Arabs in Latin America: Making a Difference


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By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

In this posting, we look at one additional aspect of the Arab diaspora to the Americas. Last week, we reviewed the general diaspora to Latin America of proportionately many more Arabs than immigrated to the U.S. and Canada. Here we will detail the contribution of Arabs to specific South and Central American societies. These Arabs seemingly have made bigger inroads to specific countries that have their North America cousins. This may be a matter of how effectively they’ve been able to integrate into the specific country to which they immigrated, their religion, and distinctive personalities, among other possibilities. In this piece, we look at individual cases of such Arab immigrants and their roles in changing the political, economic and cultural landscapes of their adopted South and Central American countries.

Brief Overview of Arab Immigration to Latin America

To repeat from the previous posting, estimates of Arab migration to Latin America may be exaggerated. The following is one version, by country:

Country — Estimated  # Arab Immigrants
Brazil:                        9-12,000,000 Argentina:                  4,500,000 Venezuela:                 1,600,000 Colombia:                  1,500,000 Mexico:                      1,500,000 Chile:                            800,000 Honduras:                    275,000 Ecuador:                       250,000

Relative to the immigration of Arabs to North America, their movement to Latin America has been significantly greater. As much as 5% of Latin America is comprised of Arabs. This equates to about 25-30 million people. The vast majority of these immigrants is Christian, who has come to fit the Roman Catholic mold or who’ve more recently converted to the Evangelical branch of Christianity. Far fewer are Arab Muslims.

One theory for the easier assimilation of Arab Christians to Latin America is the commonality of religious sentiments. Additionally, these Christians have tended to be well-educated and economically successful immigrants.

Successful Latin American Arabs

Arabs in Latin America: Making a Difference
Lebanese Mexican Carlos Slim–one of the richest men in the world

One of the richest men in the world—in fact, the richest until Jeff Bezos of Amazon came along—is Carlos Slim Helú a Lebanese Mexican.

Carlos Menem, an Arab of Syrian origin was, until recently, president of Argentina. Many individuals of Arab origin have become very successful in the politics, business, fashion, film, music, and sports of South and Central America. Below are abbreviated lists of such successful Arabs.

Arab-Latinos are well-embedded in the politics of many countries of South and Central America, as follows:

Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé (Palestinian origin)Former President of Honduras
Nayib Bukele (Palestinian origin)President-elect of El Salvador
Gilberto Kassab (Lebanese origin)Former Mayor of São Paulo
Paulo Maluf (Lebanese origin)Former Mayor of São Paulo city and former governor of São Paulo state in Brazil
Carlos Menem (Syrian origin)Former President of Argentina
Said Musa (Palestinian origin)Former Prime Minister of Belize

A correction from last week’s post is that Elias Antonio Saca was a former president of El Salvador (2004-09) — not, as stated, Honduras.

Arabs in Latin America: Making a Difference
President-elect of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who will take office on June 1, 2019

In Business, these are some of the highly successful Arab Latino Americans:

André Apaid (Lebanese origin)High-profile Haitian businessman
Miguel Facussé Barjum (Palestinian origin)Honduran businessman and landowner
Carlos Ghosn (Lebanese origin)Brazilian-French-Lebanese businessman– CEO of Renault-Nissan
Carlos Slim Helú (Lebanese origin)Mexican businessman; listed by Forbes as the richest man in the world
Antoine Izméry (Palestinian origin)Former wealthy Haitian businessman and pro-democracy activist
Fredy Nasser (Palestinian origin)Honduran businessman
Arabs in Latin America: Making a Difference
Lebanese Colombian Paulina Vega, Miss Universe, 2014

In Fashion and Beauty, the following are notable Arab Latina women who represent a sense of Arab female beauty:

Constanza Baez (Lebanese origin)Miss Ecuador 2013 winner and 2nd runner-up at Miss Universe 2013
Valerie Domínguez (Lebanese origin)Miss Colombia 2005 winner and Top 10 finalist at Miss Universe 2006
Lisa Hanna (Lebanese origin)Miss World 1993 winner from Jamaica
Paulina Vega (Lebanese origin)Miss Colombia 2013, Miss Universe 2014
Paola Turbay (Lebanese origin)Miss Universe 1992 (1st runner-up) from Colombia

Lebanese Mexican actress Salma Hayek is a highly popular film star and Shakira is a Lebanese Colombian superstar singer.

Such notable Arabs as those listed above have prospered across the continent of Latin America, including the Caribbean. They have done so despite the varied types of governments spanning the continent, ranging from dictatorships to democracies. It seems, however, that Arab Latinos have prospered and come to positions of importance in countries that lean towards democracies.

What’s on the Horizon for the Arabs of Latin America?

A few trends that may affect Arab Latin Americans include a pro-Israeli stance on the part of Arab Evangelical Christians. Such a trend has also become an important part of U.S. identity politics, where Evangelicals are also associated with a pro-Israeli stance coupled with a dose of Islamophobia. Contrary to this trend is another influence, namely the infusion into Latin America of Saudi Arabian and Iranian funding of pro-Islamic campaigns. While this funding has not resulted in the conversion of Christian Arabs to Islam, it has influenced some Arabs to shift to an anti-Zionist stance. Especially among Palestinians in Chile, a radicalization against Israel has begun to set in—despite the fact that most of these Palestinians are Christians.

Arab immigrants to Latin America have been successful over many generations in adapting to the socio-economic, political and religious landscapes of the countries where they reside. Nevertheless, they have also begun to be caught up in the web of international politics—especially in the opposing arenas of pro-Zionist/pro-Israeli versus anti-Islamist/anti-Palestinian sentiments. Perhaps it’s inevitable that these Arabs have become embroiled in this political web. It is no doubt part of the political-cultural- religious baggage they brought with them from the ‘Old World’ to the ‘New World.’