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Bolsonaro's deadly lies

Thomas Milz - Gastkommentarbild
Thomas Milz
September 23, 2020

President Jair Bolsonaro has claimed that Brazil is the victim of a campaign of lies about the Amazon. But, Thomas Milz writes, pictures of the fires there speak for themselves — as do Brazil's coronavirus statistics.

US: UN — Jair Bolsonaro
Image: UNTV/AP Photo/picture-alliance

It is a tradition for Brazil to be the first country to address the UN General Assembly. In 2020, for the first time, the opening remarks were made via video because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 137,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Brazil — the second-highest national total after the United States.

From the start of his speech, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro denied any responsibility. He said he had been the victim of Brazil's judiciary, which had hampered his fight against the pandemic by giving regional governors the authority to manage their own jurisdictions. 

Thomas Milz
Thomas MilzImage: Privat

In reality, Bolsonaro had downplayed the pandemic early and then largely refused to fight it. What is worse, he promoted chloroquine, an anti-malarial that has been proved not to be effective against COVID-19 — and sometimes to be counterproductive or even dangerous — as a remedy and put the Health Ministry into the hands of a general who had previously organized the running of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Denying responsibility is simply part of Bolsonaro's mentality.

Read more: Can we adapt to live with wildfires?

Bolsonaro does glorify his own role if things go well. The coronavirus aid paid out to more than 65 million Brazilians had saved the economy from an even worse disaster, Bolsonaro said. That is indeed true. But what he did not tell his international audience is that it was Brazil's Congress that forced the government to provide the aid. And he lied straight out when he said people had received $1,000 (€856) — in fact, they got just half that amount.

Read more: In July, the Red Cross slammed the US's and Brazil's responses to the coronavirus pandemic

'Most brutal campaign'

Bolsonaro's denial of reality became even more obvious when he discussed the ongoing environmental destruction in the Amazon. Smoke clouds from the region can currently be detected in Brazil's far south. The spread of the fires can also be seen in  satellite images from NASA. And the fact that Bolsonaro's government is preventing the environmental authorities from protecting the forests can be proved by the drastic cuts to the environment budget. Even government members openly admit that the responsible agencies are being hamstrung.

Despite this, Bolsonaro repeated his assertion that no country had protected the environment better than Brazil — and then complained that the international community had simply refused to recognize that fact. "As far as the Amazon and the Pantanal go, we are the victim of a most brutal campaign of lies," Bolsonaro said. He claimed that international institutions were taking part in dark machinations to damage his government, saying even "unpatriotic war profiteers" from Brazil were involved.

Read more: European nations warn Brazil over Amazon deforestation

Bolsonaro's words were directed not only at organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund and activists such as the Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, a UN messenger of peace on the topic of climate change — but also at the United Nations itself. The COP 25 climate change conference was meant to have been held in Brazil in the fall of 2019, but Bolsonaro was willfully obstructive. Instead, he repeatedly accused the United Nations of intending to use a climate agreement to confiscate  the Amazon region from Brazil.

Read more: Pandemic deepens precarity for Brazil's domestic workers

An international conspiracy?

Bolsonaro is, of course, not concerned about Brazil's international reputation. In these times of global information networks and thanks to the alert reporting by various media, the world knows very well what is going on in Brazil's forests. Bolsonaro has nothing to gain by lying here. Instead, his remarks were directed at his Brazilians, to whom he must answer about the coronavirus deaths, Brazil's economic collapse during the pandemic and the environmental destruction that has occurred during his presidency. Some back home still buy his distortion of facts.

Supporters still believe Bolsonaro when he blames obscure powers from outside Brazil. He has depicted himself as the victim of international schemers by spinning the threats from EU member states to vetothe ratification of the free trade agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur Latin American commerce bloc on the grounds that Brazil engages in environmental degradiation and the destruction of Indigenous lands.

Read more: Illegal logging, mining threaten an Amazon river community

Two problems are currently shaking the world: the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. Both have global dimensions and can be solved only at the global level. Clever leaders use global institutions such as the United Nations to work toward solutions — especially those that fit the interests of their countries. But Bolsonaro does not think about solutions. He would rather blame imaginary enemies. There is nothing constructive to be expected from him.

This opinion piece was adapted from German by Tim Jones.