The Role of the Portuguese and Spanish in the Geopolitics of the 21st Century: Opportunities and Challenges in the Middle East
Languages are human institutions and as well as men who speak them, they have their progress and their setbacks, win and lose speakers according to the prestige of the countries that use them. The Portuguese language in this sense began to enjoy the last years a greatest international prestige due to factors as the size of the Lusophone population, the relative youth of its speakers, their distribution in the world and therefore business opportunities with these countries.
Thus, it is not necessary a lot of mental effort to realize that the Portuguese language, spoken by approximately 272 million people worldwide, has a vigorous health and will continue to have it for a long time thanks to good economic outlook at the beginning of twenty-first century. But the Portuguese language is not alone in this expansion, it is accompanied by the Spanish language, spoken by no less than 432 million people, including natives and second language speakers.
There are, however, major challenges still to be overcome, such as the fight against extreme poverty and illiteracy in some countries, the difficulty of access to knowledge through both books as well as virtual media (Internet), without forgetting the emigrant communities in the four corners of the planet. It will be about these opportunities and challenges imposed to these languages, mainly in the Middle East, that we will talk about in this prologue.
In the last decades the center of power among countries that speak Portuguese and Spanish radically changed. Countries previously considered peripheral like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, have gained prominence in this new balance. This new power relationship leads immediately to the idea of “Geopolitics of Language”, here seen as an element of the cultural cohesion but that advances a political and trade instrument in relations between the countries ties.
The “Geopolitics of Language” is, in short, everything that includes, by extension of meaning, the relationship between geographic characteristics (location, climate, people, etc.) and the political processes of people living in a given region. Therefore, connecting the predominant use of a given language – in this case the Portuguese and Spanish as instruments of cohesion – to the negotiations with other peoples is just a natural consequence.
Institutes such as the ones mentioned above prioritize actions as the promotion of the Portuguese and Spanish languages, university cooperation and an increase in audiovisual presence. Specifically in the Middle East, the Instituto Cervantes and the Brazil-Lebanon Cultural Center have attracted a considerable number of people interested in studying Spanish and Portuguese as well as watching film productions.
But what does this step means considering that up to a few decades ago this wasunthinkable in the Middle East? A key part of the response includes MERCOSUR, a trading bloc of emerging countries which includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela, which has increased? its presence in trade and international decisions. These and other factors are more than sufficient to make it a block with a power of “mid-size influence”, but with a global reach.
It is also a movement that is in its infancy, but important actions have already been taken. In the Portuguese case, an example was the creation of Lectureship of Portuguese and Brazilian Culture in Lebanon during the Lula administration (2003-2010), which began in 2007, of which we were the first lecturer. The classes were held at the Faculty of Translation of the Lebanese University and were attended by dozens of students at various times throughout the week. All, without exception, sought our classes because of the interest generated by this new phase in which they see Brazil: business opportunities and the jobs created in the area of professional translation because of Brazilian companies that increasingly become internationalized.
Unfortunately, because of the lack of a clear agreement on the duties and obligations between the Lebanese University and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, the Lectureship at that university was cancelled by the Brazilian government. However, the interest continued and its evidence was the invitation we received to work at the Lebanese University one more year, this time without the support of the Brazilian Ministry.
The Brazilian initiative with the creation of the Brazil-Lebanon Cultural Center was commendable, but local and therefore limited, since the center is an initiative of the Embassy in Beirut and not a government one as a national project to promote the Portuguese language, as did the Spaniards with the Instituto Cervantes.
The fact is that the isolated initiative of the Embassy of Brazil in Lebanon has certainly cost a lot more expensive to the Brazilian taxpayers. And at this point Brazil has lost on two fronts: one with the Portuguese-speaking countries and other with members of MERCOSUR. Firstly in the promotion of the Portuguese language, culture and characteristics of each country as well as the deepening of business contacts between Lebanese entrepreneurs and Portuguese speaking countries; secondly in the promotion of the specific interests of the countries of the South American bloc, in which, incidentally, lives the vast majority of the Lebanese diaspora.
The organized participation of the governments of Brazil and other Portuguese speaking countries would have an immediate effect on the perception of foreign non-native in our language, showing that we form a cohesive bloc. The creation of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP, in Portuguese) in 1996 and its Spelling Agreement – which united the spelling in those countries – were an important step in this direction, but much more needs to be done and these actions inevitably pass through the hands of politicians to establish a policy for the promotion of language as a tool for cultural and commercial approach.
It is known that Angola and Brazil are among the priority for Lebanese investors’ destinations, but nothing together by the Angolan and Brazilian governments was made to facilitate access to those markets. Angola does not even have diplomatic representation in Lebanon. It would come in very good time a program between the two countries to use as a platform, for example, the Brazilian presence in Lebanon to also promote companies and businesses in Angola. From a linguistic standpoint, it would also be an excellent opportunity to show to the Lebanese that Angolans and Brazilians speak the same language, although they belong to different variants, as happens with other languages widely spoken.
The presence on the Internet is another point to be developed to advance and consolidate Portuguese and Spanish languages in the Middle East, which inevitably entails increasing the number of publications and also its diffusion worldwide. For example, in the case of the Portuguese language there is currently a concentration of publications in the hands of Brazil and, consequently, little is known about the Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, wasting opportunities to learn about those countries and to do business with them. Thus, it is necessary a common effort of those countries to democratize access to the worldwide network to offer fairer opportunities for communication with the world, greater access to knowledge, and facilitate business opportunities created by the expansion of Portuguese precisely via Brazilian expansion.
The little presence in the audiovisual transmissions is another point to develop. Specifically in the case of Lebanon, the availability of programs in Portuguese is deficient and, as far as we know, not included in the packages of cable television sold in the country; and in Spanish, diffusion is still quite low compared to the broadcasts in French and English. This doubly affects the interests of MERCOSUR in Lebanon, firstly because it creates a gap between Latin American migrants and the realities of their countries of origin, as well as programs broadcast in these languages would help to upgrade and consolidate these languages among Latin American families. But also as a connector between non-natives interested in the MERCOSUR countries, since these broadcastings are one of the best ways to learn a new language. What is certain is that the path is well known: it is the same as threshed French and English languages with broadcastings focused on other countries.
There are many other ways to promote Portuguese and Spanish languages and for this reason there are other excellent opportunities. These include editorial and film industry, which seem to have not yet discovered the Middle East, especially Lebanon. In this sense, books of Portuguese and Spanish speakers could get more readers there if combined efforts were made between the Lusophone bloc and MERCOSUR, translating their writers into Arabic, or even into French and English. Regarding the film industry, arrangements with agreements with cinema halls scattered throughout the major centers for the placement of Latin American film productions.
And for all that we have said above there is only one way to do: governmental support to help defray the publications (translations, revisions, editions, distribution, etc.). In co-editions and co-productions with publishers and producers in the countries where they want to promote them. In Lebanon there is still one more element: the existence of the Lebanese diaspora writers who settled in Latin America and that the Lebanese people have no idea who they are. From this point we will get the second step: book fairs and contacts with local universities.
The work to do is quite large, but not impossible, because the moment is favorable to deepening the relations between the countries of Latin America and the Arab World. Believe that the Latin American political class is more bureaucratic than were the English, American or French is a misconception; they just suffered the pressure of organized elites. It is, after all, the cultural maturity of each people, which we believe that even if at a slow pace, the MERCOSUR countries are going in the right direction.
Fortunately, the debate about the strength of the Portuguese and Spanish languages where they are spoken have increased exponentially either in written media, audiovisual and on the Internet through blogs – its main vector – and has increasingly gained ground among opinion leaders. It accompanies the increased self-esteem of their speakers due to the success of Latin-American entrepreneurs inside and outside their countries.
Anyway, it is nothing more than a “new-old” story: new because it includes new characters; old because the script is the same. A story in which one of the main characters are the emigrants: they are the link that connects distant countries like Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela to the countries of the Middle East as Lebanon and Syria.
Specifically on Brazil and Lebanon, “Brazilibanese” have an important role as intermediaries between both countries, which requires the appreciation of the Brazilian authorities of that community, because they speak Portuguese and Arabic as natives. At the same time, it is necessary to review the Brazilian school curriculum and teach more and better about the Arab World. Once the impact of the economic potential between these two blocks is established, the next step will be to show how Arabs can gain by mastering the Portuguese and Spanish languages and how Latin Americans can earn by promoting their business in those countries.
Now is the right time to approach and explore relations between these two blocs, and if these relations are well used by both sides, they would become allies not by imposing a bloc to another, but by the complementarity of interests and among them, the interest in learning Portuguese and Spanish languages as languages of diasporas and languages of business opportunities.