Jair Bolsonaro, the Federal Deputy from Rio de Janeiro and potential candidate for the 2018 Brazilian presidential election, was originally scheduled to speak on campus Friday by invitation of the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Brazil Initiative.
Bolsonaro is a far-right, social and economic conservative with authoritarian tendencies. He has openly supported a return to Brazil’s military regime from 1964 to 1985 and supported the torture performed by that regime. He has promised to get rid of indigenous reserves if elected. He has called refugees the scum of the earth. Most consistently, he is a front of homophobic, misogynistic, racist and anti-poor rhetoric.
Bolsonaro backed out of the event the day before, bowing to pressure from online activism. Although I am glad the event will no longer be taking place, it is a shame that the Brazil Initiative invited him in the first place.
Over a week before the event, hundreds of professors, academics, students and concerned Brazilians signed an open letter protesting Bolsonaro’s appearance. Despite opposition, Mark Langevin, the director of the Brazil Initiative, had confirmed the event would go on, promising hard questions for Bolsonaro. But when Bolsonaro canceled last minute, Langevin said he was “not prepared to have an open transparent democratic debate.”
My concern, and the concern of signees to the open letter, was that the event would have been little more than a campaign event for Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s public appearances in the U.S. are part of an effort to “liberalize” his image and gain legitimacy among his electorate in Brazil, where he currently polls at about 16 percent of the vote.
Langevin claimed a commitment to “debate founded upon respect and reason,” but Bolsonaro was scheduled to be here on a publicity tour. He is not a public intellectual looking for a debate nor was he likely to face one, since the event was only accepting audience questions which were submitted on Twitter a day in advance.
Bolsonaro’s appearance on campus would have sent the message that his ideas are worth debating. According to Langevin, his appearance would have helped us “to better understand Brazil’s current political development and possible electoral scenarios for 2018.”
As an academic community, we do not have anything to learn from Bolsonaro. His words, like many populist politicians of his type, serve to mobilize his electoral base, not to create debate on important subjects. Even if he had faced hard questions on democracy, torture and police brutality, as Langevin promised, we had no reason to expect to learn something constructive from his answers. The Brazil Initiative should’ve been the one to cancel this appearance.
Just last Friday, speaking to a crowd of Brazilian-Americans in Miami, Bolsonaro said he “will give carte-blanche for the police to kill.” We lost nothing by his cancellation. We would have more to learn from a scholar or journalist discussing the rise of the far right in Brazil.
As a student in the Elliott School concentrating in Latin America, I have enjoyed the course offerings available to me because of the Brazil Initiative. Last semester, their speaker series even brought former president Dilma Rousseff to campus. Inviting Bolsonaro, however, was a serious misstep on their part.
The threat Bolsonaro poses to indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ, female, black and low-income Brazilians is very real. Although he posed negligible threat to GW’s campus in particular, his appearance here could have legitimized his campaign at home. The little we may have to learn from him does not justify offering him a platform.
I hold the utmost respect for the activists who spoke out against Bolsonaro on our campus and succeeded in their goal, as well as those who had planned to protest his event Friday. I hope next time the Brazil Initiative will think harder about how they use the power of our institution.
Keith Carr is a senior majoring in international affairs concentrating in Latin America.