Argentine President Offends With Comment on Race: ‘Brazilians Emerged from the Jungle’

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BUENOS AIRES — During a recent visit to Argentina by the prime minister of Spain, President Alberto Fernández tried to connect with his guest by paying homage to Argentina’s European immigrant heritage.

Instead, with a statement that was widely seen as xenophobic and offensive, Mr. Fernández managed to cause offense at home and across Latin America — including in the region’s most powerful nations.

“Mexicans emerged from Indigenous people, Brazilians emerged from the jungle but we Argentines arrived on boats. On boats from Europe,” Mr. Fernández said on Wednesday, during a televised appearance next to Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who was visiting Buenos Aires.

The video of the statement, which Mr. Fernández said was a quote of the Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz, went viral on social media, generating widespread news coverage as well as a deluge of criticism and astonishment from politicians and ordinary citizens in neighboring Brazil and in Mexico.

“He forgets the millions of people who were abducted from Africa over the course of three years, precisely by the Europeans that Fernández is so proud to be a descendant of,” Jeff Nascimento, a human-rights activist and lawyer in São Paulo, Brazil, wrote on Twitter.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, a member of Congress and a son of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, called the statement racist and mocked the state of the Argentine economy, which has been in a recession for years.

“Argentina is a sinking ship,” he wrote.

The president, Mr. Bolsonaro, also responded with mockery by tweeting the word “JUNGLE!” and the Brazilian flag along with a photo of himself and a group of Indigenous people.

Argentines have long had a reputation in Latin America for regarding themselves as distinct from others in the region, in part because of the large percentage of the country’s population that traces its ancestry to European settlers, mainly from Spain and Italy. Its neighbor, Brazil, is a majority Black and Indigenous country.

Now a generation of young researchers in Argentina, including Black scholars, are questioning their country’s national narrative, and saying it is both racist and erases the presence of Argentines of Indigenous and Black roots.

The Mexican actor Gael García Bernal said Mr. Fernández’s remark “perpetuates the noxious narrative of extractivist colonialism,” and lamented that it reflected a view that “unfortunately is very common.”

Mr. Fernández, a leftist leader who was elected in 2019 and has drawn criticism over gaffes in the past, attributed the quote to Mr. Paz.

The actual quote from Mr. Paz is: “Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incas and Argentines from boats.”

Mr. Fernández appears to have confused the Paz quote with the lyrics of a song made popular in the 1980s by the rock singer Litto Nebbia, whom Mr. Fernández admires and has described as a “friend.” The president’s quote was taken almost verbatim from the song.

The remark overshadowed the agenda of the meeting between heads of state, which focused on trade negotiations and vaccine diplomacy.

After the criticism, Mr. Fernández wrote on Twitter:

“I didn’t set out to offend, but in any case, if anyone felt offended or made invisible, I offer an apology.”

But he added, “It’s been said more than once that “‘Argentines descended from boats.’” Mr. Fernández continued: “In the first half of the 20th Century, we received more than five million immigrants that lived among our native people. Our diversity is a source of pride.”

Daniel Politi reported from Buenos Aires. Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro.

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