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Fernando Haddad of Lebanese Heritage, Runs for President of Brazil

posted on: Oct 10, 2018

By: Kareem Rosshandler/Arab America Contributing Writer

In Brazil, elections are underway between two presidential candidates with very different visions for the regional powerhouse and fifth largest country in the world. On October 28, Brazilians will head to the polls to vote in a run-off between Jair Bolsonaro of the national-conservative Social Liberal Party and Fernando Haddad of the Socialist Worker’s Party. Various leftist organizations are rallying behind the Worker’s Party – which played an important role in removing Brazil’s far-right military dictatorship in 1985 – in an effort to save Brazil’s social programs and ward off the neoliberal policies that a Bolsonaro victory might bring back to the country.

Haddad, a Lebanese Orthodox Christian, was born in Sao Paulo, the second of three children of Lebanese shopkeeper, Khalil Haddad, a Lebanese immigrant to Brazil, and Norma Teresa Gousain a teacher and the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. His grandfather Cury Habib Haddad, was a priest for the Eastern Orthodox Church in Lebanon. He and his wife Ana Estela have two children.

Haddad and his wife Ana Estela

Haddad is a philosophy professor who served as both ministers of education and mayor of Sao Paulo. Considered a substitute for the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who is barred from re-election while he serves a twelve-year prison sentence for alleged corruption – Haddad represents the centrist wing of the Worker’s Party.

As education minister, he helped implement the University for All Program, which aims at offering scholarships for low-income students attending private universities. And as mayor until 2016, his crowning achievement was expanding Sao Paulo’s bike lanes by hundreds of kilometers – an initiative making the city safer for cyclists and breaking nearly 30 years of municipal deadlock.

Although a relatively low-key public figure, many of Haddad’s supporters see in him a socially conscious politician who will expand major welfare services introduced under da Silva – such as housing projects for low-income families – and continue to champion the rights of Brazil’s most vulnerable and downtrodden.

Bolsonaro, on the other hand, wants to take Brazil in an entirely different direction. A populist candidate often compared to Trump for his off-color remarks about women and nostalgia for ‘Brazil’s better times’, Bolsonaro wants to bring the country back into a more market-driven economy and do away with regulations that he sees as fettering business-owners and slowing down workers’ productivity. Pointing towards Venezuela next door, he has warned that Brazil is headed towards a similar collapse if it continues to pursue da Silva’s policies. On social issues, the ex-military man has spoken out against same-sex marriage as well as abortion. Seen as the ‘pro-family values’ candidate, he is favored by Brazil’s growing evangelical bloc.

This last point touches on Brazils’ Middle East foreign policy. Under da Silva, Brazil formally recognized the Palestinian state in 2010, encouraging Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and others to follow suit. Ideological affinity for the Palestinian cause as well as the deep roots of Arab immigration to Latin America has meant a solid tradition of Latin American diplomatic support for Palestine. However, with the emergence of the evangelical movement as a compelling political force in Latin America, there is more pressure on candidates to roll back on long-standing support and cater to the evangelical bloc’s more doctrinaire foreign policy agenda.

Voting is compulsory in Brazil. So with his constituency in mind, Bolsonaro has published promotional videos of his family trips to Israel, seeking to strengthen ties between the two states despite what he calls Brazil’s overall ‘ideological bias’. He even declared that if he becomes president, Israel would be the first country he visits. In this case, there is a chance that we will see a rerun of the 2017 Honduras elections, in which the conservative Juan Orlando Hernandez beat the leftist Salvador Nasralla – a Latin American of Palestinian descent – in a closely contested presidential bid. Subsequently, Honduras was one of only nine states to vote against the UN resolution condemning Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Much like Egypt is to the Middle East, Brazil is South America’s regional powerhouse, and her policies to a great degree influence those of neighboring countries. For this reason amongst others, it is important for Arab Americans to keep a pulse on the election runoff later this month and consider how it will affect local communities in South America and the Middle East.