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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro issued a strident defense of his administration at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, rebuffing criticism of its handling of the pandemic and touting recent data indicating less Amazon deforestation.
His presence at the General Assembly itself was something of a provocation, as he flouted the requirement for all attendees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Infected with the virus last year, he has said several times over the last week he remains unvaccinated and that getting a shot is a personal, medical decision.
“By November, everyone who chooses to be vaccinated in Brazil will be attended to," Bolsonaro said in his speech. “We support vaccination. However, our government has opposed vaccine passports or any obligation to get a vaccine.”
He also doubled-down on “early treatment” drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, without naming the drug. The anti-malarial offered initial promise but scientists have roundly dismissed it as ineffective against COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine was central to the chaos of the pandemic response in Brazil, presided over by four different health ministers, two of whom opposed Bolsonaro's insistence to recommend it.
“We don’t understand why many countries, along with much of the media, positioned themselves against early treatment. History and science will know how to hold all of them responsible,” Bolsonaro added. He also praised the government’s generous COVID-19 welfare program that provided monthly payments to Brazil's poor. Its drawdown, however, fueled poverty.
The right-wing leader is embattled in Brazil as his approval ratings continue tumbling, in large part because the nation has recorded the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 590,000 dead. That's equal to the eighth-highest globally on a per capita basis. And Bolsonaro is more isolated internationally than ever following the electoral defeat of his ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump.
As he seeks to rehabilitate his image abroad, his critics had warned he was undertaking a disingenuous shift. It began at the White House-led climate summit in April, when he moved up the timeline for carbon neutrality by a decade and promised to stop illegal Amazon deforestation by 2030 in a nod to U.S. President Joe Biden, who had called out Brazil’s environmental track record on the campaign trail last year.
Instead, Bolsonaro adopted a defiant tone on Tuesday, hitting talking points similar to those directed toward his base, observed Thomas Traumann, a political analyst.
“He could have given that speech in anywhere in Brazil, and not spent the money to go to New York,” Traumann said.
During his debut General Assembly appearance in 2019, he railed against socialism and what he described as media sensationalism regarding Amazon destruction. Last year, in a pre-recorded video, he said Brazil was the victim of an environmental smear and stressed the economic harm caused by pandemic stay-at-home recommendations.
On Tuesday, he claimed Brazil had been on the verge of socialism before his election, said governors and mayors were to blame for isolation measures that cost workers' income and told assembled diplomats to look beyond media reports about Brazil. He heralded progress in development of railways and sanitation, plus recent indications of reduced Amazon deforestation.
The Brazilian president stopped short of saying Indigenous people control too much land given their sparse population, as he has repeatedly in the past, but claimed they increasingly want to use their vast territories for agriculture and other activities. He pledged to foster development of the Amazon on the campaign trail and, after his election, the environmental regulator was defanged and deforestation surged.
Biden’s special envoy for climate John Kerry has made clear that the administration wants to see concrete results in reversing such devastation. Recent preliminary data point in the right direction, showing that Amazon deforestation in June was roughly level year-on-year, and dropped in July and August compared to the same two months of 2020.
Bolsonaro said the results stemmed from his administration's redoubled efforts. Environmentalists say it is too early to know if this is represents a trend and stress that deforestation levels remain elevated.
Before Bolsonaro took office, the Brazilian Amazon hadn’t recorded a single year with more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) of deforestation in over a decade. It surpassed that level in each of Bolsonaro's first two years, and final data for the reference period between Aug. 2020 and July 2021 may confirm a third year.
While Bolsonaro’s fresh environmental pledges and preliminary progress mean Brazil can avoid consumer boycotts, sanctions and general ostracism, there remains skepticism about his commitment, said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
“Everyone is attuned to the possibility this is just a cynical attempt to buy time by the Bolsonaro administration, making promises for 2030 and beyond knowing they won’t be around to live with the consequences,” Winter said.
Biller is the AP’s Brazil News Director. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DLBiller