Unique in the modern era, there have been 11 presidents in Latin America with Arab origins (ten plus one President-elect), a result of more than a century of Arab migration to the region. Throughout this period, Arab migrants have been considered as a significant and important section of society. All 11 presidents are of either Lebanese, Syrian or Palestinian origin.
Carlos Menem is the longest ruling president among those with Arab origins. He governed Argentina for ten years, from 8 July 1989, to 10 December 1999.
Menem was born to Syrian parents who migrated to Argentina. He studied law, supported the exiled Argentine leader in Spain, Juan Perón, and protested against dictatorship. Having won the 1989 presidential election, his government accomplished a lot of economic reforms. Before he came to power, the Argentinian economy suffered from very high inflation.
When his presidency ended, he was elected as a member of the Argentine Congress in 2005 representing the province of La Rioja. In 2013, a court sentenced him to 7 years imprisonment for smuggling arms to Ecuador and Croatia between 1991 and 1995. The two countries were subject to an international arms embargo at the time.
The youngest Arab-origin president in Latin America is a Salvadoran of Palestinian decent, Najeeb Boukila, known in Spanish as Nayeb Bukele. He came to power in February as the sixth president of the country, and the youngest since 1992, when the 12-year civil war ended.
Bukele is a politician and businessman born in San Salvador, from a Palestinian father and Salvadoran mother.
A predecessor of Boukili as an Arab-origin President of El Salvador was Antonio Saca, who is of Palestinian descent. He who won the presidential elections in 2004 against his rival of Palestinian origins Schafik Jorge Handal. Both hail from the city of Bethlehem.
Saca backed the free market economy, which made him a preferred ally of the United States. As a result of this rapprochement with the US, Saca was the only Latin American president who sent troops to Iraq in 2004.
Before becoming president, Saca was a journalist on sports radio stations, then the director of a radio station for more than 10 years and founding TV No. 4. In 1993, he founded an independent radio station.
During his rule, a diplomatic crisis occurred with Israel over a statue of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Al-Quds Street in the Salvadoran capital. His government also printed a map of Palestine with “Israel” in small print inside it. They also named a public square in the capital “Martyr Yasser Arafat” six months after the Palestinian leader’s death.
Michel Temer is of Lebanese origin, and assumed the presidency of Brazil in 2016, after the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, becoming the President of the largest country in Latin America.
Michel Miguel Elias Temer Lulia was born in 1940 in Brazil to Lebanese immigrants. Immediately after his secondary education, he studied at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo, graduating in 1963. He then obtained a PhD from the Catholic University in São Paulo. He held the position of State Attorney, and the position of Minister of State for Public Security twice. Temer was also Vice President from 2011 until 12 May 2016.
Julio Teodoro Salem
Three presidents of Arab origin have ruled Ecuador, the first of whom was Julio Teodoro Salem, who assumed the presidency for just three days in May 1944 after the ousting of President Carlos Alberto following popular protests for failing to restore security to the country in the wake of the war he fought and lost against Peru in 1941.
The second Arab-origin President of Ecuador was Abdalá Bucaram. He is a lawyer and politician born in Ecuador from a migrant father. Bucaram was an athlete and headed the Ecuadorian FC Barcelona. He came to power on 10 August 1996, but was president for only four months, as the National Congress dismissed him, accusing him of lacking the mental capacity to manage the country’s affairs. His supporters believe that this was a conspiracy.
The third Lebanese-origin President of Ecuador is Jamil Mahuad, who succeeded Bucaram, and started his rule in 1998, amid the worst economic conditions in the country’s history.
The economic decline continued during his rule, until he was forced to cut 60 per cent of the country’s military budget, followed by the approval of using the dollar as an alternative to Ecuador’s local currency. This collapse led to the deterioration of his popularity, from 60 per cent in 1998 down to just six per cent in 2000. Mahuad was dismissed from his position after a week of demonstrations in the country, followed by military action led by Lucio Gutiérrez.
Julio Samir Turbay
Julio César Turbay was born Julio Samir Turbay, and governed Colombia from 1978 to 1982.
He grew up in Colombia and his parents were Lebanese. His father was an immigrant businessman, who made a huge fortune which was lost during the Thousand Days’ Civil War which started in 1899.
The most famous incident in the administration of President César occurred when the 19 April Movement, a Colombian insurgency group which arose out of guerrilla wars, broke into the Dominican Embassy and held 16 foreign ambassadors hostage for 61 days.
For two months, César did not respond to the pressure from his army to intervene militarily, but took responsibility personally for direct negotiations with the rebels to save the lives of the detainees. He ended up by giving them safe passage to Cuba, as well as $1 million, considerably less than the $50 million that they had asked for at first.
Carlos Roberto Flores, or Carlos Facussé, was President of Honduras between 27 January 1998 and 27 January 2002.
Facussé’s family is of Palestinian descent. He is a politician and entrepreneur who worked as a minister of state for two years, then president of the Honduran parliament for four years, before he ran for president in 1997 and won.
Mario Abdo Benítez
The president who angered Israel, Mario Abdo Benítez is the current 46-year-old President of Paraguay who took office in April 2018. He is of Lebanese descent, and the son of an aide to former President Alfredo Stroessner.
Although Paraguay was the third country after the United States and Guatemala to move its embassy to occupied Jerusalem, the government led by President Abdo decided in September to return the embassy to Tel Aviv. “Paraguay is a country of principles,” he tweeted.
Salvador Nasralla is regarded by many as the President-elect in Honduras, after a disputed election.
He was born in Honduras in 1953, to parents of Lebanese descent. After completing high school, his family sent him to a Catholic University in Chile where he studied civil engineering and obtained a master’s degree in business administration with honours. Besides his studies, he took lessons in drama and television.
He married Miss Honduras 2015, Iroshka Elvir, and worked as a TV presenter, before becoming what he believes is President-elect.