DAVOS, Switzerland — The opening day of the World Economic Forum looked like it had the potential for excitement. Jair Bolsonaro, making his debut trip abroad as Brazil’s president, was slated to unveil his vision for a “new Brazil" before the assembled elites. Given the absence of President Trump and other prominent Western leaders, the far-right Bolsonaro, a former military officer known for his fiery and often-offensive rhetoric, seemed like one of the star attractions.
But his speech underwhelmed. Bolsonaro spoke for barely more than 10 minutes, delivering an address observers characterized as “lifeless” and “wooden.” Like every other world leader who comes to Davos, he declared his country “open" for business, but offered little information about the reforms he hoped to enact.
He simply invoked the smarts of Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, a
University of Chicago-trained economist, and touted his administration’s
zeal to cut back the “apparatus of the state” and reduce taxes.
“Bolsonaro’s bizarre, tepid and unfocused speech is a very troubling sign,” observed Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo. “Why hasn’t the all-powerful Minister of Finance written a longer, more detailed and more adequate presentation? Why waste such a unique opportunity?”
The Brazilian president did hint at the non-Davos-friendly bits of his ideology.
A known climate skeptic, he played nice among the liberal cognoscenti, insisting that his government would “harmonize environmental preservation with much-needed economic development.” But he made no secret of his desire to expand the country’s lands for further agribusiness.
Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, told the Guardian that Bolsonaro’s plans — including giving its agriculture ministry greater control over the country’s rain forest — was “deeply worrying," given the fact that the vast Amazon River basin is home to “the lungs of the earth.”
And Bolsonaro found his feet when he turned to social issues and political combat. He declared himself in favor of “true human rights” — which, in his words, means defending "family principles” and opposing abortion. It was a familiar theme for the Brazilian president, who is well known for his broader hostility to minority and gender rights.
“He ticked a lot of the right boxes in terms of addressing the audience — Brazil’s open to business, he wants to reform,” Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said to Today’s WorldView. “But as someone who cares about universal rights and women’s rights, I worry.”
Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo also earned a mention, with Bolsonaro praising him as a figure free of “ideological bias." It was a curious turn of phrase for a diplomat steeped in the thinking of the international hard right, someone who has vowed to reject globalism and once declared that climate change was a Marxist plot.
None of this should be surprising, noted Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly.
Bolsonaro, he said, has always been eager to wage war on the left and
much less comfortable spouting laissez-faire platitudes. “Bolsonaro has
long shown the greatest personal enthusiasm for fighting ‘communists’
(i.e. leftists) and criminals," Winter explained. “His conversion to
orthodox economics is much more recent.”
Toward the conclusion of his remarks, Bolsonaro made his sharpest declaration.
He hailed a succession of recent right-wing or center-right political victories in Latin America and argued this was the key to a “great and vibrant” continent.
“The left will not prevail in this region, which is good, I think, not only for South America, but also for the world,” he said, casting his domestic opponents in the same vein as the disastrous regime in Venezuela.
Experts in Davos cautioned against such partisan bravado. “The history of Latin America shows that those are very bold statements,” said Moîses Naîm, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggesting a left-wing revival could always be around the corner. “Latin America is known for its highly pendular politics.”
When confronted with this rhetoric by Today’s WorldView, Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada offered a diplomatic response. “We need to make progress without shared consensus,” the center-left leader said during a panel that also featured the presidents of Ecuador and Paraguay. “I also believe that any extreme is not going to benefit the world.”
For now, the pendulum is still headed in Bolsonaro’s direction.
Investors are broadly excited by his administration, and public opinion in Brazil is still staunchly in his favor.
That popularity could be felt even on the snow-packed streets of Davos. Dozens of Bolsonaro supporters made the trek to the Swiss Alps, hoping to get minute glimpses of their new leader through a thicket of security personnel and checkpoints. Many failed to see even a trace of Bolsonaro’s delegation.
Rafael Locks, a 30-year-old Brazilian technician living in the Swiss town of Lausanne, stood next to one gated area with his mother, who was wrapped in a Brazilian flag. He said he supported the “wave of change” that Bolsonaro would bring and cheered his pledges to be tough on gang violence and corruption.
But even this die-hard supporter offered a note of caution. One of Bolsonaro’s sons, Flavio, a senator-elect, is now the subject of a series of damaging allegations over suspicious payments made to his driver as well as links to a deadly Rio de Janeiro hit squad. It’s a damning bit of news for a president who styled himself as an incorruptible crime-fighter.
“If Bolsonaro doesn’t make his son pay, make him leave politics, he may lose credibility," Locks said. Elsewhere in Davos, that’s a commodity the Brazilian president still has yet to earn.