President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil was suspended from office earlier this month and now faces impeachment. She is accused of manipulating the country’s budget to hide deficits, which her critics say helped her get re-elected in 2014.
If two-thirds of the Brazilian Senate vote to impeach, Rousseff will be permanently barred from office. Meanwhile, Vice-President Michel Temer has assumed the presidency.
Temer is the son of Miguel Elias Temer Lulia and March Barbar Lulia, Maronite Lebanese immigrants who came to Brazil in 1925. He is one of many Latin American politicians not of Spanish or Portuguese ancestry.
“You are more president of Lebanon than me as you have eight million, we have five million,” Lebanon’s then-president, Michel Suleiman, told Temer when he was elected vice-president in 2011. Brazil’s Lebanese community, largely Christian, is estimated at between seven and 10 million members, nearly five per cent of the nation’s population.
They are part of a diverse and far-reaching Arab immigrant diaspora in parts of Central and South America. A significant influx of arrivals to the western hemisphere came from the area comprising modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel a century ago.
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.
Latin America now has the largest Arab diaspora in the world. Today, more than 17 million people in Latin America are thought to be of Arab origin.
Temer is not the first politician of Arab ancestry to head up an American nation. Over the last 60 years, eight Latin American presidents prior to him had Arab origins.
The father of Julio César Turbay, president of Colombia from 1978 to 1982, was an enterprising merchant who emigrated from the Lebanese town of Tannourine. It is estimated that there are over a quarter of a million Colombians of Arab descent.
Two presidents of Ecuador, Abdala Bucaram, president in 1996-1997, and Jamil Mahuad, president from 1998 to 2000, also have Lebanese origins, as did Jacobo Majluta Azar, briefly president of the Dominican Republic in 1982. Another Lebanese Ecuadorian, Alberto Dahik, served as his country’s vice-president in 1992-1995.
Argentina’s Arab community is estimated at between three and four million, some nine percent of its total population, most being either Syrian Orthodox or Lebanese Maronite Catholics.
Though Carlos Menem, president of Argentina from 1989 to 1999, was the son of Saul Menem and Mohibe Akil, who were Syrian Muslims, he converted to Catholicism to further his political career.
Two leaders, Elías Antonio Saca, president of El Salvador from 2004 to 2009, and Carlos Flores Facussé, presidentof Honduras from 1998 to 2002, are of Palestinian ancestry.
Saca comes from a family of Christian immigrants who arrived in El Salvador in the early 20th century from Bethlehem, while Flores’ mother — like many of that country’s early settlers — was from Beit Jala, a village near Bethlehem.
It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 of the six million inhabitants of Honduras are of Palestinian descent — the highest proportion of any Latin American nation.
Chile, with 500,000, boasts the largest Palestinian Christian community in the world outside the Middle East, but none have been elected to its presidency.
The Arab communities in the region have prospered, and have made major contributions in business, culture, and politics.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.