As George Santos is expelled from Congress, Brazilians hang their heads

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Before he became a household name here, before the scandals and revelations, Victor Cavatti knew of George Santos. He had found the New York Republican’s story inspiring — the son of two working-class Brazilian immigrants rising to the highest echelons of American power.

“I follow him on Twitter,” the security officer said. “When he was elected, I was proud. It was something I’d never seen before.”

But now, following Santos’s expulsion from the U.S. Congress amid allegations of prolific misconduct and serial fabrication, Cavatti and much of Brazil are expressing a very different sentiment: shame. The New York Republican was said to be the first Brazilian American to reach the U.S. Congress. But he’s leaving office, disgraced, within a single year.

“It’s all so predictable,” Cavatti said with a sigh. “A son of Brazilians, involved in political scandals.”

Despite its extraordinary beauty, loving people and wondrous culture, Brazil often doubts itself. It cares, deeply, what the rest of the world thinks of it. There’s even a widely used expression to describe the sentiment: “the mongrel complex,” which refers to the collective inferiority that many Brazilians feel when compared to developed parts of the world.

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In times of misfortune or disaster — and particularly poor soccer performances — people lament the loss of face nearly as much as the event itself. When Taylor Swift’s tour hit trouble in Rio de Janeiro last month: “Brazil suffers international embarrassment,” one commentator remarked. When escaped Brazilian prisoner Danilo Cavalcante brought terror to Pennsylvania earlier this year: “international shame,” another person said.

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He could have done good, many said. He could have shown the world the best of Brazil. But instead, people said, he reinforced stereotypes they feared the world already had about their country.

“He had a chance,” said information technologist Paulo Ricardo Garcia, 30. “But he just made things worse.”

Like many children of immigrants, Santos straddled both worlds. He was born in the United States but spent significant time in his adolescence and early adult years in Brazil. He dated Brazilian men, formed a Brazilian social circle and spoke fluent, idiomatic Portuguese. To many who knew him in his mother’s native Niterói, he was an American, but also a son — for better or worse — of Rio de Janeiro state.

It wasn’t a history Santos chose to highlight.

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Journalist João Batista Jr. remembered his surprise when he contacted Santos to do a story on him following his first unsuccessful run for Congress — and Santos asked for questions in English, despite his flawless Portuguese.

“Maybe he, too, had our mongrel complex,” said Batista. “He didn’t want to be seen to be connected with a country with millions of problems.”

But when the stories of scandal emerged — detailing allegations of fraud, serial fabrication and money laundering — his name in the media here was invariably linked to Brazil, the country of his parents.

“The Republican Representative George Santos, of Brazilian origin,” wrote O Globo columnist Fernando Gabeira. “Without doubt the biggest liar in recent history.”

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And this week’s headline in a leading Brazilian business newspaper: “U.S. Congress to decide whether to expel George Santos, son of Brazilians.”

At a hair salon in a commercial strip in Brasília, as TV Globo played above on a television, a group of Brazilians expressed exasperation at the Santos saga.

“He has brought shame to the Brazilian people,” said manicurist Maria Rogéria Alves Silva, 46.

“The son of Brazilians,” hairdresser Geraldo Magela Lopes, 62, remarked. “People will remember that.”

“You can be cultured, intelligent, do a lot of good stuff,” vented Angela Maria Barreira, 66. “But at the end of the day, Santos is the view the world will have of us.”

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And so it went, too, on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where taxi driver Luiz Cláudio Brust de Paula looked at children playing in a park and bemoaned the Santos scandals, bemoaned Brazil.

“We’re weak of blood!” he said.

Nearby at a park table, economist Nilson Ramos, 47, worked through a plate of rice and beans. He said he had lived through so many political scandals here. First the carwash scandal starting in 2014, which ensnared much of Brazil’s political class. And then the Jair Bolsonaro presidency, which gave rise to allegations of stolen jewelry and misused public funds.

Brazil, he knew, was more than that. He just wished the world knew it, too.

“Santos should have been someone who made us proud — the only Brazilian to be trusted with a position so important in the United States,” Ramos said. “But he hasn’t warranted that trust. He embarrassed us.”

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