Brazil loses credibility under Jair Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has found himself to be persona non grata in New York. And Brazil may encounter similar hostility elsewhere in the world as well while he remains leader.

What was meant to have been a glitzy New York ceremony that saw Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro awarded a "Person of the Year" prize ended up provoking a heated and prolonged bout of political mudslinging.

The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce intended to honor Bolsonaro, along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at a gala held in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The annual soiree, generously funded by US and Brazilian companies, is a long-established event where investors and entrepreneurs vie for an exclusive chance to network with the winners.

This time, however, everything went wrong.

First, sponsors of the museum voiced objections, calling for the event to be canceled because of Bolsonaro's right-wing populist and misanthropic views. Then, when an alternative venue for the awards ceremony was slated at a hotel, the first of the event sponsors jumped ship. 

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Brazil puts economy over the rain forest

To top it all, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, then chimed in, saying Bolsonaro was not welcome in the city because of his "homophobic and racist views."

In response to the opposition, Brazilian diplomats managed to relocate the event to Dallas, Texas, where the president's 24-hour visit on May 15-16 went largely unnoticed. De Blasio mocked Bolsonaro for being too cowardly to show his face in New York.

De Blasio's stance can be seen as motivated by domestic US politics: As a Democrat, he is keen to burnish his reputation as a staunch human rights activist. However, his lack of hesitation in insulting Brazil's democratically elected president indicates just how much Brazil has now been weakened on the world stage. After all, de Blasio is not known to have protested against economically influential despots from Asia and the Middle East who have previously visited his city.

Members of the Brazilian community in New York protested at Bolsonaro's planned visit

Conservatives also give the cold shoulder

Even Bolsonaro's conservative supporters in the USA did not come to his rescue. In the end, he was forced to pick up the prize from what is virtually a provincial outpost. And not a single high-ranking US business partner or politician could be persuaded to attend the event in Texas.

Brazil is rapidly losing its relevance in world politics. This decline did not begin with Bolsonaro's inauguration in January but his presidency has certainly accelerated it.

The country's global influence began to dwindle about five years ago apace with the downward turn of the economy. Until then, Brazil relied primarily on its "soft power" to achieve its foreign policy aims, in contrast to the "hard power" of the US, Russia, or China.

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These terms, coined by US foreign policy expert Joseph Nye, are used to differentiate the means in which a country uses to bring about its objectives. "Hard power" is when a country asserts itself by virtue of its economic, financial and military might. Brazilian diplomats traditionally operated using "soft power" — an approach that was reinforced in the 2000s when the country came to be ranked as the world's eighth largest economic power, demonstrating its global importance as a supplier of industrial raw materials and energy.

Bolsonaro has also faced protest at home over cuts to higher education spending

Lost influence   

Brazil was once able to win over negotiating partners with the forthcoming manner employed by its diplomats. It carved a positive image of itself as a multiethnic tropical culture capable of bridging social differences between black and white, rich and poor.

By these means, the country scored some surprising successes in the climate debate and world trade because its diplomats were able to forge alliances across continents and between industrial, emerging and developing countries.

But Brazil's "soft power" has been on the decline for some time now. This is partly because, at the zenith of its economic success 10 years ago, Brazil increasingly became a rival to industrialized countries in the agricultural, energy and raw materials sectors — economic power does not really fit the picture of a tropical "soft power." But with its economic decline, Brazil has now lost even more credibility and clout: A "soft power” without a dynamic economy is equally unconvincing.

The damage to Brazil's image is now continuing at an even faster rate.  Bolsonaro's domestic and foreign policy is bringing about the polarization that he promised during his election campaign — a promise that won him many votes. And he clearly bases his foreign policy on a friend-or-foe premise that will rule out the forging of any surprising global alliances. He and Brazil will have to come to terms with the fact that they may no longer be welcomed everywhere with the same open arms they once used to encounter.

Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil's far-right president in quotes

'Straight to the dictatorship'

Bolsonaro has criticized the very democracy that won him the presidency. In a 1999 TV interview, he said he would shut down Congress if he ever became president. "There is no doubt: I would perform a coup on the same day. And I'm sure that at least 90 percent of the population would celebrate and applaud because [Congress] doesn't work," Bolsonaro said. "Let's go straight to the dictatorship."

Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil's far-right president in quotes

'Rape'

Four years ago, Bolsonaro engaged in a heated debate with Brazilian lawmaker Maria do Rosario. During the debate, he said: "I wouldn't rape you because you don't deserve it." Shortly after, he defended himself, saying he wasn't a rapist. However, he added that if he were a rapist, he wouldn't touch do Rosario because she is "ugly."

Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil's far-right president in quotes

'Moment of weakness'

In a speech at Rio de Janeiro's Hebraica Club in April 2017, Bolsonaro spoke about his family. "I have five children. Four are men, and then in a moment of weakness the fifth came out a girl," he said.

Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil's far-right president in quotes

'Prefer my son to die'

LGBT activists have long railed against Bolsonaro for his homophobic stance. But in a 2011 Playboy magazine interview, Bolsonaro made things personal, saying he "would be incapable of loving a homosexual son … I would prefer my son to die in an accident than show up with a mustachioed man." In May 2002, he said that if he saw "two men kissing each other on the street" he would "beat them up."

Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil's far-right president in quotes

'No means to control their offspring'

Bolsonaro has often belittled impoverished communities. But in 2008, he took things a step further by suggesting poor people should be prevented from bearing children. Birth control "methods have to be provided for those who, unfortunately, are ignorant and have no means to control their offspring because we [as the upper middle class] are able to control ours."

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