Divisive Brazilian right-wing philosopher, provocateur dies

FILE - Olavo de Carvalho, 72, sits at a desk in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, May 30, 2019. Carvalho, a leading light of Brazil’s conservative movement who was celebrated by devotees and loathed by detractors, died the night of Jan. 24 in Virginia, according to a statement published Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 on his official Twitter profile. (Terrance McCoy/The Washington Post via AP, File)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Olavo de Carvalho, a leading light of Brazil’s conservative movement who stirred passions among both devotees and detractors, has died, according to a statement published Tuesday on his official Twitter profile. He was 74.

De Carvalho died Monday night in Virginia, where he had been living for over a decade, the family’s statement read.

The statement didn’t mention the cause of death, but the Brazilian media, including newspaper O Globo, widely reported that the thinker had been diagnosed with COVID-19 on Jan. 16. His daughter Heloisa, who was publicly at odds with him, said on her Twitter account that he had died of the disease.

De Carvalho’s books and online courses helped reinvigorate the country’s political right ahead of the 2018 presidential election when he called on his followers to back then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

He became a deeply divisive figure, exalted by a segment of the right that viewed him as a clear-eyed philosopher, and despised by much of the left and the intellectual elite. He repeatedly downplayed the severity of COVID-19 and used social media to promote conspiracy theories and spread skepticism about the need for vaccines to end the pandemic.

Bolsonaro was a fervent supporter of de Carvalho, even displaying one of his books during his victory speech on election night in 2018, along with the Bible. On Tuesday, the president mourned the loss of “one of the greatest thinkers in the history of our country.”

“Olavo was a giant in the fight for freedom and a beacon for millions of Brazilians. His example and his teachings will mark us forever,” Bolsonaro said. The official Twitter profile of Bolsonaro’s government also praised his “monumental legacy.”

Bolsonaro also declared a national day of mourning, an honor he has seldom bestowed since assuming office. There were no days of mourning for bossa nova pioneer João Gilberto, samba legend Elza Soares or comedian Paulo Gustavo.

De Carvalho published several books expounding his ideology, relentlessly warning against domination by the political left and against “cultural Marxism.” He argued that media, universities, scientists and artists had foisted communist ideology onto the nation.

De Carvalho, who once worked as an astrologer, enjoyed being provocative. He once questioned whether the planet is, in fact, round: “To me, this flat-earth issue is like any other: No one is certain of a damn thing. Sensible people are amused by the investigation, neurotics are offended by the question,” de Carvalho said on Twitter in 2019.

Much like Bolsonaro, who spent nearly three decades preaching his conservative ideas to a small audience as a federal lawmaker, de Carvalho long remained a marginal figure.

But with Bolsonaro’s 2018 victory, his thinking penetrated the highest ranks of government, particularly the education and foreign ministries. Several cabinet ministers and other government appointees proudly advertised their intellectual debt to the conservative guru, earning them the nickname of “Olavistas.”

His ideas somewhat resembled those that came to the fore in the U.S. during the administration of former President Donald Trump. De Carvalho has drawn comparisons to Rush Limbaugh and Steve Bannon, and had met with the latter.

Many “Olavistas” have since left Bolsonaro’s government and de Carvalho’s influence has waned, at least in public discourse.

In a Folha de S.Paulo newspaper column on Tuesday, Igor Gielow wrote that de Carvalho’s influence cast a light on figures who emerged from the shadows and, for a period, held the levers of power.

“Olavo now disappears at the moment when ‘Bolsonarismo’ ends its cycle with the implosion of the supposed cohesion of the ideological group,” he wrote.

Since the pandemic began, de Carvalho railed against those who sought to introduce restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus, measures Bolsonaro also opposed.

In July 2020, months after the virus spread globally and had killed hundreds of thousands, de Carvalho asked on Twitter: “When will the so-called ‘conservatives’ stop using the term ‘pandemic’?”

Following the announcement of his death, legions of devotees were mourning his passing on social media, while some of his opponents cheered his demise.

“He leaves behind many orphans, teachings and admirers,” one Facebook user identifiying as Ana Tabet wrote.

Sen. Renan Calheiros, author of a congressional report accusing the Bolsonaro administration of mismanaging the COVID-19 crisis, posted that de Carvalho had “denied the virus, mocked the dead, did not get vaccinated, died of the virus.”

De Carvalho’s estranged daughter Heloisa de Carvalho wrote on Twitter: “May God forgive him for all the evils he committed.”