The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, told the United Nations general assembly he had come to showcase “a new Brazil, with its credibility restored before the world”.
But in a 12-minute address, in which the far-right populist preached unproven Covid remedies, denounced coronavirus containment measures and peddled a succession of distortions and outright lies about Brazilian politics and the environment, Bolsonaro did little to repair his country’s mangled international reputation.
“It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage,” the leftist congresswoman Vivi Reis lamented after watching her country’s radical leader speak. “This kind of man should not be representing our country – a country so rich in biodiversity, culture, workers and youth.”
Ahead of Bolsonaro’s opening address, some Brazilian diplomats had reportedly hoped their president might show a softer face to the world than during his last in-person appearance at the UN. On that occasion, in September 2019, Brazil’s new leader accused the “deceitful” media of hyping the Amazon’s destruction and launched a Donald Trump-style excoriation of socialism.
Those hopes of moderation evaporated within seconds of Bolsonaro taking the podium, however, as the rightwing nationalist announced he had come “to show a Brazil different to the one you see in newspapers and on TV” and again lashed out at the supposed threat of socialism.
“We haven’t had a single concrete case of corruption for [the] two years and eight months [of my presidency],” Bolsonaro claimed, incorrectly, neglecting to mention a series of scandals dogging his family and government, including over the purchase of Covid vaccines.
Bolsonaro insisted his government had long championed Covid vaccination, even though he has personally undermined efforts to immunize citizens against a disease that has killed almost 600,000 Brazilians and has supposedly refused to receive a shot.
On Monday the New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, and Boris Johnson publicly goaded Bolsonaro over his failure to get jabbed, with de Blasio telling Brazil’s president he shouldn’t have bothered visiting without doing so.
In his speech, Bolsonaro also trumpeted his administration’s support for ineffective Covid remedies – known in Brazil as “early treatment” – despite widespread opposition from the global scientific and medical communities.
“We do not understand why many countries – along with a large part of the media – opposed ‘early treatment’,” Bolsonaro told world leaders, announcing that he had taken such drugs himself.
“History and science will know how to hold everyone to account,” the president added – a forecast the growing ranks of Bolsonaro’s political foes hope will prove correct.
Elsewhere in his address, Brazil’s leader falsely claimed that recent pro-Bolsonaro independence day demonstrations had been the largest in Brazilian history and painted an implausibly rosy picture of his country’s economy and environmental protection efforts.
“Which other country in the world has a policy of environmental protection like ours?” asked Bolsonaro, who has been accused of encouraging environmental crime and under whom deforestation has soared to 12-year highs.
Marcio Astrini, the executive director of the Climate Observatory, an umbrella group of environmental NGOs, said Bolsonaro had cherry-picked and distorted statistics in an attempt to defend his indefensible environmental record of destruction and impunity.
“This is simply not true – it’s a lie,” Astrini said of Bolsonaro’s claim that 84% of the Amazon rainforest was intact. “Somebody cooks up these numbers and the president repeats them.”
Astrini doubted the international community would buy Bolsonaro’s attempt to portray Brazil as an “environmental paradise” ahead of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.
“At this point the only thing the world could hear from Bolsonaro and think might lead to an improvement, would be if Bolsonaro announced his resignation … Short of that it’s all empty talk,” Astrini said. “We know he says one thing and in Brazil is doing something totally different.”
Reis, a congresswoman for the Amazon state of Pará, said she failed to recognize the Brazil described by Bolsonaro when she looked around her and saw rising inflation, unemployment, environmental devastation, attacks on indigenous communities, and hundreds of thousands of Covid deaths.
“Brazil doesn’t deserve this. Brazilians don’t deserve this,” she said, urging Bolsonaro’s opponents to unite on the streets on 2 October for the next round of pro-impeachment demonstrations.