Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, participates in a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Picture: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

There is something that I really don’t understand. How could the organisers of the World Economic Forum in Davos give the keynote speech on Day 1 of the Forum to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro? Does it make sense to give such a major platform to a President who has called Africans and Haitians the scum of the earth and said that Afro-Brazilians are obese and lazy and should not be allowed to procreate? 

But beyond Bolsonaro’s racism, he is militarising Brazilian politics, appointing military generals to his cabinet, and he romanticises the days when Brazil was led by a military dictatorship, and killed civilian dissidents. He will do the opposite of what Sir David Attenborough advocated in his interview with the Duke of Cambridge on the urgent need to save the environment. Bolsonaro will single-handedly add to its destruction by advocating development of parts of the Amazon. He has already refused to host this year’s UN Summit on Climate Change. Bolsonaro is the antithesis of what Davos is supposed to be about. 

It is when we elevate such leaders and give them high profile platforms to air their views that we have failed to learn from history. It gives them credibility, and we did not see the moderator throwing any particularly tough questions his way. In fact, he was embraced and warmly thanked for his speech. WEF allowed him to sell his extreme right-wing views to the world and made his positions sound acceptable. 

Bolsonaro has made himself the flag bearer for Latin America’s new conservative vanguard, and used his WEF speech to sound a death knell for the Bolivarian left, saying “the left will not prevail.” Bolsonaro told 3 000 of the world’s top business and political leaders that ideology has no place anymore. His plans are to purge left-wing ideology from politics and society. Within just months of being in office he imposed measures to control civil society, curb LGBT rights, and loosened restrictions on gun ownership. 

The most hypocritical was his proclamation at WEF of a new conservative era of “clean governance and Godliness.” Bolsonaro boasted about his plans for the “New Brazil,” and how he will stamp out corruption in his country. But the front page of a leading Brazilian newspaper reported on how his son, newly elected Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, is linked to a Rio death squad which is infamous for its involvement in organised crime and corruption. It is now said that Flavio has put the sword of Damocles over his Father’s head. So much for Bolsonaro’s mantra that he will govern by example. 

If WEF wanted to elevate a Latin American leader, why did they not choose Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno? He has proved to be one of the most visionary leaders on the globe, engaging in real and deep transformation of his society, achieving remarkable success in reducing poverty and inequality. He has ensured that Ecuador has the lowest levels of unemployment in Latin America, and he has more than doubled the minimum wage for domestic workers, making employers also pay social security and transport. 

Moreno has democratised access to higher education, investing more than any other Latin American government in higher education, and taken thousands of children off the street and put them into ‘Millennium Schools.’ Internationally, the small country of Ecuador has led the charge for a legally binding treaty on human rights and transnationals, drafting the treaty for the UN Human Rights Council.  

Moreno also talks about ending corruption, and in an under-reported speech last October at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Moreno said, “The moment that you feel absolute power, you fall in love with it completely, and you cannot stop it. This is why corruption is still around.” Moreno is hailed as one of the world’s leading advocates for the rights of the disabled, and is the only Head of State in a wheelchair.

Bolsonaro, on the other hand, promised to have a government directly headed by businessmen committed to increase private profit. He has said he will reduce the minimum wage, end various labour rights, and ensure the private appropriation of all possible natural resources, trampling over traditional populations and environmental concerns. Bolsonaro will privatise social security, public education and health. Anything that can provide profit will be transferred to corporations to benefit. 

I will tell you why a President like Moreno will never be thrust into the limelight, or his views given oxygen - he is not controversial, he doesn’t make headlines, and he doesn’t add to the hype of the moment in the way that Bolsonaro does. So while Bolsonaro, with his arguably neo-fascist agenda, will be courted by the one of the most sought after forums in the world, those who quietly fight for the rights of the poor and improve their lives will be ignored. 

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor