Bolsonaro at UNGA: disappointed but not surprised

. Sep 24, 2019
jair bolsonaro un general assembly speech unga Jair Bolsonaro had the first word. Photo: Alan Santos/PR

As is tradition, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro opened the debates of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Tuesday morning. Those hoping for a moderate, conciliatory speech were left wanting; those who expected chaos were vindicated.

In a little over 30 minutes of oratory, Jair Bolsonaro—constantly squinting his eyes to read the distant teleprompter—unleashed wave after wave of bizarre rhetoric, with healthy doses of aggression and misinformation, and a pinch of pure insanity.

</p> <h2>UN General Assembly: Half an hour of madness</h2> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro started as he meant to go on. &#8220;Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a new Brazil, one which resurges after being on the brink of socialism.&#8221;</p> <p>Plainly unaware of the difference between socialism and 13 years of reformist center-left governance, Brazil&#8217;s president beat on. &#8220;Socialism … put us in a situation of widespread corruption, severe economic recession, high levels of criminality and uninterrupted attacks on the family and religious values that make up our traditions.&#8221;</p> <p>Speaking on the Amazon rainforest, he minimized deforestation in Brazil (&#8220;[the Amazon] is practically untouched&#8221;), and this year&#8217;s uptick in fires (&#8220;the dry climate and wind favor spontaneous fires&#8221;), before launching into a tirade against the international media and its &#8220;sensationalist attacks&#8221; which &#8220;awoke [Brazil&#8217;s] patriotism.&#8221;</p> <p>On indigenous matters, he declared the end of the &#8220;monopoly&#8221; of Raoni Metuktire, the Brazilian indigenous activist who is in line for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize but—according to Mr. Bolsonaro—is merely a &#8220;pawn being used by foreign governments.&#8221;</p> <p>He then read a letter submitted by fringe organization the Brazilian Indigenous Agriculturalists Group, endorsing the work of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s government and right-wing indigenous YouTuber Ysani Kalapalo, who was a part of the president&#8217;s delegation in New York.</p> <p>After the speech however, representatives of 16 indigenous peoples—among them the chief of Ms. Kalapalo&#8217;s own tribe—submitted an <a href=",1087525/representantes-de-16-povos-do-xingu-repudiam-indigena-pro-bolsonaro.shtml">open letter</a> denouncing the right-wing activist, saying she is &#8220;working on social media with the sole objective of offending and demoralizing leaders and the Brazilian indigenous movement.&#8221;</p> <p>Even after all this, Mr. Bolsonaro still had time for his most curious of diatribes: an anti-enlightenment crusade against &#8220;ideology,&#8221; which he claims is &#8220;in culture … dominating universities and schools .. invading our homes … destroying the innocence of our children … invading the human soul to expel God.&#8221;</p> <p>Signing off, he mentioned the &#8220;grace and glory of God,&#8221; and received a smattering of applause from the crowd in attendance.</p> <h2>Disappointed but not surprised</h2> <p>The reaction from local and international pundits was expectedly disastrous. Writing for <em>UOL</em>, correspondent Jamil Chade stated Jair Bolsonaro had &#8220;lost his last chance to be respected,&#8221; while <em>Americas Quarterly </em>editor Brian Winter noted that the speech was something of a &#8220;greatest hits&#8221; record for Jair Bolsonaro: &#8220;attacking socialists, denouncing perceived enemies and (mostly) denying the problem [of Amazon deforestation].&#8221;</p> <p>Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, opined that the negative reaction to his speech will actually play into Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s hands. &#8220;The more Brazil turns into a pariah, the more it serves his narrative that the world wants to undermine Brazil&#8217;s sovereignty,&#8221; he tweeted.</p> <h2>Those who came before him</h2> <p>Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s speech was notable for being the polar opposite of those of his predecessors. Michel Temer, who handed Mr. Bolsonaro the presidential sash on January 1, made three speeches at the UN General Assembly, each time warning about climate change and the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, the far-right, and isolationism.</p> <p>Dilma Rousseff, who presided over Brazil until being ousted in a highly controversial impeachment process in 2016, spoke five times at the opening of the UNGA. In 2011, she became the first woman ever to give the maiden speech at the UNGA debates, an opportunity she used to speak about gender equality and human rights.</p> <p>A recurring theme throughout Ms. Rousseff&#8217;s speeches before the UN—and those of her mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—was the plea for Brazil to be given a bigger role in international discussions, repeating the country&#8217;s long-held desire to be given a seat on the Security Council.</p> <p>Lula, whose government was praised for its achievement of taking millions of Brazilians out of poverty, unsurprisingly used poverty and hunger as his main talking points before the UN. In his two terms as president, he opened the debates six times, twice sending then-Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.</p> <p>Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who preceded Lula and presided over Brazil between 1995 and 2002, only ever gave one speech at the UNGA, despite having eight opportunities. His one and only appearance came in 2001, weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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