — Central America’s largest country in both size and population — was the first nation to move its embassy to Jerusalem, back in 1956. But it transferred that embassy back to Tel Aviv in 1980 after the Knesset passed a law declaring “united” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
By 2007, El Salvador had become the world’s last nation with an embassy in Jerusalem. It finally relocated that mission to Tel Aviv shortly after Costa Rica — under then-President Oscar Arias — pulled out of Jerusalem, in hopes of drumming up business with the Arab world.
Regardless of what Guatemala does, both the Salvadorans and the Costa Ricans have made clear they have no intention of returning their embassies to Jerusalem anytime soon.
Boosting trade and investment
Nevertheless, Costa Rica remains Israel’s largest trading partner in the region.
Dyana Cordero, director of Costa Rica’s trade office in Tel Aviv, said bilateral trade in 2015 came to barely $45 million. Of that, $36.7 million was Israeli exports to Costa Rica, mainly plastics, herbicides and pesticides, and $8.2 million was Costa Rican exports to Israel, mainly coffee and pineapple juice concentrate.
Israeli imports from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua are negligible.
“Our goal is to strengthen the relationship between Guatemala and Israel in ways that have not been explored, like trade and working together to promote high-tech and foreign investment,” said Bucaro, suggesting that Guatemala may dramatically increase sales of sugar, pineapples and premium coffee to Israel. “We’re already in talks for a free-trade agreement, and we have a large based of young people studying engineering, high-tech and startups.”
Despite Trump’s anti-immigrant stance — especially from the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — Bucaro declined to criticize U.S. policy.
“Immigration is a very important issue for all of us,” he said. “Nobody wants to emigrate. But sometimes it’s a matter of necessity. Situations are pushing more and more families to leave. That’s why we want to develop more trade with Israel, so we can improve our economy and increase opportunities for young people.”
Paraguay’s flip-flop: Who might be next?
While Israeli officials are of course thrilled with Guatemala’s new embassy in Jerusalem, nothing lasts forever. In May, outgoing Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes — in one of his last official acts — announced his landlocked South American country would also move its embassy to Jerusalem, thereby becoming the only nation other than Guatemala to follow the U.S. lead.
But less than four months later, Mario Abdo Benítez, the man who replaced Cartes as president, reversed that decision. Paraguay’s new foreign minister, Luís Alberto Castiglioni, justified the about-face on the grounds that “Paraguay wants to contribute to an intensification of regional diplomatic efforts to achieve a broad, fair and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
That prompted Netanyahu to order the closure of Israel’s embassy in Asunción altogether.
Earlier this month, senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat announced it would “immediately” open an embassy in Asunción and applauded Paraguay’s “courageous” decision. “We also call upon the government of Guatemala to stand on the right side of history and move its embassy outside Jerusalem,” Erakat said in a statement.
That begs the question: Could some future Guatemalan president transfer the country’s embassy back to Tel Aviv just as easily as Morales pulled it out of there in the first place?
Not a chance, a confident Bucaro responded.
“A decision like this doesn’t depend on one person, but on people and society,” he responded. “In Guatemala’s case, we have huge respect for Israel through faith and friendship. We have 18 million people, and most Guatemalans support the decision to put our embassy in Jerusalem.”