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.