Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro apologized Tuesday after his visit to a group of teenagers he implied were sex workers drew accusations of "pedophilia" from opponents.
Fighting for re-election in an October 30 runoff against veteran leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the far-right president has been swept up in a firestorm over his remarks about the underage Venezuelan girls, whom he called "very pretty".
"If my words, which were taken out of context in bad faith, were somehow misinterpreted or caused discomfort to our Venezuelan sisters, I apologize," Bolsonaro said in a video posted online.
"My commitment has always been to better welcome and assist all people fleeing dictatorships anywhere in the world," he added, flanked by his wife and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido's representative in Brazil.
Bolsonaro recognizes Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader, rather than socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
The controversy erupted Friday when Bolsonaro spoke in a YouTube interview about visiting the home of "three or four very pretty 14- or 15-year-olds" last year in a poor Brasilia neighborhood.
"There was a vibe between us. I turned around. 'Can I come in your house?' I went inside. There were 15 or 20 girls (in the house), all Venezuelans aged 14, 15, getting ready on a Saturday. Why? To earn a living," he said.
The anecdote appeared intended as one of Bolsonaro's frequent warnings that Brazil will suffer the same fate as crisis-torn Venezuela if it elects Lula.
But Bolsonaro found himself on the defensive after Lula allies attacked the comments as "depraved" and the hashtag #Bolsonaropedofilo (Bolsonaro pedophile) went viral online.
His campaign succeeded Sunday in a petition to electoral authorities to ban an attack ad based on excerpts from the interview.
But Bolsonaro said the preceding day had been "the most terrible of my life."
In an interview on Tuesday, Lula said Bolsonaro's behavior "is that of a pedophile."
"He realized it, that's why he got scared and tried to explain himself as quickly as possible," Lula said.
After Bolsonaro's apology, at least two other videos in which the president had told the same anecdote about the girls were shared online.
Rosangela da Silva, Lula's wife, tweeted an excerpt of another interview with Bolsonaro a month ago in which he insinuated that the girls were prostitutes.
In May, Bolsonaro also relayed the anecdote during an event broadcast on public television.
"Is that what we want for our daughters and granddaughters?" he said.
Bolsonaro, who vehemently rejects the opposition's criticisms, said in Tuesday's video that his former women's minister, Damares Alves, had "almost immediately" investigated the girls' case and found they were not in fact prostitutes.
He said Alves and First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro had visited the girls Tuesday and "found they were rebuilding their lives (and) even helping other Venezuelan refugees find jobs and integrate" in Brazil, which hosts an estimated 260,000 Venezuelan refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.
Newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported that the Venezuelan teens and their mothers had refused a request from Bolsonaro's campaign to record a video on the president's behalf.
© 2022 AFP