The performer -- who was born in Canada, though he rose to music superstardom largely in the U.S. -- has spent the last few weeks giving Latin American countries the sad spectacle of an entitled 19-year-old intoxicated with fame. The Latin American leg of his “Believe” world tour has been, to put it mildly, embarrassing.
For starters, there was Bieber's alleged illicit sexual behavior. Early in his trip, Panama newspaper Critica reported that Bieber and his entourage allegedly cavorted with prostitutes. (The paper cited an unnamed woman who claimed to have slept with Bieber and described the encounter in X-rated detail; some aren't sold on the story's veracity.)
Bieber may have tried to redeem himself during a stop in Guatemala, where he helped build a school for the underprivileged and offered his shoes to a barefoot child. Spanish newspaper Sur highlighted Bieber’s “solidarity,” claiming the star is more than just “the pretty boy of the record industry and he has a human side.”
Not so fast: Bieber soon reverted to his partying ways. In Rio de Janeiro, he was reportedly seen trying to sneak out of Centauros, a well-known brothel. In a separate incident, a woman taped a clip apparently of him sleeping, which found its way to YouTube. Tatiana Neves Barbosa, the woman in question, spilled the details of her alleged sexual encounter with Bieber to the tabloids. Acclaim Magazine best summarized the mess in a headline accompanying a set of photos: “Tati Neves: The girl who filmed Justin Bieber sleeping. So you can identify the D grade celebrity as she shoots to fame.”
(In fairness, Bieber is not the first high-profile American to get involved in a tawdry sex scandal in South America -- just ask the U.S. Secret Service.)
Bieber's transgressions don't stop there, either. The pop star spray-painted a wall in a Bogota thoroughfare. The fact that he was guarded by local police while doing so only offended Colombian graffiti enthusiasts who face run-ins with law enforcement (including a well-known shooting) for similar acts. Maria G. de la Torre, a columnist and former editorialist for the El Tiempo newspaper, blasted Bogota authorities in a tweet: “It is shameful what the Bogota police let Bieber do. It’s the last straw.”
“It was simply an artistic demonstration," Camilo Cabana, deputy commander of the Bogota Metropolitan Police, told reporters, "It was the duty of the police to accompany and guard him.” Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, the city's government secretary, differed. He described the singer’s actions as “in bad taste and illegal,” and he questioned why authorities would ever give the star a graffiti permit.
In Rio, Bieber allegedly "tagged" the wall of an abandoned building; police charged him with “defacing a building or urban monument by graffiti or other means.” Bieber had a permit to doodle on the walls of a Brazilian sports facility, but he chose another building instead.
Finally, there was the singer's general disruptiveness. He was allegedly expelled from hotels in both Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires -- mostly on account of his rowdy behavior and that of his out-of-control fans. His bodyguards were prevented from leaving Argentina after they allegedly assaulted a nightclub photographer, which came after Bieber was apparently sneaked out of a nightclub into a vehicle full of girls.
Bieber even came off as unprofessional and disrespectful of locals. On Nov. 2, he stormed off the stage at a Sao Paulo concert after someone threw a plastic bottle that hit his hand. Brazilian television personality Xuxa, famous for running children’s programs, lambasted the star (whom she referred to as "B"), calling him an “arrogant boy” and a “spoiled brat” on her Facebook page.
Argentinians were also offended during a concert in Buenos Aires on Nov. 9, when Bieber appeared to wipe the floor with the country’s flag. A tweet by Argentina’s Telefe Noticias captured the indignation over the incident: “@justinbieber is the height of contempt. He swept the floor with an Argentine flag.” He left midway through his Buenos Aires show on Nov. 10, claiming he was suffering from food poisoning. Still, fans wished him a speedy recovery under the hashtag #SorryJustinFromArgentina. A tweet by Argentine Cindy Nero was concise and less forgiving: “#SorryJustinFromArgentina? In any case #SorryArgentinaFromJustin.”
Bieber's antics have the uncanny ability of offending both ends of the region’s political spectrum. For politically conservative, God-fearing Latin Americans (the majority), Bieber -- despite his Canadian origins -- fits the stereotype of the spoiled American brat they love to hate.
For those on the populist left, Bieber confirms their fear of an “imperialist” influence, which they blame for undermining local values and fostering runaway consumption. Argentina’s Vice President Amado Boudou, who is filling in for an ailing President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, addressed Bieber’s concert cancellation -- without mentioning the artist by name -- as a “cultural tragedy.” Boudou denounced what he called “foreign culture” and said his government is “convinced of the need to fund Argentine culture; otherwise, what happened yesterday happens.”
Much of this controversy was probably staged, as evidenced by the fact that Bieber had apparently secured permits to post graffiti in Brazil and Colombia. The star's baby-faced looks and bad-boy reputation are presumably carefully cultivated to further Bieber's existence as a brand. From a financial perspective, keeping starstruck teenage girls buying Bieber's music and merchandise is a more important task than pleasing Latin American politicians. Then again, Bieber probably helped politicians, too: His brand of irreverence not only gives teenagers an outlet to rebel but also hands the region’s populist leaders a negative American image they can exploit for political gain. But Latin America doesn’t need stronger populists.
Bieber arrived back in the U.S. a couple of days ago, but he is still scheduled to visit Mexico next week. He may be better off following the advice that radical Latin America leftists used to spray-paint on walls during the Cold War: “Yankee go home.”
(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)