The world's longest Zoom call is underway at the United Nations General Assembly today. As is customary, Brazil was the first country to deliver a speech. And as expected, President Jair Bolsonaro came out swinging, targeting enemies real and imagined.
Although he careened wildly from topic to topic, a few themes stood out. It was a speech, as the saying goes, "for the English to see". It was also a full-throttled attack against the media and anyone who deigns to disagree with him. Bolsonaro's intervention was red meat for his most ardent supporters, many who are suspicious of global institutions such as the United Nations and love to see their dear leader give globalists a good thrashing.
Bolsonaro started on familiar ground, reminding his fellow leaders that despite all the negative publicity, Brazil is "open for business". He claimed that the country registered unprecedented inflows of foreign investment under his administration when in fact the reverse is the case. He also lauded the country's powerful agro-industrial sector, a key supporter of the president, which he says is feeding over a sixth of the global population. At times Bolsonaro strayed out of his comfort zone, including on issues related to the digital economy, artificial intelligence and data protection.
His intervention grew increasingly defiant as he dove into the two themes that have threatened to topple his administration. The first is his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is widely described as among the world's most disastrous. Brazil currently has the third highest infection rate on the planet and more doctors and nurses have died of the disease than anywhere else on the planet. Despite presiding over a high-quality public health system, Bolsonaro fumbled the ball. While he claimed that his government delegated responsibility for responding to the pandemic to states, he neglected to mention that he personally attacked and persecuted governors at every turn.
Bolsonaro repeated his claim that responses to COVID-19 should balance the health of the population with the imperatives of the economy. Yet Bolsonaro stands out for his singularly divisive approach – downplaying the threat of the disease, which he describes as a "little flu", and encouraging his supporters to disobey public health advice that could prevent its spread. In his speech, he admonished the media for politicizing the virus, accusing them of fomenting "social chaos". While it is true that his government is providing an immensely popular subsidy to over 65 million poor Brazilians, this was not his original idea. In fact, he staunchly opposed it until he recognized the political dividends that could (and did) ensue.
Bolsonaro claimed that he was being attacked by a campaign intent on discrediting his government. Yet it is his very administration that has systematically eroded environmental legislation and failed to enforce penalties for environmental crime.
Where Bolsonaro appeared most defiant was on the issue of the environment. And not without good reason: he is facing a firestorm of criticism over his mishandling of the Amazon and Pantanal fires and rising levels of illegal deforestation. During today's intervention, Bolsonaro went on offence, criticising the media and non-governmental organizations for overblowing his government's disastrous management of the crisis. He claimed that he was being attacked by a campaign intent on discrediting his government. Yet it is his very administration that has systematically eroded environmental legislation and failed to enforce penalties for environmental crime. Under his watch, illegal land clearances, illicit deforestation, and wildcat mining have soared. Indigenous populations, who he claims to be supporting with relief assistance, are facing a deluge of disease, fires and criminality.
It is true that Brazil was once an international benchmark for environment protection, but this is not the case under Bolsonaro. In fact, Bolsonaro essentially denied there was any kind of problem with forest fires or the denuding of land, despite the fact that it has reached levels not seen in decades. He wrongly blamed indigenous people and local farmers for setting fires, as well as "excessive organic matter", despite evidence that large landholders and ranchers are principally to blame. The Brazilian president said his government was enforcing laws when only a tiny fraction of penalties and fines are enforced. He lauded his coordinated response, when in fact key entities such as IBAMA, FUNAI and INPE have been radically downgraded and defunded.
After a barrage of attacks against his enemies, Bolsonaro concluded with a shout-out to his base, affirming once more that Brazil is a sovereign nation, one founded on deep Christian values. He criticized rising "Christianphobia", a mysterious term, and re-asserted the importance of religious freedoms which will surely please his Evangelical supporters. Not surprisingly, Bolsonaro also extended praise for Donald Trump, especially the US president's son-in-law's peace plan in the Middle East. Ultimately, this was a speech delivered squarely to foreign investors and his domestic supporters. While Brazil's president has seen his polling numbers grow in recent months, he will be relying on both to weather the coming storms.