Coffee or cachaça?

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First it was two women, and then it was a woman and a man. So what is next in Brazil’s presidential elections? And, why does Latin America’s largest and most populous nation matter to the Arab and African worlds.

It is an oddity that Arab Brazilians rarely get a mention. Arabs are obliged to take the Brazilian presidential elections seriously since there are an estimated 15 million Brazilians of Arab descent, primarily hailing from the Levant. Some are first generation Brazilians and others are second and third generation Arab-Brazilians. Few Arab Brazilians speak any Arabic, and such knowledge is often limited to a few basic words. Instead the majority, especially those of younger generations, do not speak Arabic as their mother tongue, preferring to speak Portuguese, the country’s official language.

Cut off from their African roots, cachaca, Brazil’s national distilled spirit concocted from sugarcane juice, and the arresting capoeira music and dance, imbued African Brazilians with a narcissistic mindset. Cachaca, one presumes did not catch on as far as Arab Brazilians Muslims being a minority among Arab Brazilians, were concerned. A majority of the early Levantine immigrants were Christian Arabs, and I suppose those that ended up in the favelas or shantytowns, hit the bottle.

In a curiously nuanced fashion, coffee, in sharp contrast to cachaca, was no stranger to Arab Brazilians, Brazil being the world’s biggest producer of coffee, Intermarriage between Brazilians of Arab descent and other Brazilians, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation, is exceptionally high; most Brazilians of Arab descent only have one parent of Arab origin. And, truth be told, relatively rarely did the Levantines intermarry with Brazil’s ethnic blacks, of African descent. Brazilians with perceptible African ancestry are generally referred to as preto, or “black”, and are distinguished from the mixed race or pardos. The former constitute some seven per cent of Brazil’s 202 million people, while the latter are estimated to comprise 43 per cent.

Actually, in most instances it is difficult to distinguish the two as many preto prefer to pass as Pardo. The dynamics of race relations in Brazil as in much of Latin America and the Caribbean was historically radically different from those of North America. The branco, or “white” Brazilians, officially 48 per cent of the population, in colonial times deliberately encouraged the Pardos to aspire to a more eminent social position than the pretos who invariably remained at the bottom of the social ladder. Such historically socially ingrained attitudes are fast receding in contemporary multiracial Brazil. Arab Brazilians were neither amarilo, “yellow”, or East Asian, nor indigena, or indigenous Native American Brazilians. Most Levantine Arabs aspired to be branded brancos and passed as such.

After all, the Portuguese colonists, unlike northern Europeans, were themselves Mediterraneans, or “off whites”. The term “Africano Brasileiro” (African Brazilian) has increasingly become fashionable among the Brazilian black bourgeoisie, preto and Pardo alike. By the last decade of last century, racism in Brazil had become the subject that dares not speak its name. The reticence of non-racist forces in Brazil is no longer sustainable precisely because racism is generally considered politically incorrect. And, the non-whites in a multiracial nation have become more visible in the public arena. Among the most iconic African Brazilians is the legendary footballer Pele, musician and former Brazilian minister of culture (2003-2008). More subtly, perhaps, Arab Brazilians have been making their mark on Brazilian politics. They do so not so much as Arab Brazilians, but as Brazilian pure and simple, period.

Moreover, Levantine cuisine rapidly spread throughout Brazil with dishes such as tabouleh, Portuguese tabule and kibbeh, Portuguesequibe, soon became household names in many parts of the sprawling country. The historiography of modern Brazil is incomplete without the Arab input. A random sample of Arab Brazilian politicians suffices to prove how they have inched towards the upper echelons of the power structures, in politics, entertainment, sport and captured a diverse spectrum of social achievements. By virtue of being less visible in Brazilian society, Arab Brazilians are upwardly mobile without attracting much public attention as an ethnic group on the move.

Michel Temer, current Vice President under the Rousseff Presidency. Temer is the second Brazilian vice president after Jose Maria Alkmin who served between 1964 and 1967. These are perhaps the most eminent, but countless Arab Brazilians are excelling in their own chosen professions. And, the question of personal and national identity underpins the ethos of Arab Brazilians. Ethnicity and the politics of ethnic identity are downplayed, not just in the political domain, but in other spheres of Brazilian life as well.

Amir Slama, fashion designer; Branco, fomer Brazilian footballer and soccer world champion; Sabrina Sato Rahal, model and TV entertainer; actress Tania Khalil; Arnaldo Jabor film director, screenwriter and producer; Fernando Haddad politician and the former mayor of Brazil’s largest city, the largest in the America’s exceeding Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles and the world’s twelfth largest city by population Sao Paulo; Gilberto Kassab politician and the current mayor of Sao Paulo; Geraldo the current Governor of Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous and wealthiest state, are but a high-profile selection of Arab Brazilians who have made it to the top, without taunting their Arab heritage.

It was against this racial and ethnic backdrop that election results emerged on Sunday with Dilma Rousseff as the front-runner in one of the most tightly contested presidential elections since democracy was re-established in Brazil in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Rousseff  failed to win a majority of the vote. Marina Silva was elbowed out, and relegated to third place, thereby opening the way for a runoff with Aécio Neves, the pro-business scion of a powerful political family. The burning question is whether Silva was sidelined because of her mixed race heritage or because of her perceived ultra-leftist and environmentalist political platforms that alienated her from the powers that be in Brazil.

Gender inequality has long been a drag on Brazil’s politics, and women were virtually excluded from the decision making process during the decades of military rule. Today, women are are integral part of Brazil’s political establishment. Take Rousseff, 66, for instance. Not only did she become Brazil’s first woman president, but she is widely expected to remain the favorite going into the 26 October runoff, the surge by Neves notwithstanding.

Be that as it may, there are those in Brazil who strongly believe that the country is in desperate need of major changes in government. This trend reflects not only disenchantment among right-wing voters with Rousseff’s leftist Workers Party which has been in power since 2003, but also Silva’s leftist constituency that feels that the web of antipoverty programmes begun by Rousseff’s Workers Party has not done enough to bridge the poverty gap. Big divergences in wealth and power have persisted in spite of the seemingly political hegemony of the left.

Brazil is the world’s seventh largest economy, but many Brazilian children and in particular the country’s pretos live below the poverty line, and are malnourished and suffer from poor sanitation, poor healthcare and and an atrocious educational system, one in which poverty-stricken children are excluded from. Children of the wealthy elite are likely to stay well-off, and the progeny of less prosperous parents inevitably stay poor. Successive governments, even left-leaning ones, have done little to address these problems. Brazil, after all, has many pressing development needs and has more mouths to feed than any other country south of the Rio Grande.

With Silva as kingmaker, the left may be strengthened if Rousseff garners the far leftist and green electoral constituencies, those who cast their votes in favour of Silva. Neves, 54, is not particular mindful of children from poor backgrounds. He has signaled that he would promulgate laws and put in place policies aimed at buoying the Brazilian market, and buttering up the business community. These policies included easing controls on fuel prices and improving the transparency of public finances with no consideration for the disadvantaged. Silva, considered a Pardo, failed to make her mark by propagating her “new politics”. Her leftist and environmentalist posturing endeared her to the poorest of the poor in Brazil. She is committed to improving the chances of upward mobility for the poor and disadvantaged. Perhaps, her African roots played a part in her being relegated to third place, even though she is of mixed racial heritage.

Big business saw her onus on the environment and the disadvantaged as a threat. Brazil is already in recession and a Silva victory would only worsen the economic conditions, the Brazilian bourgeoisie reckoned. Just when good news was starting to flow out of Brazil’s favelas and rural backwaters with Silva’s aspirations to the presidency, along comes Neves to spoil the celebrations. Race, class and ethnic identity politics have no place in the Neves agenda. The Neves political philosophy championed by the rich and powerful is that a faster growing Brazilian economy would also raise everybody in the country to a higher level of prosperity.

Gamal Nkrumah is a Cairo-based African and international affairs expert.