It was, said President Jair Bolsonaro, “one of the worst days of my life”.
The hard-right Brazilian leader had thought he was on safe ground using the exodus of Venezuelans to his country as a prop in his campaign for re-election on October 30.
President Nicolás Maduro’s revolutionary socialist rule has created one of the world’s worst refugee crises. More than 7mn people have fled the hunger, violence and poverty that stalk Venezuela, a once-wealthy oil exporter, and about 365,000 of them have sought refuge in Brazil.
Like many Latin American conservatives, Bolsonaro’s stump speeches have repeatedly conjured up the spectre of once-prosperous citizens fleeing the evils of a socialist regime, warning that a similar fate awaits his country if it votes for the left.
His opponents retort that Brazil will look far more like an authoritarian failed state if Bolsonaro, a former army captain, wins this weekend’s presidential run-off against veteran leftwinger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“In election after election throughout the region, Venezuelans are used as a trope,” says Vanessa Neumann, a Venezuelan entrepreneur and civil society activist who served as the opposition’s envoy in London. “For anti-immigration in Latin America, for anti-communism in the US, where we’re basically about winning Florida. Yet there my compatriots are languishing, forgotten even.”
In Peru, Venezuelan refugees appeared during last year’s presidential election campaign carrying billboards on the streets of Lima warning of the horrors of socialism.
The far-right candidate in last December’s Chilean presidential election run-off, José Antonio Kast, pledged in the campaign to dig a ditch across the north of the country to halt the influx of Venezuelans, almost half a million of whom have traversed an entire continent to reach his country.
Conservatives in Colombia, which is sheltering the biggest contingent of about 2.5mn Venezuelans, warned time and again during this year’s election that the radical leftwing candidate, Gustavo Petro, would turn their country into the next Venezuela.
The political fashion for using Venezuelans as campaign props has also spread north to the US. Last month, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, flew dozens of Venezuelan refugees to the wealthy Massachusetts resort of Martha’s Vineyard, hoping to score political points by dumping asylum-seekers on the doorstep of Democrats who have resisted tougher controls on migration.
But Bolsonaro’s attempt to play the Venezuela card backfired badly. In an attempt to underline the horrors of the refugee crisis, the president decided while recording a podcast interview on October 14 to tell a story.
He described riding his motorcycle through a poor area of the Brazilian capital last year and coming across “three or four pretty girls of 14 or 15, all done up on a Saturday” in the street. “There was a buzz in the air,” Bolsonaro said, before adding that he then went to their house where he found “15 or 20 more pretty little girls all getting ready on a Saturday morning, for what? To earn a living.”
Uproar ensued. Bolsonaro was vilified by his opponents for suggesting that the underage Venezuelan girls were prostitutes and was labelled a paedophile for saying he had felt a buzz and gone to their house.
Days later, the president appeared in a video with his wife, Michelle, and the Venezuelan opposition envoy to Brazil making a rare apology. “My words reflected a concern on my part to avoid any kind of exploitation of women in a vulnerable situation,” Bolsonaro explained. “If, through bad faith, my words were taken out of context and in some way misunderstood or caused embarrassment to our Venezuelan sisters, I am sorry.”
Bolsonaro should have known better than to invoke Venezuela at all. In the elections in Peru, Chile and Colombia, the tactic had already failed: voters in all three nations ignored the Venezuela horror stories peddled by their opponents and plumped for radical leftwingers as president.
“Conservatives should now realise that in today’s Latin America, resorting to scare tactics and the spectre of communism and ‘another Venezuela’ is a failed electoral strategy,” said Michael Shifter, senior fellow and former president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “In a context of deepening economic and social crisis, such hyperbolic warnings have little traction for the poor, a huge share of the region’s electorate.”
Authoritarian governments in Venezuela or Cuba are fair game. But rather than painting every opponent as a future Hugo Chávez or Fidel Castro, Latin America’s right would be rewarded at the polls if it spoke more about improving the lot of the poor — many of whose lives already look uncomfortably similar to those in Venezuela.