Five days into the worst crisis to hit Bolsonaro’s re-election campaign, what emerged on social networks at the weekend is now a full blown media scandal and imminent, serious, criminal investigation. On Monday Bolsonaro called it “worst 24 hours of his life”. Signs are that it will last a lot longer than that.
It’s the story that won’t go away. Brazilian election coverage is now dominated by the pedophilia scandal engulfing the Bolsonaro campaign. What began as an internet furore is now established as a mainstream election narrative, with a succession of articles in the country’s biggest newspapers.
On Saturday 15th October, 15 days before his runoff against Lula da Silva for the Brazilian Presidency, candidate for re-election Jair Bolsonaro was guest on the “Paparazzo Rubro-Negro” podcast.
During the interview he described his experience in April 2021, of a visit to the São Sebastião favela, on the outskirts of capital Brasília, where he encountered Venezuelan prostitutes as young as 14 years old, whilst riding around on a motorbike.
“I stopped the bike in a corner, took off my helmet, and looked at some little girls, three, four, beautiful 14 or 15 years old. dressed up in a community on a Saturday… I pintou um clima. ‘Can I come into your house?’ I went in. There were about 15 or 20 girls, getting ready. All Venezuelans,” Bolsonaro explained.
It was the phrase “pintou um clima” which caused immediate alarm. It is a dialect expression literally translated as “painted a climate”, or “had a climax”, which in Brazil is used to describe sexual, chemistry, tension and flirtation, and is considered by most to be completely inappropriate to recount interactions with a 14 year old child.
The other question was, if he had encountered what appeared to be an international child prostitution ring, why did he, as president of Brazil, not report it to authorities. If he was telling the truth about his experience in São Sebastião, this would constitute a crime of omission.
A viral crisis
By morning of Sunday 16th October, with 14 days to go until the second round, the video was viralising. It was spreading so quickly that some feared that the whole thing was some kind of intentional electoral trick, or Bannonite tactic.
This hypothesis soon dissipated however as a flood of denials emerged from the Bolsonaro camp. The president himself went live on his social media channels at 1am to deny what he had said just hours earlier insisting his remarks were “out of context”.
Bolsonaro’s cause was not helped by his allies. During the broadcast, Bolsonaro received support from Gabriel Monteiro a former city councilor in Rio de Janeiro, who was impeached in August on charges of pedophilia.
Later that morning Flavio Bolsonaro, himself a Senator and coordinator of his father’s campaign, took to social networks to call the story fake news “invented by the left”.
A succession of desperate denials followed from Bolsonaro and his camp. Election TV spots were switched for a video of the far-right president apologising for use of the “wrong words”, without referencing the scandal directly. In a press conference, when challenged by journalists, he again contradicted his own story.
Then it was discovered that his campaign had flooded the web with Google ads denying he was a pedophile. The ads were estimated to have cost R$140,000 for a single day. Google is already implicated for actively pushing Pro-Bolsonaro content – above and beyond algorithmic activity – to Brazilian voters during the election, through its YouTube platform.
Following rapid intervention by the Bolsonaro campaign at the Electoral Court, they intervened to block opponents use of the story or word pedophile, or to use the video of Bolsonaro’s own admissions on the grounds that they were “out of context”.
Bolsonaro however, raised the issue himself, under no pressure to do so, in the televised debate later that night, seeking to frame the story as fake news and a new low for the PT’s campaign. Lula had actually refrained from mentioning the still emerging scandal, although did discretely wear a small badge of a campaign against sexual abuse of minors, which was noticed on social media.
If the president thought that was the end of the story, he was mistaken. A wider picture grew of the far-right president’s past statements and behaviour. Influencer Felipe Neto and others pointed out Bolsonaro’s history of apologism for pedophilia, such as his public tribute to brutal Paraguayan dictator and notorious pedophile Alfredo Stroessner.
Scene of the crime
The story spread on Sunday ahead of the presidential debate on the Band network. When questioned, first round candidate Simone Tebet, who is now part of the Lula coalition, said that Bolsonaro will have to answer the charges in the courts.
Shortly thereafter, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues announced that he had petitioned the Supreme Court to investigate Bolsonaro for “pedophile apologism”. Rodrigues explained that the president does not seem to have called the authorities after seeing children in “a suspected situation of child prostitution”.
“President Jair Bolsonaro’s confession can be framed in several types of crime, which will be better understood in the necessary investigations” the Senator said. A group of lawyers also petitioned the Supreme Court that Bolsonaro be investigated.
Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party was also drawn in, as it emerged that one of its leaders, who had also assisted Bolsonaro’s own failed Alliance for Brazil party, had been indicted for sexual abuse of minors.
On Tuesday 18th October, Damares Alves, newly elected senator, close Bolsonaro ally and currently his Minister for Women, Family, and Human Rights, visited the scene of Bolsonaro’s story with first lady Michelle Bolsonaro in an attempt to defuse the president’s pedophilia scandal. After forcing the recording of a video with Venezuelan girls present, the reluctant alleged victims then made a legal demand that it be blocked from use. And the contradictions grew. Whereas in a filmed apology, with first lady Michelle sighing with indignation beside him, for “embarrassment” caused to Venezuelan girls living in Brasília, Bolsonaro denied that they were sex workers. His ally and confident Damares, meanwhile, affirmed that they were.
The first lady had also tried to defend her husband, claiming that Bolsonaro constantly uses the phrase “pinto um clima” in a variety of contexts. Analysts went through 128 live broadcasts made by Bolsonaro to try and find any other use of “pintou um clima”, yet found none.
What was found, however was another podcast, earlier in the campaign, when Bolsonaro recounted the exact same story in the same terms. If he had invented the story, as some initially suspected, he repeated it at least three times in public.
On Wednesday 19th October Bolsonaro’s pedophilia crisis worsened still. Damares was given 5 days by the courts to clarify her explicit remarks about being witness to an international pedophile sex trafficking ring – which had also apparently not been reported to authorities.
A grim electoral gift
On Tuesday October 18, with 12 days until the presidential runoff, election frontrunner Lula described Bolsonaro’s own story as the “behaviour of a pedophile“. Lula, already 5-10% ahead in opinion polls, made the remark in an interview on the Flow podcast, to a record 1.1 million viewers.
Lula supporters have pointed to his government’s record on dealing with sex trafficking, which won international plaudits. The Workers Party’s Women’s Secretariat issued a statement later that evening.
“In Jair Bolsonaro’s mind, it is unimaginable that young Venezuelans would “dress up” simply because they are young. In Bolsonaro’s mind, underage girls in a slum can only “dress up” to satisfy his and/or other men’s desires. In Bolsonaro’s mind, underage girls are likely to be approached by adult men with pedophile intentions.” the statement reads.
Given the selective morality of his campaign and his supporters, it remains to be seen if the effect of his pedophilia crisis will be felt electorally, as he is considered immune from moral scandals. So far it has not affected the polls, which remain stable with Lula comfortably enough ahead.
But this does feel different. His campaign is built on the far-right slogan of God. Family. Homeland. Furthermore, this scandal needs to be viewed in context of how Bolsonaro was elected four years ago: controversially, with his 2022 opponent jailed by his own justice minister, and on a wave of fake news smearing the PT and his eventual opponent Fernando Haddad as a pedophile.
On October 18 the president’s son, Carlos Bolsonaro, seen as the mastermind of the Hate Office behind that campaign, fell to an electoral court subpoena, and ruling which sees him blocked from his own social media accounts, and the hundreds controlled by him.
The fear in Bolsonaro, his campaign, and his family is palpable. As with the myriad of criminal allegations they face, his re-election is their only hope of avoiding punishment.