It had the makings of a memorable evening. Almost 1,000 guests awaited the visiting president, who was to be honoured with a prize from the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce in New York. The presidents of Brazil’s Senate and Supreme Court, a handful of state governors and some of the country’s top business leaders listened to the West Point brass quintet play the anthems of both countries.
The only problem was that at the time, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was taking off for Dallas to collect the award there following an outcry from New Yorkers, who denounced him as a homophobic enemy of the environment.
The ceremony on Tuesday night was supposed to have taken place at the American Museum of Natural History. But it bowed out last month, saying it was “deeply concerned” at the Brazilian president’s efforts to roll back environmental protections for the Amazon rainforest. After other venues declined to pick up the gig, the soirée landed at the Marriott Marquis hotel.
Under the beaming billboards of Times Square, a few dozen American and Brazilian protesters battled the spring drizzle holding placards reading “Bolsonaro racist, homophobic, get out of New York”.
“You cannot celebrate a man like him here,” said Miriam Marques, a New York-based Brazilian activist. But by then Mr Bolsonaro had decided that this was not his kind of town, and had accepted an invitation from the more welcoming people of Texas.
The scorn in New York served to underline concerns that Mr Bolsonaro was becoming persona non grata in polite diplomatic circles, crushing Brazil’s longstanding record of being a soft power on the world stage.
The award was seen as an opportunity to lure foreign investors at a time when economists have been slashing growth forecasts on concerns Mr Bolsonaro was spending too much time fomenting culture wars around homosexuality, guns, Christianity and “cultural Marxism” and not enough jump-starting Latin America’s largest economy through reforms.
Mr Bolsonaro, who is close to fellow nationalist leaders Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Viktor Orban of Hungary, “has become a pariah who only manages to be warmly welcomed by those presidents who agree with his policies”, said James Green, a professor of Latin American History at Brown University, who is critical of the Brazilian president.
Mr Bolsonaro’s frosty reception in New York was in contrast to the warm welcome he received in Washington in March. The Brazilian leader is a brash political soulmate of US president Donald Trump. But in the Big Apple, Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio — who this week launched his own presidential bid — did not mince words.
“Good riddance. Your hatred isn’t welcome here,” he wrote on Twitter after the Brazilian president scrapped his trip. Mr Bolsonaro’s spokesman blamed “deliberate attacks from the mayor of New York and pressure from interest groups”.
Some companies — including the Financial Times — pulled their sponsorships for the gala following an outcry from environmental and gay rights activists. Although most sponsors stayed put, some senior members of the chamber of commerce expressed unease about celebrating Mr Bolsonaro, who won a landslide election last year but has courted controversy for years by endorsing torture and saying that homosexuality could be beaten out of gay children.
“He was a terrible choice,” said a senior banker. Many thought the president’s economic tsar, the University of Chicago-trained Paulo Guedes, should have been honoured instead.
However, some at the event criticised the “intolerance” of those hostile to the most unabashedly pro-US Brazilian president of recent decades.
Some even applauded frantically each time Mr Bolsonaro’s name was mentioned by the host, Alexandre Bettamio, the chamber’s president, who is also the Latin America head of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“Dictators of all sorts come to New York every year and nobody says anything and when you have a democratically elected president like Bolsonaro people shun him,” said a US-based businessman close to the Bolsonaro administration.
It was more chummy in Dallas, where he finally received the award on Thursday. During his time in Texas, Republican senator Ted Cruz extended “the hand of friendship” to Mr Bolsonaro. Former US president George W Bush agreed to meet him too — “a courtesy he regularly extends to foreign dignitaries when they are in the area”, stressed his chief of staff, Freddy Ford. The city’s mayor Michael Rawlings said Dallas strived “to be a welcoming city, even when we don’t agree with the views shared by our visitors”, calling Mr Bolsonaro’s disparaging comments on gays “hateful”.
It is not only abroad that Mr Bolsonaro faces difficult crowds. On Wednesday, tens of thousands of university students took to the streets in several cities across Brazil to protest against his budget cuts.
But back in New York, João Doria, the governor and former mayor of São Paulo, stood up for Mr Bolsonaro. “Despite you, Bill de Blasio, we love New York City, we love America,” he said.
At the back of the room a director at the chamber of commerce summed up the mood of the evening: “What a mess.”
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