By Joe Dyke
Most days, Btaaboura is a soporific place. The north Lebanese village is home to only a few hundred residents, many of whom have long-since retired. On any given afternoon the hot topics of conversation are likely to be the weather, the neighbors and perhaps the renovations.
Yet if you happened to pass by on a late November afternoon three years ago, you would have been excused for thinking it was the center of the country. Processions of people waited by the roads as a cavalcade drove in, flanked by helicopters and endless security details. The media’s cameras were not far behind.
For on that day, a long-lost resident returned, and he was not just any old traveller. As vice president of Brazil, a country of nearly two hundred million people and the world’s seventh largest economy, Michel Temer has a strong claim to being the globe’s most powerful politician of Lebanese origins. Indeed when he met with President Michel Sleiman on that same trip, the Lebanese president joked about his own inferiority. “He said ‘you are more president of Lebanon than me as you have eight million, we have five million!’” Temer says, referencing the huge Lebanese–Brazilian population.
On that day, several hundred residents were treated to lunch outside where, in true Lebanese fashion, the guest was forced to eat far beyond his capacity or desire. “They keep putting it on your plate and you have to eat it,” Temer recalls with a wry grin.
Struggle and sacrifice
The story of Temer’s family is, like so many immigrant tales, one of sacrifice. Moving from Btaaboura to São Paulo in the mid–1920s, his young parents (who had married at just 18 and 14) already had three children. Temer was to be their eighth, and last, of their offspring.
Like many first generation immigrants, the Temers took to manual work — setting up a small farm and shop in a small town in the state of São Paulo in hope of a better future for their children. “My father always said that Brazil is the place to ‘make America,’ and by ‘make America’ he meant the place to grow — to prosper,” Temer says in his luxurious tenth floor office in central São Paulo. Yet it soon became clear that his father’s chances of making enough to support such a large family were limited, so the eldest children were commanded to abandon their hopes of education in favor of their younger siblings.
His oldest brother was reticent and in his mid-teens ran away to take the exams for medical school. Much to his surprise, he got in. Congratulations, his father said, but it was not enough — the family needed him to help bring up the younger ones. “He was one of the smartest [but] he dedicated his life to working with trade — helping my father so that me and the others could study,” Temer recalls. In the end the four eldest worked, while the youngest quartet all trained as lawyers.
With the pressure born of this sacrifice, Temer studied hard at university — becoming involved in university politics early on. It was a revolutionary time for the country’s youth — in 1964 a coup d’état brought the military to power. Angry young movements sprung up to fight back, with current President Dilma Rousseff among those that resorted to radical means — eventually being jailed for alleged guerilla activities. Temer was also resisting but more passively — becoming increasingly involved in student politics.
A talented graduate, he started working in the legal field. By 1983 he had risen to become attorney general of São Paulo, the following year being appointed secretary of public security for the city. Yet it wasn’t until 1986 that his political career began in earnest — winning a seat in the country’s parliament which he still holds. The military’s twenty-year rule had collapsed the year earlier and Temer remembers an exciting time. “It was a moment of vitality because we were recovering our democracy. Because I was an expert in constitutional law I played a big role in rebuilding democracy in our country,” he says.
Two decades of work in politics followed, initially becoming speaker of the parliament and later head of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) — currently the country’s second largest. It was when they became the junior partner in the government led by Rousseff in late 2010 that Temer was called upon to play his most prominent role yet.
Trading on his roots
One of his roles in the current government is as head of Brazil’s policies toward the Arab world — particularly in terms of trade. Since the 2005 formation of the Summit of South American–Arab Countries under the government of then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, trade between the two regions has blossomed. In 2012 Arab–Brazilian trade reached $25.11 billion, up 3.26 percent on the previous year and around $11 billion a decade earlier. Raw materials form the bulk of Arab exports, while Brazil sells food exports and other goods.
Yet trade with Lebanon has remained relatively limited. Temer believes this can change in the coming years. “Our ambassadors are always in close contact — the Lebanese ambassador in Brazil and the Brazilian ambassador in Lebanon,” he says, without providing more detail. Among the companies he was lobbying for during his 2011 visit was the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras, which has applied for the right to bid on Lebanon’s nascent offshore oil and gas sector. Yet with the bids delayed by Lebanese political wrangling and Petrobras hit with a series of corruption allegations, Temer admits a deal is currently unlikely. “Petrobras went through the pre-qualification stage. It is still ongoing but because of Petrobras’ interests abroad it wasn’t possible yet.”
Only anger growing
Temer says the achievement he is most proud of in office is cutting Brazil’s poverty rates. He argues that under his government and the previous one, Brazil’s economic growth has enabled 40 million people to be lifted out of poverty. “Now [the 40 million] are part of the middle class, granted the lower middle class, but they are not in poverty anymore,” he says.
Yet after a decade of rapid growth, recent years have been tougher for Brazil and its government. In 2010 growth was nearly 8 percent, but that has fallen to around 1 percent last year. Inflation is high, while a series of strikes have crippled the country and reduced confidence.
Temer, whose government faces an election at the end of the year, believes the fundamentals are strong. “There is much talk about the economy not going well but the truth is the daily economy is going well,” he argues. “If the economy were not going well, [this would mean] it would affect the industrial sector and there would be unemployment — but we don’t have unemployment.” He is right that unemployment — currently measured at 4.9 percent — has actually fallen from 6 percent last summer, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Confidence is very high in our country. The government is taking steps to boost the industrial sector and to improve foreign investment.”
The ongoing World Cup, he says, is a sign of Brazil’s “prestige growing internationally,” as are the forthcoming Olympic Games in Rio — despite the ongoing protests that have at times threatened to overshadow the football tournament.
Yet far from signalling a lack of confidence in the Rousseff government, Temer believes these protests are a sign of a maturing political climate. “We have a theory about these protests. Since the reinstallment of democracy with the constitution of 1988 we have lived through three different phases of democracy,” he says. The first was liberal democracy in which freedom of expression was installed, but there was little support for the country’s millions of poor. In the second they moved towards social democracy — “bread on the table,” Temer says. “This is what allowed these 40 million people to have social [mobility].”
The third phase, he says, is efficiency of services — both in the public and private sector. “A few years ago you would call a private company and they would keep you on hold for half an hour. Nowadays people don’t accept this. We have entered a third phase which is efficiency. This is what the people are demanding in the street and what the government is responding to,” he says.
While Brazil will remain his priority, Temer is deeply proud of his Lebanese roots — which he says helped him achieve his goals. In particular he thinks the “fraternity” and close-knit family ties within Lebanese communities help create strong individuals. This, he says, was signified by the fact that the statue erected by the residents of Btaaboura for his visit on that brisk November day was not of him, but his father. “Miguel Temer, father of the vice president of Brazil,” the sign below it read.