Armenian presence in Latin America

Coauthor Júlia Tordeur

Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan are historic, but following the end of 2020, the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and the 2021 border crisis, since September, large-scale clashes have cost the lives of hundreds of people. The gravity of the situation is such that the UN Security Council recently held a closed-door meeting to address the issue. The conflict, however, is also echoed in Latin America, where communities of Armenian origin have condemned “the invasion of Armenia’s sovereign territory by Azerbaijan” and have organized protests in front of Azerbaijani embassies.

Despite not being the largest in Latin America, the community of citizens of Armenian origin stands out as one of the most active, heterogeneous, and influential in the region. The various churches, schools, clubs, newspapers, and radio stations of Armenian origin, in addition to their important representation in Latin American politics, business, and arts, are proof of this.

The main Armenian communities in Latin America are present in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Honduras, and Mexico, but there are also significant groups of this community in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Cuba.

Thus, the arrival of Armenians is directly related to the political conflicts that began during the Ottoman Empire. Most of the Armenians who arrived in the region did so escaping massacres, persecutions, and deportation processes during the First World War and the years that followed. Many are survivors of the Armenian Genocide, which took place between 1915 and 1923.

In the context of widespread forced migrations, Armenian migration and the formation of a global diaspora were facilitated by the Nansen Passport, created in 1921 by the League of Nations through the High Commissioner for Refugees. However, upon arrival, Armenian migrants were not identified as Armenians, but as immigrants from Western Europe, and were often confused with Syrians and Lebanese who also landed in Latin American metropolises.

The presence and political activism of the Armenian Diaspora in Latin America have been especially evident in relation to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. In 1965, Uruguay was the first country to officially recognize this fact and today there are several countries in the region and entities such as the Andean Parliament that recognize and condemn it.

Currently, many Latin Americans of Armenian origin maintain their activism for this cause, while Armenia tries to promote more and greater ties with this population. Two examples illustrate these trends. In 2021, after Armenia’s defeat by Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Aivazian called on members of the Armenian Diaspora in Latin America to actively participate in the reconstruction of the country, defined as their “second historical homeland”.

On the other hand, in April 2022, one day before the 107th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, Uruguay received the visit of the Chancellor of Turkey, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The visit was aimed at the inauguration of the new Turkish embassy in the country, in the context of deepening bilateral relations and the signing of a free trade agreement. However, the date chosen and the ambassador’s gesture of reproducing with his hands the symbol of a Protestant paramilitary organization in front of the demonstrators of the Uruguayan Armenian community generated numerous criticisms and condemnations.

Although the presence of the Armenian Diaspora is regional, in two Latin American countries the importance of this community is more marked: Argentina and Brazil.

The Armenian Diaspora in Argentina and Brazil

According to local censuses, the Armenian community in Argentina and Brazil began to form in the last decades of the 19th century and consolidated between 1930 and 1940.

Argentina and Brazil became destinations for this population due to factors such as their migration policies and the opportunities offered by their economies, as well as the existence of networks and host communities. Armenian communities settled mainly in cities such as São Paulo and Buenos Aires, but other cities such as Córdoba or Osasco also became home to this population.

Since the end of the 20th century, Armenian communities in Argentina and Brazil experienced significant economic growth through trade and industry in both countries.

In the economic and commercial sphere, Argentina is currently among the ten countries with the largest investment flows to Armenia. In this process, it is important to note the role played by key players of the Armenian Diaspora in Argentina such as Eduardo Eurnekian, considered by Forbes magazine as one of the richest men in the country, and an active member of the Armenian community.

Politically, despite the strengthening of relations with Turkey recently, Argentina has shown its support for the Armenian cause with the recognition of the genocide by the Chamber of Deputies and the Federal Senate. In addition, Law 26199 of 2007 declares April 24, Armenian Genocide Day, as a “day of action for tolerance and respect among peoples”.

On the other hand, in Brazil, the first families that landed in São Paulo formed large industries linked to the textile sector and the footwear trade, but their presence is also important in the political and cultural spheres.

On the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, the country’s Armenian community, linked especially to the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), sought the approval of a motion of recognition by the Senate. Despite the fact that, in 2015, the Federal Senate unanimously recognized the Armenian Genocide, neither the Executive Branch nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued statements supporting this measure. As historian Heitor Loureiro points out, during the 2000s, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide experienced some challenges due to factors such as Brazil’s foreign policy agenda and the deepening of the relationship with Turkey, considered strategic.

Beyond the activism of the Diaspora, its struggle for the memory and recognition of the Armenian Genocide or the denunciation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the communities of Armenian origin and their numerous contributions are central and constitute a good example of the diversity that today characterizes and enriches our region.

*Júlia Tordeur is a historian and political scientist. Ph.D. candidate in Social History (UFRJ) and in History, Politics and Cultural Heritage (FGV-CPDOC). Specialist in collective memory and human rights in Latin America (Clacso). Researcher at Grisul.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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