TEL AVIV — As Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu wrapped up his historic trip to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico — marking the first time any Israeli leader has ever visited the region — the Israel-based envoys of four small Central American nations hosted a big party Thursday night whose underlying message seemed to be, “Hey, we’re here, too!”
The lavish reception at the Tel Aviv Sheraton attracted about 200 diplomats, private executives, government officials, journalists and others. The occasion: the four countries’ 196th anniversary of independence from Spain.
“It is a great honor for me to welcome you on behalf of the embassies of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras,” said Costa Rican Ambassador Esteban Penrod, with Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, at his side. “Ever since 1821, when our union was formed, we have seen ourselves as brothers and sisters. Today, we are all as one when it comes to building a better future for our people, recognizing our multicultural societies and achieving peace in the region for more than 30 years now.”
A fifth country, Nicaragua, should have been at the party as well. But Managua has no ambassador here yet; it was only six months ago that Israel restored diplomatic ties with that nation’s left-leaning Sandinista government after a seven-year hiatus.
Lieberman, calling Israel’s rapprochement with Nicaragua “a very important recent development,” also praised the role all Central American nations played “in the events which led to Israel’s establishment” in 1948. He also noted the recent visits to Israel of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales last November, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in October 2015, and Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González Sanz this past May.
In June, Costa Rica held its first-ever trade seminar in Tel Aviv hoping to boost bilateral trade, which in 2015 came to barely $45 million.
“Thousands of Central Americans have taken part in courses run by Israel’s development agency, Mashav, including the current president of Honduras and two current ministers of Guatemala,” said Lieberman. “Latin America is playing an increasing role in Israel’s foreign policy, and many of our young people choose your region as a favorite place to travel.”
Standing on the podium with Lieberman and Penrod were Ambassadors Werner Matías Romero of El Salvador; Mario Edgardo Castillo Mendoza of Honduras, and Sara Angelina Solís of Guatemala.
“Some say there are no friendships in international relations, only interests,” said Lieberman. “But I think the closeness between our countries shows there is a real friendship grounded in the shared ideals of democracy and freedom.”
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 45 million — roughly the same as Colombia’s.
Yet poverty, natural disasters, drug trafficking and widespread gang violence still plague much of Central America. Last year, Honduras and El Salvador led the world in homicides, with murder rates of 108.6 and 63.7 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Even so, Penrod focused on the positive, noting Guatemala’s hosting of the next Ibero-American Summit in November 2018, as well as a referendum supporting the resolution of that country’s long-standing border dispute with neighboring Belize.
“Our efforts to integrate have generated economic stability, making us the area of greatest growth in Latin America today. We are now on the verge of a customs union which has already been implemented by Guatemala and Honduras, and we expect El Salvador to join by the end of this year,” said the Costa Rican diplomat, adding that El Salvador currently holds the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“We remember on this occasion the first year since the passing of a great leader who worked to build bridges for peace — President Shimon Peres — and the first visit of a prime minister of Israel to Latin America,” Penrod concluded. “A new year is approaching in the Jewish calendar, another beginning to a promising future. Allow me to say in advance, l’shana tova l’kulam.”
After his speech, Castillo gave Lieberman a box of premium Honduran cigars, and Guatemala’s Solís presented a gift basket of Central American products to Ariel Bennie Goldgewicht, the Latin American director of Keren Kayemet L’Israel-JNF.
During the dinner that followed, I chatted with Romero, who represents El Salvador — a small, struggling nation roughly the same size and population as Israel.
Despite its large, influential Palestinian community and its paucity of Jews (only about 65 live in the entire country), El Salvador was the last nation in the world to maintain an embassy in Jerusalem. It relocated its Israeli mission to Tel Aviv in 2007 shortly, after Costa Rica — under then-President Oscar Arias — took that step in hopes of drumming up business with the Arab world.
“Latin America as a whole was instrumental for getting the approval of the United Nations for Israel to become an independent country. The Central American nations were particularly supportive, maybe because we’re small and also struggled for independence,” said Romero. “But sometimes we feel that Israel doesn’t fully recognize that.”
Tensions flared last year after Netanyahu closed the Israeli Embassy in San Salvador, the capital, for budget reasons. In response, El Salvador threatened to shutter its embassy in Tel Aviv and move its operations to Ramallah or even Cairo.
But since then, the rhetoric has subsided. These days, friendship is in the air.
“We are very positive about seeing that the prime minister of Israel is visiting Latin America for the first time,” the Salvadoran diplomat told me. “That’s a good sign.”
Romero said the Central American Integration System (known by its Spanish acronym, SICA) “would have loved” to host Netanyahu on his current Latin America trip as a way to boost trade ties between Israel and the eight-member group. Efforts to bring Netanyahu to Panama, which now occupies the presidency of SICA, failed even though Israel hopes to achieve observer status within the organization — which includes all six of Central America’s Spanish-speaking nations, plus Belize and the Dominican Republic.
“But the fact that the Israelis have negotiated a free-trade agreement with Panama opens the door to many more opportunities for trade and investment between the SICA region and Israel,” said Romero. “We hope the Panamanians are able to sign the agreement very soon, because we can piggyback on that.”
To which most Israelis — even though piggy is far from kosher — would happily endorse with a hearty “L’chaim!”
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is a longtime correspondent for The Tico Times.