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LATIN AMERICA | 21-05-2022 08:25

Elon Musk, Jair Bolsonaro talk free speech, deforestation in Brazil

Elon Musk’s efforts to buy Twitter received the enthusiastic backing of President Jair Bolsonaro during a short and unexpected visit to Brazil.

Billionaire Elon Musk jetted into Brazil Friday to meet far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and unveil a project to link thousands of Amazonian schools to the internet and expand satellite monitoring of the rainforest.

The two men met at a luxury hotel in Porto Feliz, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) outside São Paulo, with executives of several Brazilian companies present. 

"Super excited to be in Brazil for launch of Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas & environmental monitoring of Amazon!" tweeted Musk of the project. 

In comments made at the meeting, snippets of which were shared on social media, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla said the project would be "really good" for "deforestation... for education [and], environmental reasons."

No further details were released of the deal, and journalists were kept at a distance from the meeting venue.

Amazon destruction has risen sharply under the government of Bolsonaro, who is accused of promoting impunity for gold miners, farmers and timber traffickers who illegally clear the rainforest.

The president, however, claimed Friday the new project would reveal the "truth" about the state of the Amazon: "the exuberance of this region, how it is preserved by us."

Experts point out there are already projects in place to monitor Brazilian deforestation.

"What is missing is action, not monitoring," said Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of Mapbiomas – a consortium of NGOs, universities and startups that does exactly such work with satellite images.


Free speech?

Bolsonaro told Musk his announcement last month of a US$44-billion bid for Twitter had come as a "ray of hope."

The offer has since been suspended, with Musk demanding proof of the number of Twitter spam accounts.

Bolsonaro has had several social media posts deleted over the years amid accusations that he uses fake news as a political weapon, and has welcomed Musk's statements on loosening restrictions in the name of free expression.

The billionaire had vowed, among other things, to reinstate the account of ex-president Donald Trump – a political idol of Bolsonaro's.

"Musk has become in recent weeks a kind of hero of Bolsonarism," said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations expert at São Paulo's Getúlio Vargas foundation.

"His possible acquisition of Twitter was seen as good news because it would supposedly end the restrictions" ahead elections in October.

Bolsonaro, who will seek re-election, is lagging behind leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in opinion polls.

Bolsonaro tweeted a photograph of him and Musk shaking hands, and said they had also discussed "the use of technology... in the realisation of Brazil's economic potential."

The meeting was kept under wraps until just hours before it happened.


High-speed Internet

Musk is listed by Forbes as the world's wealthiest person, with a fortune of more than US$200 billion.

"Since we are going to connect the Amazon, we brought one of the largest entrepreneurs in the world to help us in this mission," tweeted Communications Minister Fabio Faria, who met Musk in Texas last November.

At the time, the government announced it was negotiating with SpaceX for satellite access.

SpaceX has thousands of Starlink satellites in orbit to provide high-speed internet, especially to areas underserved by fixed and mobile networks. 

Many more launches are planned to expand the service that has more than 100,000 subscribers worldwide.

Friday's meeting came hours after Musk rejected allegations on Twitter that he had groped a flight attendant and exposed himself to her six years ago.

Musk tweeted that the latest "attacks" on him were related to his plans to "restore free speech to Twitter & vote Republican."

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by Florence Goisnard with Jordi Miro in Brasilia, AFP


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