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Bolsonaro’s Hermit Kingdom

Jair Bolsonaro’s embarrassing, Cold War-style rant at the United Nations shows just how far Brazil’s international standing has sunk under its far-right president. With few friends abroad, it will be easier for opponents to defeat him in Brazil.

Jair Bolsonaro waits to speak at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 24, 2019, in New York. Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images

Every September, by tradition, Brazil gets the first word at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. This is because “in very early times, when no one wanted to speak first, Brazil always . . . offered to speak first. And so they have earned the right to speak first at the General Assembly,” as Desmond Parker, chief of protocol for the United Nations, told NPR in 2010. This practice, in place since 1955, does not always make intuitive sense. As Brazil’s standing on the world stage has waxed and waned over the decades, it might seem more or less surprising to see the Brazilian head of state on the dais before, say, the Secretary-General or the president of the United States. (As leader of the host country, the US president speaks second).

This year, however, it seemed entirely appropriate that Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian far-right extremist who took office in January, should speak first. With a governing strategy dependent on gratuitously needling opponents to galvanize his rabid base of online support, Bolsonaro personifies the vacuous ferocity that defines so much political debate in 2019. He has also been at the center of a storm of global condemnation for weeks. Like an obstreperous child summoned to the principal’s office, Bolsonaro had a lot of explaining to do before the international community.

Over the summer, massive fires in the Amazon rainforest, almost two-thirds of which is in Brazilian territory, provoked global outrage against Bolsonaro’s government. For years, Bolsonaro has lamented Brazil’s stringent environmental protections and its stewardship of indigenous peoples’ lands. That deforestation would spike dramatically during his first few months in office surprised no one. As Tyler James Olsen and Brian Dorman note, “most of these fires are started by smallholder farmers or ranchers who are either clearing new tracts of jungle for pasture or re-clearing their previously deforested plots for continued use, employing slash-and-burn agricultural techniques.” Robust environmental laws are only as good as their enforcement, and enforcement is seemingly nowhere on Bolsonaro’s agenda. Elected leaders, journalists, and ordinary people around the world wondered why Brazil’s president wasn’t doing more to put out the flames.

Eventually, international observers concluded that Bolsonaro was either unwilling or technically incapable of doing anything productive. As I wrote in August, “while Bolsonaro’s presidency has been an emergency from day one for ordinary Brazilians, the massive fires in the Amazon have finally sparked the intense, worldwide condemnation that Bolsonaro has long deserved. In response, Bolsonaro has nursed an aggrieved nationalism, dismissing criticism as ‘colonialist’ sabotage.”

Such defensive language prefigured Bolsonaro’s address at the General Assembly in which he claimed to represent a “new Brazil, resurfacing after being on the brink of socialism.” Indeed, socialism, that perennial threat of right-wing fever dreams, had supposedly placed the country “in a situation of widespread corruption, severe economic recession, high crime rates and constant attacks on the family and religious values that shape our traditions.”

Recalling the Communist menace of yesteryear, early on in his address Bolsonaro invoked the Cuban Revolution, pointing out that, “as early as the 1960s, Cuban agents were sent to various countries to collaborate in the implementation of dictatorships. A few decades ago they tried to change the Brazilian regime and other Latin American countries. They were defeated!” As the camera panned to the Cuban delegation, representatives of the island nation could not even be bothered to look up from their notes. They have heard such bromides before.

There was nothing new to speak of elsewhere in the speech. Assessing the situation in Venezuela, Bolsonaro remarked that “socialism is working in Venezuela! Everyone is poor and without freedom!” The address, reportedly written in large part by Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, was infused with a healthy dose of conspiracy theorizing, invoking the absurd notion that the Foro de São Paulo, a transnational conference of leftist and center-left Latin American political parties, is an existential danger to be aggressively confronted lest the entire continent devolve into the Venezuela of Nicolas Maduro or the Brazil of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (and as if these national examples were distinctions without a difference). On the matter of indigenous agency, Bolsonaro found it necessary to state what is obvious to everyone except perhaps those in his administration: “Our natives are human beings, just like any of us.”

Attempting to dismiss the virtual consensus among indigenous Brazilians that Bolsonaro is uniquely hostile to their interests, the president asserted that “the views of one indigenous leader do not represent that of all Brazilian Indians. Often some of these leaders, such as Cacique Raoni [Metuktire, chief of the indigenous Brazilian Kayapó people and a Bolsonaro critic], are used as a ploy by foreign governments in their information war to advance their interests in the Amazon. Unfortunately, some people, inside and outside Brazil, supported by NGOs, insist on treating and keeping our Indians as true cavemen.”

As was perhaps obvious to those present, that Bolsonaro could not muster a single indigenous leader to provide even token support to his administration belies his argument that not all Brazilian Indians revile his administration. On this subject and others, Bolsonaro expected his audience to ignore every single dispiriting tidbit they have heard and read about his country since his inauguration. Everything is terrific, he angrily insisted, thank you very much and thanks for nothing. In this way, he demonstrated no interest in actually engaging the international community. Instead, he wants concerned foreign observers to butt out.

Bolsonaro’s speech illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of the Right in Brazil today, a social agglomeration that responded to nearly a decade and a half of center-left Workers’ Party (PT) governments (2003-2016) with a forceful and as yet unshakeable nostalgia for the simple-minded clarity — and the militarized authoritarianism — of the Cold War era. By dramatically assailing the myriad specters of socialism, globalism, and religious persecution, Bolsonaro also moved to assert his place within a broader constellation of aggrieved far-right leaders around the world.

But unlike Donald Trump, whose winking buffoonery suggests nothing if not duplicity and contempt for even those inclined to support him, Bolsonaro seems earnest in his belief that he is operating in a different historical moment, one in which leaders could safely assume that unimpeachable anti-left credentials would garner international support. As global coverage of Bolsonaro’s address makes clear, he is today an international pariah who has seen international goodwill toward Brazil, built up during mostly successful PT administrations, go up in smoke like so much Amazonian hardwood.

Given that Bolsonaro on Tuesday sounded more than a little like a military dictator from half a century ago, it is perhaps worth reflecting on an iconic speech delivered in the same venue at the height of the Cold War. Addressing the General Assembly in 1964, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, representing the revolutionary Cuban government, pointed out that “the peoples of Africa are compelled to endure the fact that on the African continent the superiority of one race over another remains official policy, and that in the name of this racial superiority murder is committed with impunity. Can the United Nations do nothing to stop this?”

He also directly criticized the hypocrisy of US authorities vis-à-vis civil rights at home and abroad: “The United States intervenes in Latin America invoking the defense of free institutions. The time will come when this Assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the US Government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.” Finally, Che denounced the inaction of the body before him, asserting that “imperialism wants to turn this meeting into a pointless oratorical tournament, instead of solving the serious problems of the world. We must prevent it from doing so.”

Che’s famous address indicates that even amid the extreme ideological polarization of the Cold War it was possible for serious leaders to combine a clear defense of their worldview with concrete policy prescriptions. Bolsonaro fails that test resoundingly. His insistence on tilting at windmills makes clear his government’s renunciation of any serious role in international affairs, his commitment to utterly pointless oratory. Under his administration, Brazil has become an ideological hermit kingdom, unflinching in its unseriousness.

The work of international solidarity must involve elevating and empowering dissident voices in Brazil, a project bolstered by the continued isolation of Bolsonaro himself. It is striking how friendless Bolsonaro is less than a year into his term. Other than Donald Trump, there are remarkably few foreign leaders who have spoken positively of him or who want to be seen with him. Bolsonaro’s pitiful standing is all the more pronounced in comparison to a decade ago when Lula was a veritable international celebrity who Barack Obama called “my man” and was celebrated as “the most popular politician on Earth.”

For a country like Brazil that craves international visibility and respectability — to say nothing of the foreign investment that accompanies a healthy international reputation — Bolsonaro’s churlishness in venues like the General Assembly will almost certainly undermine him at home. Already, opportunists on the Right who supported him last year when he was on the rise denounced his speech with heretofore unseen acidity. It would be dangerous to assume that Bolsonaro’s repeated humiliations before foreign audiences will prove politically lethal, but an opponent left for dead on the world stage is undoubtedly easier to defeat.