Updated: Oct. 12, 2017 at 2:25 p.m.
Hundreds of scholars and alumni are demanding officials cancel a planned campus event Friday with a far-right Brazilian politician with a history of inflammatory remarks and extremist views.
The Brazil Initiative, a program in the Elliott School of International Affairs, is bringing Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing Brazilian lawmaker and likely presidential candidate, to speak and answer questions from scholars and journalists.
The initiative’s director said the event is meant to offer a greater understanding of a prominent politician. But many Brazilian academics and activists said Bolsonaro’s appearance at GW will help to legitimize a fringe politician that some call the “Brazilian Donald Trump.”
“By welcoming him into your University and allowing him to speak, your institution would be helping a racist, sexist, homophobic right-wing extremist to achieve international recognition and solidify the political viability of his candidacy,” scholars wrote in an open letter condemning the event, which has attracted more than 870 signatures worldwide.
Bolsonaro, a former military officer, is known for espousing ultra-conservative views, including supporting torture and defending the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. He has a history of making inflammatory comments against the LGBTQ community, women and afro-Brazilians like telling BBC in 2013 that “no father would like to have a gay son.”
In 2014, he infamously told a left-wing female lawmaker that she was “not worthy” of being raped, a comment that landed him in court, Time Magazine reported.
Because Bolsonaro is a potential candidate, Mark Langevin, the director of the Brazil Initiative, said he needs to face questioning to give the public a transparent understanding of his views.
“We absolutely need to study and understand human rights violations and crimes against humanity – not by inviting the criminals.”
“Don’t all of us and especially Brazilian voters deserve the transparency of who they may vote for or who they may consider voting for in the pure light of day with everyone paying attention?” he said.
Last week, Langevin posted a blog entry entitled “Questioning Bolsonaro” responding to the backlash the event has received and arguing that the initiative needed to hold intellectual conversation with Bolsonaro rather than avoiding it.
University spokesman Jason Shevrin referred questions about the event to Langevin’s statement.
When he was approached by Bolsonaro’s team, Langevin said he did not want to allow Bolsonaro to give a typical political speech on campus but rather to host an event where scholars could question the pre-candidate.
Several individuals will be asking Bolsonaro questions, including Langevin, Yvonne Captain, an associate professor of Latin American film and literature and international affairs, graduate student Gabriela De Souza Oliveira and media representatives. The questions will focus on everything from tax reform to gun violence to human rights, Langevin said.
Tickets are available to the GW community, but the event’s webpage advises that tickets will be doled out on a first-come-first-served basis.
Bolsonaro, 62, is polling second out of possible presidential contenders in next year’s election with 16 percent support in a June opinion poll. He has attracted a base of conservative supporters in Brazil with his pro-gun stance and his clean record on corruption in a country rocked by graft scandals in recent years, Reuters reported.
During his trip to the U.S., which began Sunday, Bolsonaro has visited Florida and Massachusetts, will visit New York and then end his trip in D.C. in hopes of gaining international support for his campaign and to meet with prominent Brazilian-Americans, The Intercept reported.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email that when a high-level official comes to GW, the University Police Department assesses security and makes accommodations with “appropriate law enforcement agencies.”
Opponents of Friday’s event said they are nervous his support could increase after attempting to gain international legitimacy and soften his anti-democratic views, which they said should not be supported at an American institution.
“This is about whether someone who stands against fundamental democratic values deserves such a broad platform a few blocks from the White House.”
Sofia Voloch, a resident of Rio de Janiero, Brazil and one of the co-authors of the open letter, said Bolsonaro’s appearance in the U.S. is significant because many in Brazil view the U.S. as a model to follow and pay close attention to events that happen here. Speaking at a prominent American institution like GW will give undeserved credibility to Bolsonaro’s views, she said.
“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” she said. “Because of the impact, because of the way it seems to put the education of the students at GW ahead of the lives of millions of Brazilians.”
After Sergio Waisman, a professor of Spanish and international affairs, found out about the event, he wrote an email to colleagues in the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program expressing his disappointment and view that the invitation should be rescinded.
Waisman, whose parents were Argentian exiles in two different military dictatorships, said the University should invite human rights specialists and scholars instead of Bolsonoro.
“We absolutely need to study and understand human rights violations and crimes against humanity – not by inviting the criminals,” he said.
Tucker Landesman, an alumnus who signed the letter and now lives in Brazil, said when he first heard of the event on Twitter, he was ashamed that his alma mater invited Bolsonaro. He said he is concerned that Bolsonaro will control the conversation without a Brazilian leader questioning him.
“Who is going to be actually across the stage actually debating holding him accountable – some white U.S. male academic who isn’t a threat to him, who has next to no political power in Brazil?” he said.
Silvio Waisbord, a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs who has studied media in Latin America, said Bolsonaro is a “dangerous” person to award the opportunity to speak at the University because he will gain legitimacy not only in Brazil but internationally as well.
“This is not about political correctness or freedom of speech,” he said. “This is about whether someone who stands against fundamental democratic values deserves such a broad platform a few blocks from the White House.”
Andrew Goudsward contributed reporting.
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly spelled Sofia Voloch’s name. It is now spelled correctly. We regret this error.