The last time a leftist party held power in Brazil, in 2016, a right-wing fixture on the fringes of Congress was making a name for himself: Jair Bolsonaro.
Among presidential hopefuls he was polling in the single digits, known for positions like exalting torturers. Pundits scoffed at the idea that he could one day win. But I was examining how Brazil was steadily shifting to the right and I set out to interview him.
Now, a snippet from that 76-minute videotaped encounter — Mr. Bolsonaro’s talk of how he would have eaten an Indigenous person in the Amazon rainforest — has resurfaced as an explosive issue in Sunday’s presidential election.
“I wanted to see the Indian being cooked,” Mr. Bolsonaro said, describing a supposed cannibalism ritual in a remote region of the Amazon. “I’d eat an Indian, no problem at all.”
Supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro’s opponent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist former president, seized on the comment, drawing comparisons with cannibals real (Jeffrey Dahmer) and fictitious (Hannibal Lecter.)
Memes about Mr. Bolsonaro’s appetite for human flesh proliferated. Mentions of Bolso-Lecter, BolsoDahmer and, yes, Canibalsonaro, flooded social media feeds.
That cannibalism has become such a big conversation topic reflects the campaign’s descent into mudslinging in its final days, punctuated by accusations of freemasonry, devil worship and pedophilia. Mr. da Silva, for his part, has had to publicly rebut claims that he formed a pact with Satan.
At the time of the wide-ranging interview with Mr. Bolsonaro, it was hard to tell if his cannibalism comment was some sort of yarn or if he was trying to provoke a reaction. He made the remark unprompted. The Yanomami people, who live in the region of the Amazon referred to by Mr. Bolsonaro, say they have no tradition of cannibalism.
Now that Mr. Bolsonaro has been president since 2019, his remarks are viewed as a reflection of his character and his policies. Beyond broaching a taboo, Mr. Bolsonaro has pushed to open Indigenous lands to mining, slashed environmental protections and overseen a surge in the deforestation of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest.
As the presidential race has tightened, Mr. Bolsonaro’s campaign has sought to bar Mr. da Silva’s party from associating him with cannibalism. Lawyers for Brazil’s president argued that Mr. Bolsonaro was displaying “deference” to Indigenous culture when he said that he would eat an Indigenous person.
Siding with Mr. Bolsonaro, Brazil’s electoral court ordered the removal of political ads linking the president to cannibalism.
The court also granted him multiple opportunities during television airtime reserved for campaigning before Sunday’s runoff to defend himself against ties to cannibalism. Despite facing criticism from Indigenous leaders who called the cannibalism remarks offensive, the Bolsonaro campaign contended in its broadcast rebuttals that it was their opponents who disrespected some Indigenous traditions.
In a recent television interview, Mr. Bolsonaro also argued that he was unfairly labeled a cannibal because of “a video from 30 years ago.”
It was hard to imagine all this happening six years ago when I met Mr. Bolsonaro and his son, Flávio, who filmed the interview, which appeared shortly afterward on Mr. Bolsonaro’s social media pages.
It remained there largely overlooked — until this month.