The Lebanese parliamentary elections on May 6 are bound to make history, as, for the first time ever, Lebanese residing abroad have been granted the right to vote. Their appetite to do so, however, has so far appeared to be rather humble.
In total, 82,900 Lebanese abroad have registered to vote, according to the official Lebanese government website. Numbers quoted in The Monthly, a publication by Information International, a Beirut-based research and consultancy firm, cite 45,827 Christians and 38,329 Muslims registered (the discrepancy in the overall total is likely caused by the difference in those who registered versus those registrations that were accepted).
Some 60 percent of registered Lebanese voters abroad live in Australia, Canada, the US, France, and Germany—in that order. Only 2,106 Lebanese, or 2.5 percent, registered in Brazil, which may come as a surprise, given the country’s status as the world’s “second Lebanon.”
“Estimates vary slightly, but we reckon there are some 8 million Brazilians of Lebanese descent, about half of whom live in and around São Paulo,” says Sabah Khoury, Lebanon’s consul in São Paulo. “They live in every corner of the country. [Other] major concentrations are in Rio de Janeiro and Foz de Iguaçu in the south, where we plan to open another consulate.”
One need not travel far to spot Lebanese and Arab traces in São Paulo. Situated on Paulista Avenue, the city’s most prestigious thoroughfare, the Lebanese consulate sits right across from “Club Homs,” a restaurant and event venue established by Syrian immigrants in 1920.
Several skyscrapers along the avenue boast Arabic family names, while eateries on every corner sell kibbeh and sfiha, which have become staple foods in Brazil. Two of the city’s mayors since 1990 were of Lebanese descent, while a third was Syrian, and Hospital Sírio-Libanês is widely regarded as the city’s, if not the nation’s, best.
According to Khoury, the low number of registered voters in Brazil is arguably due to the complex registration procedure. “People could register online or at the consulate,” she says. “However, the Ministry of Interior in Beirut had to approve the application, which could take a month or more, while the registration period closed in November. I think people may have underestimated that.
“On the other hand, although 8 million is a fair estimate, we should put the figure in perspective,” she added. “The first Lebanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in the late 19th century following the visit of Brazilian Emperor Pedro II to Lebanon. Their descendants often are only partly Lebanese.”
Pedro II had a keen interest in the Orient and visited the region twice in the 1870s. Legend has it that in 1871 he halted his convoy on the way to Baalbek to talk to a group of peasants and encourage them to emigrate to Brazil, where plenty of fertile land and opportunities would await them.
True or not, the first Lebanese immigrants arrived in South America’s promised land in 1871. Driven by economic malaise, hunger, or conflict, many more would follow in this first wave of emigration from Lebanon that roughly lasted till the end of the Second World War.
Naturally, many of the early pioneers married other immigrants. As a result, there are numerous Brazilians who have a claim to Lebanese roots, but their link to the country of their great-grandmother or great-grandfather is cultural or nostalgic at best. To count potential voters among Brazil’s considerable Lebanese contingent, the focus should be on more recent arrivals.
“I didn’t know you could vote through the internet,” says 75-year-old Georges Habib. “I assumed I had to go to the consulate and needed all kinds of documents, so I didn’t bother.”
Habib arrived in Brazil in the mid-1960s. He had done his military service, but did not wish to make a career in the army, which would have been the path ahead had he stayed in Akkar. In Brazil, he worked in textile and electronics, which allowed him to provide his three children with a good education, and today, enjoy his retirement in one of the better parts of São Paulo.
“But, even if I had registered, who was I going to vote for?” he asks. “I don’t follow politics in Lebanon. I don’t know who is good and who is bad.”
And that is coming from a Lebanese emigrant who still maintains strong links with his home country. He and his wife, also Lebanese, regularly visit Lebanon. At home, they speak Arabic, and mainly eat Lebanese food. It is a very different story for their children who occasionally visit Lebanon and only speak broken Arabic. None of Habib’s children registered to vote.
“I have no clue who to vote for,” says Habib’s daughter Tanya. “But also, I don’t have a Lebanese passport. I do feel Lebanese, and I love Lebanon, but why would I get a passport? It’s expensive. It’s easier to travel with my Brazilian one, and whenever I visit Lebanon, I get a visa upon arrival.”
As in São Paulo, there are plenty of signs of a Lebanese presence in Foz de Iguaçu, a touristic city on the border with Paraguay famous for its massive waterfalls. While the first Lebanese immigrants arrived here over 100 years ago, many thousands arrived in the last three decades. Most are Shiite and left the country due to the civil war and the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.
Yet, even here, the appetite to register and vote has been virtually non-existent. Nearly all of the 2,106 Lebanese who registered to vote did so in São Paulo.
“Why vote?” says Ali Farhat, a journalist who has lived in Foz for 18 years. “I have to vote in south Lebanon, even though I grew up in Beirut. Now, I thank Hezbollah for the liberation of my village, but I’m not happy with their role in government. They should fight corruption. As politics in the south is dominated by Hezbollah and Amal, my vote would be a lost one.”
Yahya Awali did not register either. “I don’t like any of the parties, so why vote?” he says, “Maybe in the future that new party, Sabaa, can make a difference.” The 42-year-old arrived in Foz in the late 1990s and is the living proof that the Brazilian dream is still alive some 140 years after the first Lebanese immigrants arrived. Awali left Lebanon because he could not find a job, “not even at Sukleen.” Today, he has a thriving business in mobile phone repairing equipment situated across the border in Paraguay, which allows him to financially support his family back in Lebanon. The low voter registration turnout does not surprise him.
“Brazil is a country built on immigration,” he says. “Everyone is welcome here, but everyone must become Brazilian. For example, we have a Lebanese school here in Foz, fully recognized by the Brazilian educational board, where we teach the children some Arabic and the Quran. However, we can only do that a few hours a week as extracurricular subjects. That is the reason why the second generation Lebanese generally only speak broken Arabic, and the third generation not at all.”
The gradual weakening of the connection to their ancestral land casts doubts on the viability of attempts to draw the Lebanese diaspora into voting, this year or in future Lebanese elections. On the other hand, placing members of the diaspora in better empowered positions for determining the course of politics in their homeland could work in the diaspora’s long-term benefit and be in their own political interest. As Awali notes, he remains strongly connected to Lebanon. He visits regularly, and even dreams of returning for good one day. “I’m building a house near Marjayoun,” he says. “And I would like to live there. The problem is I don’t want my children to have the same childhood I had. I want them to live a life in peace.”