Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
“Did I say that? Did I?” That was Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro talking to reporters on Tuesday morning, apparently denying what his office had told CNN exactly one hour earlier, that he would reject a $20 million pledge from the G7 countries to help fight the fires consuming the Amazon. It was a touch of gaslighting, Bolsonaro style.
The Amazon fires are scorching the Earth’s most vital ecosystem at such a voracious rate that by the time you read this, thousands more trees will have turned to ashes. Brazil’s space research agency calculates that one-and-a-half soccer fields worth of rainforest burns every single minute. That destruction includes more than trees – it is engulfing everything that lives in the forest and cannot escape.
As the flames spread, the scale of the devastation could reach a point where the damage may become irreversible. Amid rising pressure from abroad, and from inside Brazil, Bolsonaro has instead busied himself with a childish (and sexist) dispute over whether he has a more beautiful wife than French President Emmanuel Macron and posturing that efforts to help from abroad amount to an assault on Brazilian sovereignty. Meanwhile, more rainforest burns.
Brazil should receive help not only because what happens in the Amazon will affect the entire world, but because it should not bear the cost of preserving the Amazon all alone. Whether or not Bolsonaro feels he has something to prove, Brazilians have much to be proud of. They have a spectacular country, and they have shown in the past that they are capable of protecting it. There is no shame in accepting assistance from a world that is eager to help. They have every right to run the operation. It is their country. But their problem is affecting everyone. If everyone wants to help, why not let them? The obstacle, as often happens with demagogues, is their president. It’s a perfect – perfectly awful – example of what happens when nationalist demagogues take power.
It is hardly a surprise that Bolsonaro has been described as the “Trump of the Tropics.” There’s much about his political style that echoes the US President, including his approach to the environment.
Urged by foreign leaders to fight the fires – which open up more land for powerful Brazilian ranchers and miners to graze cattle and extract mineral wealth – Bolsonaro declared, “You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours.”
It was not unlike what President Donald Trump said in his press conference three days later, when he was asked if he is still skeptical about climate change. In his rambling answer, he said he is an “environmentalist,” and went on to describe precisely the opposite, saying, “I feel that the United States has tremendous wealth. The wealth is under its feet,” adding, “I’m not going to lose that wealth; I’m not going to lose it on dreams.”
The nationalists’ creed is centered on some version of MAGA, Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan, which is at its heart a call to mistrust cooperation with other countries and to reject the prospect of sacrifices for a common good shared with other nations.
The environment, international cooperation? Those are for wimps. Nationalists flex their muscle and tell others to mind their own business.
It’s no coincidence that Bolsonaro, too, campaigned on a hypermasculine platform. The ubiquitous hand signal at his rallies was an extended index finger and thumb, an imaginary pistol, symbolizing his plan to put more guns in the hands of civilians. He praised Brazil’s military dictatorships, attacked LGBT Brazilians and when he heard a congresswoman had called him a rapist, he said she was not attractive enough for him to rape.
But the core of the nationalist politician’s fuel is a strident defense of the country against imaginary threats. Sure, Brazil has been a victim of colonialist exploitation during its history and it has a right to protect its sovereignty.
But Macron, who has led the push to help Brazil fight the fires in the Amazon, “the lungs of the planet,” is pointing to a reality that no amount of macho bravado or nationalist demagoguery can deny: We all live on the same planet.
Macron’s plan, which he presented along with Sebastian Piñera, the president of Brazil’s neighbor, Chile, would start with an emergency push to douse the fires, followed by a program of collaboration between Amazonian countries and the wealthy nations of the G7. As Piñera said, it would be done, “always respecting their sovereignty.”
The fallacy of ultra-nationalism is that we no longer live in a world where countries can wall themselves in and pretend that what goes on beyond their borders does not affect them. The smoke from Brazilian fires is visible from space; it will waft irrespective of man-made borders. It’s not only smoke from blazing forests crossing borders. Deadly viruses do the same, as do raw materials for the products that we use every day. Also leaping borders are ideas and facts. Even as Trump and Bolsonaro and their like-minded followers deny climate change, the facts speak for themselves.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Nationalist demagogues may not want to work with other countries, but the longer they refuse, the sooner they will be swept away by angry voters tired of lies, equivocation and gaslighting, unable to deny the realities they see with their own eyes, and breathe with their own lungs.