The event marks the latest example of corporate leaders having to decide whether to wade into charged political and social issues. Companies have come under increasing pressure — from customers and the public — to distance themselves from government policies or actions, or to come out in support for marginalized groups. President Trump, for example, was forced to disband his major business advisory councils after several chief executives denounced his comments about white supremacist protests in Charlottesville in August 2017.
Bain said in a statement that it still supports the chamber and is resolved to strengthening U.S.-Brazil business ties. But to uphold the company’s principles around respect and diversity, and its commitment to the LBGTQ community, it chose to withdraw.
Delta and the FT confirmed they had withdrawn their sponsorships but did not provide further comment to The Washington Post. JPMorgan, Bank of America and Citigroup declined to comment. Other event sponsors and attendees did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Credit Suisse, one of the event sponsors, told CNBC that “like other major banks who operate in Brazil, [the bank] has taken a table at this year’s event, as we have for the past 15 years.”
Bolsonaro — to his delight — has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” and said on a recent visit to Washington that he and Trump “do have a great deal of shared values.” He campaigned on populist messages, stoking fear around crime and corruption and, like Trump, often turns to Twitter to target his foes. Like his friend in the Oval Office, Bolsonaro slams media coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news.”
“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Trump said in January. “Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”
The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Person of the Year Award Gala attracts more than 1,000 leaders from the worlds of finance and diplomacy, according to the chamber’s website. In its description of Bolsonaro, the site says that he’s known for “defending the rights of active and inactive military and pensioners,” as well as advocating for “the importance of Christian values and family.”
During his campaign, Bolsonaro said he would rather have “a dead son than a gay one.” He also defended Brazil’s former military dictatorship, described Nazism as a leftist creed and said that people could “forgive” the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In an interview with Fox News, he said “the vast majority of immigrants do not have good intentions.” And he drew swift consternation after tweeting a sexually explicit video of a man touching himself.
Corporate leaders have been scrutinized for their ties to the Brazilian leader in the past. At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the chief executives of Apple and Microsoft — Tim Cook and Satya Nadella — were seated alongside Bolsonaro at a dinner table.
The seating arrangement raised eyebrows because both Cook and Nadella have been outspoken about equality in the workplace, while Bolsonaro has said he wouldn’t employ or pay women equally to men. Cook, who came out in 2014, also supports LGBTQ rights.
Even the awards dinner venue has been a point of contention. The event was supposed to be held at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life. But pressure from GLAAD, the LGBTQ media advocacy organization, along with environmental groups and New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman, pushed the museum to back out.
On Wednesday evening, Marriott’s chief executive, Arne Sorenson, penned a blog post acknowledging that Marriott had been criticized “for allowing a certain group to hold its event in our facility.” Sorenson wrote that while Marriott’s goal of “welcoming all is easy to say, it can be increasingly challenging to truly live up to." Sorenson also noted that the hotelier has to abide by laws that prohibit discrimination and “may impact a hotel’s decision to turn away customers on the basis of their beliefs.”
“Allowing a group to use our facilities in no way suggests we endorse its views," he wrote. "It just means we are trying to live up to our ideals of openness and inclusivity, understanding that we may put ourselves in an uncomfortable position.”
Sorenson has long supported LGBTQ protections. He joined a group of business leaders in 2016 who opposed a North Carolina bathroom bill that Sorenson wrote “sanctions LGBT discrimination across that state.”
American companies have had to walk a fine line given the current political climate. In March, for example, Trump filled the White House’s State Dining Room with takeout from McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s. But all three fast-food chains stayed quiet over the endorsements. The makers of some of Trump’s favorite products, like Sharpies and Diet Cokes, have also kept their heads down.
Customers expect companies to take clear sides on social and political debates, said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser. In Marriott’s case, it’s easy for the public to understand how the company can object to Bolsonaro’s comments while also being lawfully bound to do business with the chamber.
But for other companies that keep their sponsorships, Johndrow said that they’re only inviting controversy. Granted, banks that do business in Brazil and have attended the dinner for years, have their reasons for showing up. But what if one of their guests ends up in a photo smiling alongside Bolsonaro? And what if the company then has to scramble and explain the warm embrace?
“You can say you were ‘just there,’" Johndrow said. “But if you’re there smiling and grinning and someone tweets that, your expensive [dinner seat] just got a little more expensive.”