SAO PAULO: Mayor Fernando Haddad’s current post was previously filled by one Gilberto Kassab. Decades earlier, the same office was held twice by Paulo Maluf, who also served as provincial governor. The city’s history includes such political figures as Guilherme Afif and Gabriel Chalita. Although the names suggest otherwise, the political saga described above does not refer to a Lebanese city. Instead, it traces some of the families that helped shape the city and state of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic capital and one of the world’s most important urban areas. They are all part of an influential generation of immigrants born to Lebanese parents.
Among these first-generation Brazilians, the most powerful figure today is Vice President Michel Temer, 74, now in his second term as the No. 2 in President Dilma Rousseff’s administration.
His new mandate may be his most important to date: Temer was recently nominated “political articulator,” and will act as a mediator between the government and various parties. For that, Brazilian press has been treating him almost as a prime minister – a “super vice president.”
Brazil is ruled by a coalition between the Workers’ Party (PT), to which Rousseff belongs, and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), led by Temer. While the PT is a leftist party, PMDB leans more to the center. Part of Temer’s strategic position comes from the fact that his party is a key piece in the future of the government – the PMDB is the largest party in Brazil in terms of the number of its supporters. Temer has years of experience in politics and boasts considerable rhetorical abilities.
As talk continues of the eventual impeachment of President Rousseff due to fallout from a corruption scandal, Temer could by law become leader of this South American country, described by its own national anthem as being “gigantic by its own nature.” If he ascends to the presidency, he would hold the top post in world’s seventh largest economy, leading a country of nearly 200 million. At present, the likelihood of Rousseff’s impeachment remains low, and would be difficult to legally justify. But the scenario is plausible, and haunts the pages of the national newspapers.
Brazilian media has quickly picked up on Temer’s new status, and news outlets including Folha de Sao Paulo and O Globo have stepped up their coverage of his international trips. In Lisbon and Madrid, where he has been for the past month, Temer was followed by reporters from the elevator to his official car each time he attended a meeting.
Foreign leaders have paid attention to his growing influence – Temer was greeted personally by Spain’s King Felipe. When introduced at a news conference organized by local agency Efe, the vice president was referred to as the leader of the most important party in Brazil. He dismissed the description as “exaggerated,” but it could be argued otherwise.
Temer was born in the countryside of Sao Paulo into a Catholic family that had immigrated to Brazil in the 1920s, when his family left Btaaboura, in Lebanon’s Koura. The vice president visited the region in 2011, meeting with former President Michel Sleiman, then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. He also held meetings with Brazilian expatriates living in Lebanon.
The vice president is known by local journalists as a difficult politician to interview, due to his careful responses. Temer is considered a respected scholar of Constitutional Law and has held a number of positions in government since the 1980s. He is currently married to Marcela Temer, 31, who as a former deputy Miss Sao Paulo occasionally attracts more attention than her husband at official events. The couple had a son, Michel, in 2009.
Brazil’s ties to Lebanon go well beyond the Temer family.
The Latin American country is home to the world’s largest Lebanese community. Brazil has – according to some estimates – 7 million citizens with Lebanese ancestry, almost twice the population of Lebanon itself. It is no accident that Beirut is seen as a gateway for Brazilian efforts to establish closer diplomatic ties in the Middle East.
Such ties have existed for more than a century. A wave of Lebanese immigration began in the last decades of the 19th century, when immigrants saw new opportunities in Brazil during a period of severe crisis under Ottoman rule. The Lebanese arrived in a country on the verge of wide-scale industrialization, and found work in commerce. The activity is still linked to Lebanese in cities like Sao Paulo, where they were once known as “Turks” because of the passports they carried. Most Lebanese immigrants to Brazil were Christian, but many Muslims also made the voyage.
These immigrants and those that followed in subsequent decades – including Temer’s family – established the path for an influential generation to come. Current Sao Paulo mayor, Fernando Haddad, is the son of Khalil Haddad, who left his village of Ain Ata in the Bekaa Valley in 1947. His grandfather, Cury Habib Haddad, was known for having fought against the French occupation of Lebanon in the years following the World War I.
“After arriving in Brazil, these immigrants began working in commerce and invested in the education of their sons. At first, most of them studied medicine. Politics was a distant thing,” said Brazilian-Lebanese Roberto Khatlab, who lives in Beirut and studies the history of immigration. “But in the beginning of the 20th century, immigrants and their sons began paying attention to politics in the Middle East, as the region was looking for independence. Therefore, Lebanese descendants in the 1940s were studying law. That was a step before getting into politics.”
According to Khatlab, one of the pacesetters was Emilio Carlos Kyrillos, the son of a Lebanese immigrant, who was born in Brazil in 1917. After studying journalism and law, he became a Congressman in 1947, winning re-election several times afterward.
“From that moment, the Lebanese community had other candidates, and they went to different levels of politics. The National Congress now has around 8 percent of its congressman with Lebanese parentage.”
In Brazil, Lebanese traditions were quickly adopted by locals, becoming so well-integrated that today a Brazilian might consider kibbeh nayyeh, tabbouleh and labneh as native dishes.
A gigantic fast food chain named Habib’s has made a fortune in the country with its cheap delivery of sfiha – though a Lebanese visitor might shout “ya aibishum” (Shame!) to see that they sometimes have pepperoni on top.