The Neocolonial Game Behind Musk-Bolsonaro Rendezvous

There was more to South African billionaire Elon Musk’s already bizarre meeting with Brazilian neofascist president Jair Bolsonaro than met the eye.

“We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

Elon Musk on Bolivia, 24/7/2020

By Nathalia Urban

A day after being implicated in a sexual harassment scandal with a Space X worker, the US-based South African billionaire Elon Musk landed in Brazil for a meeting with Jair Bolsonaro.

The visit of the world’s richest man to Bolsonaro’s Brazil in an election year is officially part of the launch of a project involving Starlink, the satellite network of the Space X company, which he owns, which promises high-speed internet access in remote locations.  In a post on Twitter, Musk said the project will connect 19,000 schools in rural areas and monitor the Amazon, but he did not explain how he will do this, and left suspicions and fears about such a man possessing technological control over the largest forest reserve in the world, and everything in it (including its subsoil).

Lithium Coup Part 2?

In 2020, after being accused of having participated in the coup plans that ended with the removal of the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Musk tweeted “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”, reaffirming his interest in Bolivian reserves of lithium – a mineral used as a basis for the batteries that power his Tesla electric cars.  But not only is lithium  needed in the production of electric cars, the battery also needs nickel. As reported by the Observatório da Mineração “Vale S.A, which mines nickel within indigenous lands in Canada, profits from nickel in the Onça Puma project, in Pará, and contaminated the rivers of the Xikrin indigenous people, emerged as a recent partner of Musk.  The long-term contract with Vale is a direct step towards securing the supply for Tesla vehicles and a planned 50% expansion in production. Additional details were not provided by either Vale or Musk.

The Brazilian mining company, privatised in the 1990s, will produce 190 tons of nickel in 2022. About 5% goes to the electric vehicle market, but the goal is to reach 40% in the medium term. According to Bloomberg, the mining giant confirmed the long-term agreement and said that the Tesla supply should cover 30% to 40% of ore sales.

The map of conflicts and environmental injustice in Brazil shows that Vale continues to seek new mining projects in the Amazon.

The Kayapó Xikrin do Cateté (self-styled Mebengôkre) denounced the destruction of the Cateté River in the State of Pará, an important economic, cultural and symbolic element for the life of that people – it was contaminated with heavy metals, harming the health of indigenous communities.  The Xikrin have denounced the occurrence of conditions caused by excess nickel, such as lung and nasal cavity cancers, allergic skin lesions, eczema, dermatitis and dermatoses, rhinitis and sinusitis, allergic conjunctivitis, thyroid and adrenal disorders, increase in IgG, IgA and IgM immunoglobulins and decrease in IgE, nausea, vomiting, palpitation, weakness, vertigo, headache, epilepsy. Excess iron causes hemochromatosis by depositing this mineral in the liver, pancreas, causing cirrhosis and diabetes. 

The mining companies, and Musk, do not seem worried about this indigenous health crisis, and yet it is on course to worsen: the market estimate is that the demand for nickel will grow 19 times until 2040, but analysts point to a scenario of scarcity from 2026.

Bolsonaro seems willing to let a Musk company take charge of monitoring a region rich in nickel and suffering historically from illegal mining. With his public endorsement of the coup in Bolivia that massacred at least 37 people (mostly indigenous) it appears that Musk has little or no concern for the destruction of native peoples. 

Lithium is key to Musk’s interest in Brazil. Despite the majority of South America’s lithium being concentrated in Bolivia and Argentina, Brazil has 8% of international reserves, which makes his presence in the country even more potentially profitable.

Intentional Cuts To National Technology

Musk announced  the launch in Brazil of a company capable of connecting 19,000 schools in rural areas and monitoring the Amazon. Brazil’s 5G auction had set digital inclusion targets for schools in remote locations. The management would be the Ministry of Education, but how Musk managed to do it so easily is a “mystery”, more importantly, why didn’t the Bolsonaro government open bids?  Communications Minister Fábio Faria has been bragging since November 2021 about the contacts he has made with the South African billionaire, and during a visit to the United States that month, Faria toured the SpaceX factory in California, and met with the company’s director of operations, Gwynne Shotwell.  The meeting with Musk took place in Texas.  In January, Musk’s company was authorized by the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel) to operate in Brazil. With this, the company will be able to offer its satellite service throughout Brazil. Musk’s contract will run until 2027.

This initial contact with Musk was so excitable that at dawn the Minister of Communications, Fábio Faria, announced on his Twitter account that he was looking for a partnership with South African billionaire Elon Musk. According to the minister, the aim was to connect rural schools and ‘”protect” the Amazon.  However, this makes no sense, since the Bolsonaro government had been doing its best to weaken the existing mechanisms for monitoring the destruction of the Amazon. The current federal administration was responsible for the disruption of the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) and is a frequent target of criticism for its cuts in scientific research. 

The dismantling of Inpe by the current administration began in 2019, when aerial images taken by the institute showed accelerated progress of deforestion in the Amazon. The then director, Ricardo Galvão, was fired in August of that year, for reacting to Bolsonaro’s accusations that Inpe was lying about deforestation in the Amazon.

In many ways, the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) reached the biggest stage of penury in its history in the Bolsonaro era. Successive cuts in funding in recent years have cut off a good part of the workforce, jeopardizing cutting-edge research and fundamental programs for the country, including satellite monitoring services for large biomes, such as the Amazon.  Bolsonaro called the institute’s data “lies”, which indicated a rise of 88 % in deforestation. So in theory it would not make sense for Bolsonaro to say that he wants better monitoring done by the private sector in the Amazon, unless this monitoring is not to reflect the reality of environmental destruction, but for personal and corporate interests.

In many ways, the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) reached the biggest stage of penury in its history in the Bolsonaro era.  The South African billionaire received a Medal of Honor, awarded by Defense Minister Paulo Sérgio and President Jair Bolsonaro. In a speech (made in English for a public of Brazilian businessmen and politicians) at the event, the Minister of Communications, explained the reason for the award.  “Elon is here to do something concrete to help the Amazon, and for that he will receive a medal of honor.”

Faria also used his speech to praise the billionaire: “You are a visionary, brilliant. Everyone in Brazil loves you.”  Musk, who is standing next to the minister, replied that he also loves Brazil.

But the irony is that technological innovation and vision are summarily punished by the current government. The research area has suffered a severe blow. The Ministry of Science and Technology had 87% of its budget cut, taking by surprise the thousands of researchers who lost the resources to continue their studies.

Freedom to Hate

During the meeting with Elon Musk, Bolsonaro said that his intent to purchase Twitter was a “fresh breath of hope”. In his speech, the president said he believes that, with Musk at the helm of the social network, Twitter will invest even more in freedom of expression – Bolsonaro and his supporters question some of the platform’s actions such as removing posts, adding “fake news” marks, or even banning users.

Spreading false information is one of Bolsonaro’s main hallmarks on social media, and one of the most notable moments was during the pandemic when Bolsonaro spread denialism about the virus and tried at all costs to push chloroquine as a treatment to COVID-19. Musk was one of the first people along with former US President Donald Trump, to do this. Furthermore, The businessman is admittedly averse to the current social media content moderation model. Both in the United States where Musk is based, and in Brazil, the platform is constantly accused of censoring political speech. Elon Musk’s response would be to reduce content moderation to the minimum required by law.

This perspective assumes that only judicially enforced freedom of speech is valid. The fact is that reducing freedom of speech to the legal “minimum” necessarily implies conflict with authorities around the world. Countries have different legal conceptions about freedom of speech, but for the far right, freedom of speech means being able to openly propagate persecutory content against specific individuals or groups in an offensive and even dangerous way. Which is clearly something they both want, and not only that, but to be able to use social networks to manipulate information, the market, and elections

Bolsonaro, his cabinet, and his supporters, have been using social media to threaten the Brazilian electoral system, and place the legitimacy of Brazil’s future elections in check, despite several government agencies, and even foreigners assuring legitimacy of the democratic process in Brazil. His impending defeat is driving Bolsonaro toward coup tactics, and an attempt to replicate the strategy of his idol, Donald Trump, and the Capitol invasion. Although unsuccessful, Trump used social media to instigate and radicalize his supporters, and for this reason was banned from Twitter.

Musk’s approach to Bolsonaro in election year is worrying. He trails Workers Party (PT) candidate, former president Lula, in all polls, and Bolsonaro is desperately trying to regain support he once enjoyed from the wealthy sectors of Brazilian society. Associating himself with Musk is key to this. In this obscure meeting the South African met with Brazilian businessmen and multinational companies with activities in the country in the fields of telecommunications, agribusiness, mining, the financial sector, and even the pharmaceutical industry, all with very problematic histories.

With Jair Bolsonaro, who has already saluted the flag of the United States and talked about exploiting the resources of the Amazon in partnership with the Americans under the Trump administration, Musk benefits from the far right president’s servitude to foreign capital.

Bolsonaro claims to defend the Amazon, but travels to the hotel where the billionaire will stay in the interior of São Paulo to offer up the nation’s wealth, while the Brazilian people struggle with what Eduardo Galeano described in his classic ‘Open Veins of Latin America’:

“Those who won could only win because we lost: the history of underdevelopment of Latin America integrates the history of the development of world capitalism. Our defeat has always been implicit in the victory of others. Our wealth has always generated our poverty by nurturing the prosperity of others: the empires and their native agents.”