By Matt Willgress and Paul Dobson
In contrast with western complicity with Israel’s attack on Gaza over the summer and ongoing attacks and land grabs since, Venezuela and its allies in Latin America are offering concrete help to Palestine, says Matthew Willgress of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, with additional reporting from Paul Dobson in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s Government sent a third consignment of humanitarian aid to the embattled people of Palestine this month. In return, they greeted 119 young Palestinians who are going to be trained to be doctors at the Latin American Medical School in Caracas, demonstrating that genuine solidarity does not consist of excellent speeches, heartwarming discourses, nor best intentions, but rather has concrete actions and deeds at its centre.
“If the 21st Century saw a fighting and brave country, it is that which belongs to the people of Palestine” stated Minister for University Education, Science and Technology, Manuel Fernandez at the sendoff of the aid.
“[Hugo] Chavez brought the love of Palestine to Venezuela and left this legacy with .. Nicolas Maduro” commented the Palestinian Ambassador in Caracas, Linda Sobeh Ali.
The 10.3 tons of humanitarian aid follows 12 tones sent in August and 56 tones sent in September. It consists of mostly long life food, but also blankets, small cookers, and other items. Collection of aid continues amongst the Venezuelan people and public institutions following the devastating onslaught of the Israeli forces in August. As Israel carried out its onslaught on Gaza over the summer, the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Ministry has been transformed into a hub of activity as Venezuelans responded en masse to their government’s call to provide donations for the people of Gaza. Many of those bringing donations to the centre felt that Palestine was suffering a massacre and that international organisations were failing to protect them.
“There is so much injustice and the world is asleep. The United Nations sits there with its arms folded,” commented Maribel Brazon, who brought medical supplies.
On unloading the aid in Palestine, the very same airplane was then filled by 119 young Palestinians who made the grueling journey back to Venezuela to enroll in the Latin American Medical School ‘Salvador Allende’ (ELAM), located on the outskirts of Caracas.
The students come from various regions of Palestine including war-torn Gaza, and are due to benefit from one of the most inspiring and internationalist projects of revolutionary Venezuela. Some lost their entire families in the recent onslaught which left thousands dead and the Gaza strip devastated. On graduating as doctors, they will return to Palestine to practice medicine.
“Today is a historic day” explained President Maduro whilst personally receiving the students. “Palestine is present here in Venezuela, here is its future, its youth… the voice of Venezuela is and always will be the voice of the truth of the struggle of the Palestinian people”.
The ELAM, where the 119 Palestinians will join a handful of their compatriots already studying, is the second of its type. The Caracas ELAM was inaugurated by Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro in 2006 and receives students from both within and outside Venezuela, trains them in a 6 year medicine degree, then returns them to their communities of origin to practice and alleviate the struggles of their people.
The Palestinian students will have no personal costs for studies, accommodation, or food whilst in Venezuela thanks to the Yasser Arafat grant scheme. The scheme has announced that it plans on increasing the number of Palestinians coming to study in Venezuela by 1,000. Minister Fernandez has also initiated proceedings to allow Palestinians to study other courses in Venezuelan universities, such as engineering.
The ELAM currently has students from Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, the Congo, Algeria, Honduras, Haiti, Ghana, Gambia, Mexico, Mali amongst other countries, and focusses on training students from impoverished or excluded backgrounds, such as indigenous communities.
“This is an expression of perfect support, its impressive” explained Mouath Daraghma, a fourth year Palestinian student at the ELAM. “Many thanks to the people of Venezuela and their President Nicolas Maduro. Thanks to this we feel like we are just more soldiers of this Revolution”.
Abuwatfa Sherin, a newly arrived student from Palestine, explained how Israeli forces tried to impede their travel out of blockaded Palestine, via Jordan, and ultimately to Venezuela. “We are very tired from the journey” he explained, “there were many checkpoints, all of the Gaza strip is completely closed on all sides…we suffered a lot to get into Jordan”.
Maduro also explained that “Israel did everything possible to block the journey, but despite all of the obstacles which they put in the way, I always had faith that things would work out alright, and so they have. Mission successful, kids, thanks for coming!”
On arrival, the 119 students gifted a kefiyeh (Palestinian headscarf) to Maduro, and the Palestinian Ambassador Sobeh Ali gifted him a Palestinian flag and an olive tree in the name of Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas. “You are creating our future, our doctors” she explained. “I don’t know how to thank the people of Venezuela, I don’t know how to thank you”.
Venezuela also has a scheme involving sending 240 million litres of oil to Palestine every four months as part of the creation of the new body PetroPalestina.
Although the oil was originally intended to be sent to the West Bank, Palestinian authorities have confirmed that it will now be sent to Gaza, where it will be used to restart electricity generation since, as Palestinian ambassador to Venezuela, Linda Sabeh Ali, explained, “the only plant in the zone was bombed by Israel and now is in total darkness.”
During this year, thousands have marched through Caracas on multiple occasions, demanding an end to Israel’s siege of Gaza. In stark contrast to the attitude of many Western governments, these rallies have been announced in government media as well as progressive independent news sources, with a Twitter account associated with President Maduro even publicising them.
In motivating support, President Maduro said, “[Some] say that there is a war between Israel and Palestine, but there is no war,” adding that ”Israel, [is] recognised by the UN [as] an occupying power that has been displacing Palestinians from their historic territory, carrying out a war of extermination,” before confirming his government will give asylum and shelter to children orphaned by the onslaught.
Earlier this summer, President Maduro condemned “Israel’s unjust, disproportionate and illegal military attack on the heroic Palestinian people.” Launching an “SOS Palestine” campaign he said: “Enough already, I’ve joined the campaign.”
Support for Palestine Across Latin America & A Proud Tradition of Solidarity
Venezuela is not alone in standing in solidarity with Palestine — other progressive governments in Latin America have also taken action.
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has said it is high time something was done “to end the genocide that Israel is carrying out on Palestine” and labelled Israel a “terrorist state.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to “annihilate the Palestinian people.”
Cuba meanwhile has a long tradition of standing shoulder to shoulder with Palestine, while Chile (where the left recently returned to government) has halted free trade negotiations with Israel, withdrawn its ambassador is sending $75 million of aid and called for an immediate ceasefire.
Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru and Brazil have also recalled their ambassadors.
Additionally, during the summer’s onslaught, as Latin American leaders met in Venezuela for a summit of the regional trade bloc Mercosur, the presidents of four of the five countries in the organisation demanded an end to the military actions in Gaza and called for Israel to permit the free flow of people, food and aid.
Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela (all except Paraguay which saw a left-wing president overthrown a couple of years ago in what was termed an “express coup d’etat”) announced in a statement that they “energetically condemn the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, which in the majority affects civilians, including children and women.”
These positions and initiatives in solidarity with Palestine reflect a proud tradition in Venezuela in recent years.
Former President Hugo Chavez cut diplomatic relations with Israeli after its earlier war on Gaza. This was followed by a statement in which Chavez declared that the presidents of both Israel and the US should be tried at the International Criminal Court. His stance was again emphasised in the aftermath of the massacre on board the Gaza-bound aid ship Mavi Marmara in 2010, with Chavez asserting that the attack was “an act of war undertaken by the Israeli army against defenceless civilians.”
Following the UN vote which established Palestine as a non-member state, a Palestinian delegation from Ramallah visited Venezuela. A further notable gesture on behalf of Venezuela was the abolition of visas for Palestinians wishing to travel to the country.
Most recently, just weeks before Israel’s attacks on Gaza, President Maduro received Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, explaining that “the Palestinian cause is the world’s cause.”
A key reason for the visit was to establish PetroPalestina, an organisation aimed at helping fulfil the oil demands of the besieged Palestinian economy that will, in the words of Maduro, “firm up the supplying of diesel from Venezuela to Palestine.”
Discussions were also held on the creation of a Palestinian centre of Mission Miracle, a health programme which, free of charge, uses laser surgery to restore sight to people who can’t afford private attention.
As the holder of the world’s largest oil reserves, with a repeatedly elected progressive government in power committed to national sovereignty and the redistribution of wealth, Venezuela has faced constant hostility from the US in recent years. No doubt Venezuela’s stance on Palestine and other Middle East questions, and its support for international justice more generally — the government opposed the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq — is another reason for this hostility.
It can also be added that one certain consequence if Venezuela’s revolution was ever overthrown would be the country’s dramatic realignment with the US camp internationally and the reactionary positions resulting from this. A hint of the right’s true alignments was made clear in 2012 when a Caracas mayor and leading figure in Venezuela’s right-wing opposition met Benjamin Netanyahu and pledged a future restoration of relations with Israel.
Viva Venezuela, Viva Palestina!
Matt Willgress is national coordinator of Venezuela Solidarity. For more information about the campaign visit www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk. To learn more about social change in Latin America come to the Latin America Conference on Saturday November 29 – tickets available soon at www.latinamerica2014.org.uk
For Peace, Development & Progress – The New Latin America in the World Today
Kate Hudson • Kamel Hawwash (Palestine Solidarity Campaign)
• Victoria Brittain • Guisell Morales Echaverry
Chair: Bernard Regan