Bolsonaro’s misinformed address to the United Nations

and . Sep 22, 2020
bolsonaro un general assembly speech President Jair Bolsonaro recording his UN speech. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

In 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shocked the world with a speech at the United Nations that was filled with disinformation and elements of domestic culture wars — nothing for international consumption, but purely for his own support base in Brazil. On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Bolsonaro’s second hurrah at the UN General Assembly touched on more international topics, but once again relied heavily on gaslighting the global audience — giving fact-checking agencies a field day.

In 14 and a half minutes, Mr. Bolsonaro made six false statements and five claims that were baseless or exaggerated.

Readers of The Brazilian Report already knew what to expect, as we reported last week that Mr. Bolsonaro had ordered his advisors to “dig up all the data that can put Brazil in a positive light compared to other countries.” 

The most noteworthy part of the speech, however,

concerned Brazil&#8217;s positioning between the U.S. and China —&nbsp;especially in light of U.S. President Donald Trump&#8217;s slim re-election prospects. (Statistics website FiveThirtyEight <a href="">gives challenger Joe Biden a 77-percent chance</a> to unseat Mr. Trump.)</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro said Brazil is open to the development of flagship technology, including 5G, with &#8220;any partner that respects our sovereignty, and cherishes freedom and data protection.&#8221; One Brazilian diplomat, who requested to remain anonymous, told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that this was a nod to the U.S.&#8217;s lobby for countries to <a href="">ban Chinese firm Huawei from 5G auctions</a> —&nbsp;&#8220;while leaving the door open for a U-turn if necessary.&#8221;</p> <p>Later in his speech, the president would make two more gestures toward Mr. Trump.&nbsp;</p> <p>First, by lashing out at Venezuela&#8217;s &#8220;Bolivarian dictatorship,&#8221; just days after a <a href="">visit by Mike Pompeo to the Brazil-Venezuela border</a>, during which the U.S. Secretary of State called Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a &#8220;drug dealer.&#8221;</p> <p>Then, he mentioned Mr. Trump by name in praising his <a href="">Peace to Prosperity</a> plan as a “promising vision [to reach a] much-desired solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>What to make of Bolsonaro&#8217;s UN speech</h2> <p>Aware of his woeful international image, the president adopted a defensive stance, deflecting the blame for the coronavirus crisis — Brazil has the world&#8217;s third-highest number of cases and second-highest of deaths — and for the recent environmental disasters ongoing in the <a href="">Amazon rainforest</a> and <a href="">Pantanal wetlands</a>.</p> <p>Instead, Mr. Bolsonaro pointed the finger at Brazil&#8217;s Supreme Court, state governors, indigenous groups, and alleged &#8220;shady interests&#8221; of global powers that want to prey on Brazil&#8217;s natural resources.</p> <p>Below, we analyze the main points of Mr. Bolsonaro’s opening speech at the 75th UN General Assembly.</p> <h2>Coronavirus crisis in Brazil</h2> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro opened by briefly lamenting the almost 140,000 coronavirus deaths in the country. However, he claimed that from the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, he has alerted the country about two crises: the spread of Covid-19 and the imminent job apocalypse — adding that he said both should be treated with the same importance. On May 1, we showed that was false.</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet tw-align-center"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">VIDEO: Bolsonaro&#8217;s response to <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Covid19</a> as deaths pile up <a href=""></a></p>— The Brazilian Report (@BrazilianReport) <a href="">May 1, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async="" src="" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>“Mr. Bolsonaro once again washed his hands [of responsibility] for the pandemic, blaming the only possible policy to fight the virus we know at this moment: social isolation. The president also undermined science and patted himself on the back for things he did not do to mitigate the crisis,” says political scientist Carlos Melo, a professor at the São Paulo-based Insper Business School.</p> <p>The president also praised Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">coronavirus emergency salary</a>, which has reduced poverty in Brazil to unprecedented levels — albeit only temporarily — and helped millions of citizens who <a href="">lost the entirety of their income</a> during the pandemic. It is worth mentioning, however, that Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s administration originally wanted to pay much smaller benefits to the population — but was outmuscled by Congress.&nbsp;</p> <h2>The environmental disaster</h2> <p>At no point did Mr. Bolsonaro own up to his administration&#8217;s faults in managing the environmental crisis, instead claiming Brazil is the &#8220;victim of one of the most brutal disinformation campaigns&#8221; in the world, carried out by &#8220;international institutions and exploitative and unpatriotic Brazilian associations&#8221; whose goal is to hurt the government and the country.</p> <p>But it is impossible to fight with the facts. Since the beginning of the year, fires in the Pantanal wetlands have already destroyed <a href="">19 percent of the entire region</a> — which is the largest wetland in the world. Also, at least 90 percent of the main conservation site dedicated to research in the area, the Sesc Pantanal Reserve, was ravaged by blazes.</p> <p>Shifting attention from land to sea, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that, in 2019, “Brazil was a victim of a criminal <a href="">oil spill caused by Venezuela</a>,” that caused environmental destruction on the country&#8217;s north-eastern coast. However, the Brazilian Federal Police later ended its investigation <a href="">without officially holding Venezuela responsible</a>. While the oil was of Venezuelan origin, the Feds were unable to conclude whether the ship responsible for the spill left from Venezuelan ports, or whether the incident was in fact a criminal spill.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro on indigenous populations</h2> <p>In last year&#8217;s General Assembly speech, Brazil&#8217;s far-right leader was critical of the country&#8217;s indigenous activists. The traditional communities were not left out of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s address on Tuesday either, with the head of state blaming indigenous people for burning the Amazon rainforest. But the Federal Police has already found evidence that landowners are the ones responsible for <a href="">igniting wildfires, in order to clear space for pastures</a>.</p> <p>He also said the federal government “gave assistance to over 200,000 indigenous families with food products and Covid-19 prevention products.” In reality, Mr. Bolsonaro did the opposite, vetoing a <a href="">piece of legislation</a> that would force the government to provide these communities with safe drinking water, hygiene products, and hospital beds.</p> <p><strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has already exposed the <a href="">worrisome situation of Brazil’s indigenous groups</a> during the pandemic. Until August 22, according to the Articulation of Indigenous People, at least 700 indigenous people died due to Covid-19 — but anthropologists say the real figures are much higher.</p> <h2>The economy and foreign trade</h2> <p>Brazil&#8217;s nonchalant approach to the environmental crisis might cost the country its biggest diplomatic success under Jair Bolsonaro: the signing of a free-trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur, after more than 20 years of negotiations.&nbsp;</p> <p>A group of eight European countries&nbsp;— which account for 10 percent of Brazil&#8217;s agricultural exports — have formally asked the Bolsonaro administration to <a href="">take &#8220;real action&#8221; against deforestation in the Amazon</a>, adding that &#8220;the current trend is making it increasingly difficult for businesses and investors to meet their environmental, social, and governance criteria.”</p> <p>Meanwhile, a group of 30 NGOs, including Greenpeace France, demanded that French President Emmanuel Macron “bury [the EU-Mercosur deal] once and for all,” citing its potentially “disastrous” impacts on forests, the climate, and human rights.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro seemed unfazed by the pressure, claiming he trusts in Brazil’s efforts to advance these agreements and even supported an overhaul of the World Trade Organization (WTO) — one again, falling in line with U.S. President Donald Trump.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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