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article imageAmazon fires create image nightmare for Brazil

By Pascale TROUILLAUD (AFP)     Aug 28, 2019 in World

Scorched forests, government inaction and presidential insults -- fires in the Amazon rainforest are having a disastrous effect on Brazil's international image, analysts warn.

"This is the worst crisis Brazil has had for its image in 50 years," former government minister Rubens Ricupero told O Globo newspaper.

The daily Folha de S.Paulo lamented "the worst disaster in the history of Brazilian diplomacy in decades."

"We find ourselves alone and ashamed," it said.

While a stronghold of internet support remains for President Jair Bolsonaro, another part of the Twitterverse has unleashed its fury against the far right leader. He has been sharply condemned by both the Brazilian and international press for his handling of record-setting fires in the world's largest tropical rainforest over the last week.

"With his gaffes, idiocy, chauvinism, ignorance ... Bolsonaro is building his image in the world and destroying Brazil's," one Twitter user charged.

The fires took on an international dimension over the weekend, as French President Emmanuel Macron tackled the topic on Twitter during the G7 summit and said "our house is burning." The sumiteers also discussed the fires at the meeting in Biarritz.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have traded barbs over t...
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have traded barbs over the environmental situation fires pose in the Amazon
JOHN THYS , EVARISTO SA, AFP/File

Caving in to pressure, Bolsonaro called a crisis meeting that same night to mobilize the military against the fires.

Macron and Bolsonaro have repeatedly butted heads over the issue, sometimes deviating from the point at hand. Macron called Bolsonaro's comments implying that French first lady Brigitte Macron was not attractive "extraordinarily rude" while Bolsonaro accused Macron of treating Brazil with a "colonialist mentality."

- 'International pariah' -

As Macron wished for a Brazilian president who could "behave himself properly," government ministers in the South American country upped their scorn for France and Bolsonaro demanded the French president apologize, to no avail.

"I have never seen a Brazilian president express himself in such a way," said Gaspard Estrada, a Latin American expert at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. "That will leave a mark."

And although the spat with France was the most visible, Brazil also found itself in hot water with much of the rest of the international community over the Amazon crisis.

Robert Muggah, from a Rio de Janeiro think tank called the Igarape Institute, pointed out other actors with whom Brazil has clashed. "The president has damaged the country's relationship with allies, including France, Germany and Norway."

Berlin and then Oslo suspended around $70 million in Amazon protection money earlier this month. Bolsonaro shot back that Norway should send its share of the funds to Germany so Chancellor Angela Merkel can "reforest Germany."

View of a burnt area after a fire in the Amazon rainforest near Novo Progresso  Para state  Brazil  ...
View of a burnt area after a fire in the Amazon rainforest near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, on August 25, 2019
Joao Laet, AFP

Ireland and France have threatened to withdraw their signatures from a trade agreement between the European Union and a South American trading bloc called Mercosur, which includes Brazil.

And Finland is considering a boycott of Brazilian products.

"Brazil has gone from being a global model of forest conservation to an international pariah," Muggah said.

"The president has only himself to blame."

Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has claimed he has "restored Brazil's credibility."

The country garnered international praise for its efforts to fight deforestation in the 2000s after hosting the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

- 'Short of a miracle' -

According to Estrada, "Brazil today is on its way to destroying its foreign policy" and is "largely isolated."

Besides cultivating a relationship with Israel, Bolsonaro has put all his foreign policy eggs in the American basket, an investment that has not necessarily paid hefty returns.

Though US President Donald Trump offered Bolsonaro his "full and complete support" in his fight against the fires, "the US didn't offer quite the level of support for Brazil with the G7 that Bolsonaro hoped for," Estrada said, an outcome that exposes the newer president's "naivete."

"Bolsonaro has got on everyone's bad side" and "the effect on Brazil's image and international reputation will be lasting," said Estrada.

"He has forgotten that he does not live in the White House but at the Planalto palace in Brasilia," said Estrada.

The Amazon crisis has come at an already difficult time for Brazil's diplomatic climate, which has taken a hit since Bolsonaro took office in January. The retired military officer has offended allies with policy decisions seen as erratic.

First, he had to backtrack after taking a harsh tone with China, Brazil's top trading partner. Then he found himself entangled in the politics of the Middle East as several Arab countries threatened to boycott Brazilian meat after Bolsonaro floated the idea of following Trump's example in moving his country's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) met with US President Donald Trump at the White House in Wash...
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) met with US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington in March 2019
Brendan Smialowski, AFP/File

Closer to home in Latin America, Bolsonaro has already begun an open war against Argentina's left-wing presidential frontrunner Alberto Fernandez. He warned that if Fernandez wins the October election this would spell trouble for Argentina, while Fernandez called Bolsonaro "mysogynist, racist and violent."

With so many damaged relationships, the diplomatic outlook is grim.

"With more than three years to go in his term, short of a miracle, I don't see how Brazil's image on the international scene will recover," Ricupero said.

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