Protests of Brazil’s Controversial President in New York and Texas

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil on inauguration day Jan. 1, 2019 (Photo Credit: US Embassy Brasília/Wikimedia Commons)

Two weeks ago, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil was being honored at a New York City gala as the selected Person of the Year by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce only to cancel his appearance amid protests and opposition. The cancellation was followed by Bolsonaro instead attending an event hosted by the World Affairs Council in Dallas and Fort Worth. Bolsonaro was first chosen as the Person of the Year for the gala dinner in mid-February. Following the announcement, reservations for the event, with prices up to $30,000 for attendees, quickly sold out.

Jair Bolsonaro has been deeply controversial for his dictatorial leanings, anti-LGBT stance, eagerness to exploit the Amazon, offensiveness toward minorities and women, support of and connections to police-run militias, advocacy of police operating with impunity, and for conveying a willingness to jail political opponents.

The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce has a history of choosing one Brazilian and one American for its annual Person of the Year award. The American they chose to honor this year was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who incidentally and ironically had previously tweeted out his praise of the dictatorially inclined Bolsonaro’s “shared commitment to democracy, education, prosperity, security, and #humanrights.” Pompeo added that he was, “Looking forward to working together to support those suffering ‘under the weight of dictatorships’ in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.”

The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce stated on their website their reasoning for selecting Bolsonaro for the Person of the Year award:

“The choice of President Bolsonaro is a recognition of his strongly stated intention of fostering closer commercial and diplomatic ties between Brazil and the United States and his firm commitment to building a strong and durable partnership between the two nations.”

Indeed, Bolsonaro has been enthusiastic about building closer commercial ties to the US, but this ambition has come packaged with extraordinary disregard for the environment. Bolsonaro’s environmental stances, alongside his anti-LGBT positioning, became the forefront issues of those opposed to the selection of Bolsonaro as Person of the Year.

Two days after winning the election, Bolsonaro’s top economic advisor, Paulo Guedes, announced the decision to merge the business-friendly Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment into a combined superministry. Activists warned this decision would undermine the Ministry of Environment’s ability to restrain commercialization that damages the environment. Blairo Maggi and Edson Duarte, outgoing ministers of agriculture and environment respectively, criticized the decision to create such a superministry. Duarte warned, “The overloading of the ministry with so many and varied agendas would threaten the role of Brazilian representation in global decision-making forums.” One such agenda is the preservation of the Amazon, which faces a dramatic increase in deforestation with the agribusiness-driven Ministry of Agriculture at the helm of this new superministry. Bolsonaro has been forthright in stating that the new superministry will indeed “come from the productive sector.” As things stand, laws exist in Brazil that maintain that certain percentages of land in the Amazon must remain forested, and violations of these laws can entail fines. Bolsonaro’s Environmental Minister, Ricardo Salles, has criticized such fines for deforestation and illegal mining as “ideological.”

In addition to the Ministry of Agriculture enveloping the Ministry of Environment, the former was also given responsibility over indigenous territories, which had formerly been handled by the Ministry of Justice. Such a move leaves currently existing settlements of indigenous, who primarily reside in the Amazon, unlikely to gain legal recognition of their territory. The process of identifying Quilombo settlements, which are settlements reserved for Afro-Brazilians descended from slaves, is also expected to be affected. Following this shift of ministerial responsibility over indigenous and Quilombo settlements, Bolsonaro tweeted:

“More than 15% of national territory is demarcated as indigenous land and quilombos. Less than a million people live in these places, isolated from true Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs. Together we will integrate these citizens.”

Bolsonaro believes that by preventing land from being demarcated for the indigenous, the resources found in those lands can instead be diverted to the economic growth of Brazil. As he has stated, “Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.” He promoted the wealth of these “abundant mineral resources” in his first international meeting in January at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos.

When the fusion of the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment was touted on the campaign trail, he had also touted the benefit of ending the so-called “industry of fines.” This contempt of fines for environmental transgressions is shared by Tereza Cristina, who Bolsonaro tapped as his Minister of Agriculture. And Bolsonaro’s top agriculture advisor, Nabhan Garcia, stated Bolsonaro intended to reduce fines for farmers violating environmental rules in the Amazon. As for miners in the Amazon, Bolsonaro, just a week after being elected president, had articulated his support of miners engaging in the extremely polluting process of artisanal mining called garimpo. “The garimpeiro is a human being and cannot continue to be treated as someone of third or fourth class,” Bolsonaro stated. “God willing, we will seek means for you to work with dignity and security.”

In late January, is was announced that the Ministry of Environment was to exert more scrutiny and restriction on environmental fines being doled out, and allow for punishment of inspectors of Ibama, the regulatory body in charge of fines. The move is seen as a means of intimidating Ibama and thereby weakening its regulation of the environment.

However, days after the effort at stifling Ibama was announced, there was a mining accident in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil. This accident was speculated to delay actions toward lessening regulations. On January 25, the day the mining accident occurred, 200 of 300 workers were still missing with 7 confirmed deaths, and the next day the death toll had climbed to 40. In the wake of the mining accident, there was a reversal in tone from the Bolsonaro administration from rhetoric that was business-oriented toward rhetoric that was more pro-environmental. Including urging resignation of the chief of Vale, the mining company that administered the mine, who did end up resigning in early March. As of March 17th, the death toll had hit 206 with 102 missing.

But despite the rise in the death toll, this wasn’t enough to halt the deregulatory ambitions of the Bolsonaro administration. In mid-April, the promised scrutinizing of fines coming out of Ibama came to fruition as Bolsonaro created a regulatory body by decree that would oversee Ibama’s “industry of fines” and foreseeably undermine it.

Additionally, for all the purported concern of the environment following the mining accident, the Associated Press recently obtained details of the policy roadmap toward castrating the National Council of Environment (CONAMA), which is the environmental agency responsible for rules regarding environmental protection. Currently, CONAMA has 100 members comprising representatives from both independent environmental groups and business groups. Bolsonaro’s blueprint would reduce CONAMA to five presidential appointees in addition to the Environmental Minister. CONAMA contributes to the protection of the 60 percent of the Amazon located in Brazil. The Amazon is critical in slowing global warming. Last month it was announced that the massive mineral-rich reserve of the Amazon rainforest known as The National Reserve of Copper and Associates (RENCA) will no longer be off-limits to mining. Bolsonaro stated: “Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the wellbeing of our population. You won’t get any trouble from the Ministry of Environment, nor the Mines and Energy Ministry nor any other.”

Climate scientists worry about the destruction of the Amazon in its capacity as the world’s lungs of the earth. The Amazon holds about one-third of the world’s forests, and as the Amazon becomes increasingly deforested there is less rainforest to absorb carbon, and more uncaptured carbon amounts to the intensification of global warming. Additionally, a more intense global warming also entails larger forest fires in the Amazon, in what amounts to a feedback loop. For this to worry Bolsonaro would require believing in climate change. When Donald Trump exited the Paris Agreement in 2017, designed to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change, Bolsonaro tweeted his support, calling climate change “the greenhouse fable.” And though Bolsonaro campaigned on the promise to pull from the Paris Agreement, two days before his electoral victory, he stated Brazil would stay in the agreement. This was not due to suddenly realizing climate change merits concern, but rather, was more likely influenced by the millions in subsidies Brazil receives for complying with the Paris Agreement and the potential for the European Union refusing free trade for non-compliance. Brazil and the EU are currently working on a trade deal that is meant to conclude next year.

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had previously been critical in the forging of the Paris Agreement, now has Ernesto Araujo as its head. Araujo has stated that climate change assertions are part of a plot by “cultural Marxists” against Western economic advancement and is designed to aid China. Such rhetoric is similar to that of US President Donald Trump, who stated that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese. Foreign Minister Araujo has gone further with his conspiracy theories, arguing that “Marxist intellectuals” and the Workers Party are “criminalizing sex and reproduction, saying that all heterosexual intercourse is rape and every baby is a risk to the planet as it will increase carbon emissions.”

The protests two weeks ago of President Jair Bolsonaro at the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce’s gala and the event in Dallas hosted by the World Affairs Council were not just driven by Bolsonaro’s stance on climate change. Activists also emphasized Bolsonaro’s deeply anti-LGBT stance. His most recent offense being a statement about Brazil’s gay pride parade wherein Bolsonaro told Exame magazine:

“If you want to come here and have sex with a woman, go for your life. But we can’t let this place become known as a gay tourism paradise. Brazil can’t be a country of the gay world, of gay tourism. We have families.”

President Bolsonaro has an extensive history of negative commentary on gays. Bolsonaro stated in a 2011 interview with Playboy magazine that he would rather his son be dead than homosexual. He has declared himself “homophobic — and very proud of it,” and has also stated that “homosexual fundamentalists” were trying to brainwash heterosexual children to “become gays and lesbians to satisfy them sexually in the future.” Last year, Bolsonaro defended previous remarks on violence against gays, stating in an interview with Time Magazine that if he saw two men kissing that he would punch them. Following Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric against gays on the campaign trail, by the time he was elected, there was an upsurge in violence against LGBT in Brazil. In November, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had found that the life of Jean Wyllys, an LGBT Congressman representing Rio de Janeiro, was “at grave risk” and that the state was not doing enough to ensure his safety. In late January, he fled Brazil.

The choice for Jean Wyllys to leave Brazil was announced just days after the initial revelations of the Bolsonaro family’s relation to the police-dominated militia involved in the murder of Marielle Franco, who was also an LGBT legislator serving in Rio de Janeiro. In addition to being gay, City Councilwoman Franco was Afro-Brazilian as well as a vocal critic against police brutality. Bolsonaro has both expressed support of police militias in Brazil as well as advocated for police operating with impunity.

On the first day that Bolsonaro was in office, and despite the aforementioned upsurge in violence against the LGBT community, he removed LGBT issues from the new human rights ministry. LGBT issues, as well as women’s issues, are frequently lambasted by Bolsonaro under the term “gender-based ideology,” which the Brazilian president considers a threat to Brazilian Christian values. The president even plans to revise textbooks so as to remove references to homosexuality, gender, as well as violence against women. Plans also include the military taking over some public schools. The day before his inauguration Bolsonaro had stated a desire to combat the “Marxist rubbish that has spread in educational institutions.” In addition to textbook revisions, he also advocates for legislation that would prevent teachers from using the terms “gender” or “sexual orientation” as well as preventing teachers from expressing their own opinions in the classroom. This is despite the Brazilian Supreme Court having already ruled against restraints on free speech in a unanimous ruling previous to Bolsonaro taking office.

When it was announced last month on April 11th that the Brazilian-Commerce’s Person of the Year gala was to be held at the American Museum of Natural History, the museum faced pushback. Later that day, Roberto Lebron, spokesperson for the Museum, issued a statement to The Gothamist:

“This is an external, private event that does not in any way reflect the Museum’s position that there is an urgent need to conserve the Amazon Rainforest, which has such profound implications for biological diversity, indigenous communities, climate change, and the future health of our planet.”

Within the hour of The Gothamist reporting on the museum’s statement, the museum tweeted out sentiments of shared concern with the public and stated “we are exploring our options.” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio condemned the hosting of Bolsonaro in a radio interview, emphasizing his belief in the First Amendment, but that Bolsonaro is “a very dangerous human being.” Adding, “I would certainly urge the museum not to allow him to be hosted there.” DeBlasio referenced Bolsonaro’s racism, homophobia, and his plans to deforest and develop the Amazon as reasons not to host Bolsonaro. On April 13th, the American Museum of Natural History reemphasized they were in the process of reconsideration, and two days later they withdrew themselves as the host of the event. The museum stated on twitter:

“With mutual respect for the work & goals of our individual organizations, we jointly agreed that the Museum is not the optimal location for the Brazilian-Am. Chamber of Commerce gala dinner. This traditional event will go forward at another location on the original date & time.”

Afterward, Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the decision on Twitter:

Jair Bolsonaro is a dangerous man. His overt racism, homophobia and destructive decisions will have a devastating impact on the future of our planet. On behalf of our city, thank you to @AMNH for canceling this event.

On April 23, the New York Marriott Marquis, managed by Marriott International, agreed to host the gala dinner. As protests began on April 29th outside the NYC Marriott, Bain & Company announced they were pulling out from the gala. “We have decided to withdraw our sponsorship of the … 2019 Person of the Year Awards Gala Dinner,” Bain stated. “Encouraging and celebrating diversity is a core Bain principle.” Meanwhile, Bank of New York Mellon stated that it saw its attendance of the event as an opportunity to “reinforce our commitment to furthering L.G.B.T.+ rights, both in Brazil and across the globe.” The Financial Times pulled out later that day, followed by Delta the next day. While UBS Group AG argued that, “Attending the dinner has never involved selecting or endorsing the honoree in any way.” On CNBC, CEO of Citigroup, Michael Corbat, reaffirmed “unwavering support for the LGBT community,” but also made it clear they would still attend the gala. “We are supporting the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce and have operated in Brazil for many decades,” Corbat said.

New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, who is gay, urged via a petition for Marriot to cancel their hosting of the Person of the Year Gala Dinner. The petition emphasized Bolsonaro’s homophobia as well as his “extremely disturbing record of bigotry, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.” Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, who has a history of advocating for gay rights, responded in the comments of the Change petition and linked to a LinkedIn article where he defended his decision to host Bolsonaro with an interpretation of inclusivity that extends to even those as non-inclusive as Bolsonaro. Sorenson stated:

“Think about it this way: As a company, Marriott has fought strongly against U.S. state laws that we believed would let businesses discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation. I have voiced my personal objections to these laws for their lack of inclusiveness. Does that mean Marriott should not welcome as guests or meeting attendees people with a different viewpoint because of their personal beliefs? If we did, wouldn’t we just be using another form of discrimination? And how would we ever exit a loop of reinforcing discrimination?”

Days after Sorenson defended the choice to host Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president announced he would not be appearing at the gala. Bolsonaro’s rationale for his cancellation was expressed in a statement by his spokesperson, Otávio do Rêgo Barros:

“In the face of the resistance and deliberate attacks of the mayor of New York and the pressure of interest groups on the institutions that organize, sponsor and host the event annually, [the event] was characterized by ideologization.”

This announcement was followed by a jubilant celebration being tweeted out by NYC Mayor DeBlasio. “Jair Bolsonaro just learned the hard way that New Yorkers don’t turn a blind eye to oppression. We called his bigotry out. He ran away. Not surprised — bullies usually can’t take a punch.” He added, “Good riddance. Your hatred isn’t welcome here.” The President and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Sarah Kate Ellis, reacted by stating: “President Jair Bolsonaro’s canceled trip to the United States is a victory for LGBTQ Brazilians.” Ellis also tweeted that she was proud of her organization’s role in standing up to Bolsonaro, and added, “Bolsonaro’s brand of anti-LGBTQ hate doesn’t belong in New York City.”

After Bolsonaro canceled his New York presence, the sponsorship page to the gala’s website became no longer available, however, when it was last available it still included various Wall Street banks such as Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America. And within a week of canceling, Bolsonaro announced plans to make an appearance in Dallas, Texas. The spokesperson for Bolsonaro stated at the time that the Brazilian president was invited by the mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings. The World Affairs Council of Dallas and Fort Worth was to host the event. In defending the decision to host Bolsonaro, the organization’s President and CEO, James N. Falk, echoed the argument of the Marriott Hotels CEO by placing emphasis on the importance of diversity in opinion.

Outside the Marriot in New York City as the gala was being held on May 14, The Gothamist noted there were roughly 1,000 guests having to navigate through about 100 activists. The Financial Times notes that some attending bankers thought the award should have gone to the Chicago Boy and Minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes, while others thought it absurd the democratically elected Bolsonaro would be protested while dictators lack such backlash.

After the NYC gala dinner had occurred, Texas City Councilmembers wrote to Mr. Falk and Jorge Baldor, chair of the Worlds Affairs Council of Dallas and Fort Worth, on their contention with Bolsonaro’s appearance in Dallas. The councilmembers stated that the invite “normalizes his authoritarianism.” They wrote the following:

“President Bolsonaro’s regime represents a deep disdain for democracy and civil society, and an unprecedented attack on Afro-Brazilians, women, indigenous peoples, and Brazil’s working-class majority since the dark years of Brazil’s military dictatorship. He has given his police and military carte blanche to kill if they feel “a strong emotion.” In the nation with the highest murder rate of LGBTQ residents, President Bolsonaro has expressed hatred of and advocated for violence against members of the LGBTQ community. Tomorrow school teachers, students, and university faculty across Brazil will be on general strike against President Bolsonaro’s proposed thirty percent budget cut to education. We should be in solidarity with those who suffer under his leadership.”

Mr. Baldor, who is himself a gay man, contends that Bolsonaro was not invited, but invited himself. When Bolsonaro arrived at the Dallas event, about 100 protesters were there to greet him, similar to the turnout at the NYC gala. Bolsonaro and three of his cabinet ministers gave presentations to roughly 150 leaders of the Texan and Brazilian business and political community. The Brazilian president ended his trip with a visit with former President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Cruz.

As the events in New York City and Dallas were occurring a mere day apart and with both being met with large protests, back in Brazil, as noted by the Texas City Councilmembers, tens of thousands of protesters in over two-hundred cities were protesting against massive spending cuts by the Education Ministry. One of these protests included seven-thousand students and professors that marched to Congress in the capital of Brasilia. Bolsonaro has stated that Brazil’s universities are promoting Marxist ideology.

Political blogger. Fiction writer. BA from University of Kentucky in International Studies with concentration in Latin American Studies.

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