Rio de Janeiro: Brazil’s new president, Michel Temer, is already a figure of profound controversy. Formerly the country’s vice-president, he moved into power after the tumultuous suspension of President Dilma Rousseff was finalised last week in the midst of an ongoing corruption scandal.
Temer has immediately swung the country’s politics to the right, plotting free-market reforms and appointing an all-male cabinet in the wake of the departure of Brazil’s first female president.
The septuagenarian centrist may not be in power for long, though, given that he is also subject to a pending investigation into the financing of his and Rousseff’s 2014 election campaign. Before he assumed the role of president, Temer was more widely known abroad for his model wife, who is about four decades his junior.
There’s one detail in his biography that, while irrelevant to Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil, links him to a wider Latin American story. Temer, whose Lebanese parents arrived in Brazil in the 1920s, is part of a diverse and far-reaching Arab immigrant diaspora in parts of Central and South America. And he’s hardly the first regional politico of Arab ancestry to head up his nation.
Carlos Menem, the disgraced former president of Argentina, was the son of Syrian nationals. To further his political career, he converted from Islam to Roman Catholicism.
The father of Julio Csar Turbay, president of Colombia between 1978 and 1982, was an enterprising merchant who emigrated from the town of Tannourine, Lebanon. Prominent presidents of El Salvador and Honduras claim Palestinian ancestry, while successive presidents in Ecuador in the 1990s had Lebanese heritage.
Although many in the United States know of the profusion of Italian, German and Irish immigrants whose descendants now populate the Americas, they are perhaps less aware of other major migrations to the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to huge numbers from China and Japan, a significant influx of arrivals to South America came from the area known as the Levant, comprising modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.
By some estimates, about 250,000 to 300,000 Arabs emigrated to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico around this time, fleeing the upheavals that beset a collapsing Ottoman Empire. Many were initially known as “Turcos” because of their Ottoman passports. According to one account, at least 5 per cent of all people in Latin America can claim some strain of Arab ancestry, and that figure is probably higher in Brazil.
The majority of these Arab arrivals belonged to various Christian denominations. Temer’s family, for example, hailed from Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community. Affinity with the Catholic Church, as well as dogged hard work and savvy business acumen, sped the assimilation of many of these communities in South America. The diaspora include global icons like Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim and Colombian pop star Shakira, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to New York.
About 10 per cent of Brazil’s parliamentarians have Arab ancestry, with the wider population thought to be half of that. The ties that remain to the Levant can be found mostly in last names and the ubiquity of Middle Eastern-style food across the region, from popular Brazilian fast-food chains to the proliferation of the empanada, a flaky, meaty pastry influenced in part by Lebanese cooking.
There are other ties. The existence of this pronounced Arab diaspora has also shaped contemporary geopolitics. In Venezuela, the country’s leftist government has long had a cosy relationship with regimes in Iran and Syria. Tarek El Aissami, a prominent Venezuelan minister of Druze origin, is alleged by critics to have connections to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Chile boasts perhaps the largest Palestinian Christian community in the world outside Israel and the occupied territories. Palestino, one of major soccer clubs in the capital, Santiago, was established in 1920 by Palestinian Christians. The team makes a point to voice its solidarity with its distant brethren living under Israeli occupation. That’s a sympathy felt more broadly: Almost every major South American country recognises Palestinian statehood.