The controversial gala honoring Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to the Marriott Marquis on Tuesday night, bringing an estimated 1,000 guests to the heart of Times Square for an annual dinner party put on by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce.
Before they could enjoy the sold-out black tie affair, attendees had to bypass close to 100 enraged activists—members of a swelling protest movement that successfully banished the event from its first choice of venue and scared off its guest of honor. Buoyed by a marching band, with fake blood smeared on their faces, the group greeted each guest as they stepped out of black cars and into the rain with hissing and ridicule: "fascista, racista, golpista [coup-monger]."
The face-off was the culmination of an international outcry sparked last month, after it was revealed that the business group would award Bolsonaro, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with its annual "Person of the Year" designation. Initially scheduled to be hosted by American Museum of Natural History, the event was dropped from the space amid threats of staff resignations and boycotts by the public.
After the Marriott agreed to host, a coalition of environmental groups, LGBTQ advocates, and left-wing Brazilians began staging daily demonstrations outside the hotel. A petition condemning the Marriott for legitimizing the "notorious homophobe" was circulated by State Senator Brad Hoylman, and quickly garnered more than 82,000 signatures.
Last week, Bolsonaro backed out of the trip to New York City altogether, citing the "resistance and deliberate attacks" from Mayor Bill de Blasio and "interest groups." (He arrived in Dallas last night, where some members of the Chamber of Commerce are set to present him with the award later this afternoon.)
Many of those in the crowd on Tuesday night were Brazilian transplants to the city, who said they were horrified by recent developments in their home country.
"He's selling everything he can in Brazil, including the Amazon. It's capitalism without limits," fumed Adriana Machadal, a 43-year-old NYC resident who grew up in the country's southeastern capital city of Belo Horizonte.
Since his election late last year, Bolsonaro has overseen a campaign of deforestation in the Amazon, which indigenous groups have likened to the apocalypse. He is reportedly in talks with President Trump about a joint development deal in the rainforest.
turns out you can just walk right into these things (and then quickly get removed) pic.twitter.com/Qrbw7JnJ5V
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) May 14, 2019
Machadal was one of several protesters aligned with Defend Democracy in Brazil, an NYC-based expat group that's been raising the alarm about the country's hard-right turn, and the collaboration between Bolsonaro, Trump, and the international finance community. According to organizers, Brazil's top Supreme Court Justice Jose Antonio Dias Toffoli, as well as country's House and Senate leaders, gathered at the Bank of America Tower in Midtown for a lunch with foreign investors prior to attending the gala.
"There's this script [Bolsonaro's] following, waving a flag of economic recovery while at the same time making cuts to education and threatening the rainforest," said Rafaela Carvalho, a 29-year-old journalist visiting from São Paulo, who told Gothamist she stopped by the protest on her way to see Hamilton next door. "It's similar to Trump; neither are fit for the presidency...but Brazil is a newer democracy, which means we have to find a way to stand up for ourselves."
William "Reverend Billy" Talen, a bandleader and fixture at protests across the city, drew comparisons to the White House as well, and warned that Americans were only beginning to grapple with a global spread of authoritarianism. "Trump and Netanyahu and Bolsonaro and Erdoğan may not be identified with the fascists of the past quite yet, but they will be," he said. "It's just a question of sparking the collective memory of fascism."
First chant is “Justice for Marielle/Justice for All.” Marielle Franco was a black, gay Rio politician who was murdered last year. Photos recently surfaced of a smiling Bolsonaro with his arm around the alleged killer https://t.co/cToyW1O1jr pic.twitter.com/jc27HrCW0b
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) May 14, 2019
For the most part, gala-goers hustled past the wall of protesters and hefty police presence into the hotel lobby, where they were whisked up to the 6th floor Broadway Ballroom in a glass elevator. A few Brazilian attendees did agree to discuss the controversy, including one who said that Bolsonaro's record of hateful comments—comparing indigenous people to zoo animals or claiming he'd rather his son be dead than gay, for example—had largely been taken out of context.
Nicolau Daudt, the CEO of the Brazilian branch of the JLT insurance company, told Gothamist he supported the new regime because he was lowering government expenditures, including pensions. Another guest, who declined to share her name, said she was "disappointed" by the event's relocation to the Marriott convention space, calling it a clear downgrade from previous galas at the AMNH's sprawling Hall of Ocean life.
While guests at the dinner seemed roughly split between Brazilians and Americans, members of the latter group were consistent in their refusal to speak with this reporter. "I probably shouldn't comment on this, right?" replied one woman, as she shuffled out of the elevator holding a glass of white wine. "Someone invited me, otherwise I wouldn't be here. I don't know anything about the guy."