SAO PAULO (AP) — Elon Musk arrived in Brazil for his first-ever visit, not knowing his cachaca from his churrasco, and within hours had a prestigious medal draped around his neck as he clasped the hand of President Jair Bolsonaro.
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO was the first foreign civilian without a government position to receive the Defense Ministry honor since its 2002 creation, according to an Associated Press review of recent records.
But it came as little surprise given Bolsonaro’s benevolence in decorating ideological allies, ministers, loyalists and family — sometimes on questioned grounds. Bolsonaro himself has received six medals from his own administration.
In Bolsonaro’s cabinet, a medal has practically come with the job. The nation’s three medals regarded as most prestigious are the Order of Defense Merit, Order of Rio Branco and the Medal of Victory, and Bolsonaro awarded more than three-quarters of current or former ministers at least one.
He has distributed at least 76 of the three top medals to ministers since 2019, more than any of his three elected predecessors throughout their two terms.
Bolsonaro also gave three medals of various sorts to his wife Michelle and senator son Flávio. His son Eduardo, a lawmaker, got at least six.
The awards are meant "to forge the appearance of being surrounded by people with merit, of high caliber,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University. “One or another could be, but you can’t say that for all of them.”
In a November article titled “The Farce of the Medals,” magazine Istoe wrote that Bolsonaro had transformed the government into a medal dispensary. The presidential palace didn't respond to AP questions about motives for the medals.
Heads of state often bestow awards on controversial grounds. Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner received Mexico’s highest honor, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for helping to renegotiate the North American trade agreement. Barack Obama gave out more Presidential Medals of Freedom than any U.S. leader since its creation, including one for billionaire Warren Buffett and another for then-Vice President Joe Biden.
But it’s rarer for presidents to decorate themselves. The same medal the Defense Ministry awarded to Musk was given to Bolsonaro on his first day in office, Jan. 1, 2019. The former army captain has accumulated others of varying importance in the three years since, mostly from the armed forces. In March, he got two medals from his Justice Ministry, one of which honors altruistic service for Indigenous peoples.
That scandalized environmentalists, human rights activists and Indigenous groups who see the president’s push for development within Indigenous territories as profoundly damaging.
Veteran ethnographer Sydney Possuelo, who once headed the nation's Indigenous agency and demarcated Indigenous territories nationwide, was shocked when he heard the news. He protested by returning his own medal, which he received 35 years prior.
“If I’d seen it the same day, I would have rushed down and thrown the medal at the entry of the presidential palace,” Possuelo, 83, told the AP by phone. “How can a president who promises to ignore a Supreme Court ruling on demarcation of Indigenous lands give himself that accolade?”
There aren’t public records to show whether former presidents received as many medals from their own administrations. The AP filed freedom of information requests to president's office and several ministries for year-by-year information on medals awarded since the country’s 1988 return to democracy, but received scant response.
Former Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso accepted the same medal as Musk while in office. Dilma Rousseff won it before her election, while a minister. The medal was created in 2002, replacing a similar honor.
José Chrispiniano, the spokesperson for da Silva, said his boss “doesn't have the slightest idea” how many medals he received from his own government. “He never cared much about that,” the spokesperson said. Da Silva leads all polls to win October elections, in which Bolsonaro is seeking a second term.
History Professor Ruth Ben-Guiat, a specialist on authoritarian leaders at New York University, said she wasn't aware of other presidents receiving so many medals from their own administrations.
“Behaviors like this often correspond to leaders’ fears about their political future, and they start to try and buy people off with honors and other things to keep their loyalty,” she said by email. “I would imagine that these behaviors will increase as the election gets closer.”
In at least one instance, Bolsonaro overruled expert recommendations on granting awards, cutting two scientists from a technical committee’s list of recipients: One had worked on improving health of transgender people and the other published a study showing the anti-malarial drug chloroquine was ineffective against COVID-19. Bolsonaro had insistently touted it as a cure.
The Brazilian Academy of Sciences issued a statement calling the snub “unprecedented in the country and typical of authoritarian regimes.” And 21 other intended recipients refused the accolade, long seen as a major professional honor. Among them was Carlos Gustavo Moreira, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
“His intervention was a step beyond,” said Moreira. “Many of us were uncomfortable receiving it from this administration. After he took the two names off, it was easy to decide.”
Bolsonaro didn’t make explicit why Musk got the Defense Ministry medal, but within days SpaceX launched two satellites for the Brazilian Air Force from Cape Canaveral. At the event in Brazil’s countryside, Bolsonaro said the billionaire’s plans to conduct satellite monitoring of the Amazon rainforest would debunk lies about environmental destruction, called his prospective purchase of Twitter a “breath of hope” and deemed the man “the legend of freedom.” Many of Bolsonaro’s boosters view Musk as a champion against social media speech restrictions.
“Bolsonaro supporters want to see him give a medal to someone they believe is in favor of what they call liberty, freedom of speech,” João Martins Filho, former head of the Brazilian Association of Defense Studies, told the AP by phone. “So he gladly does it.”
___ Álvares reported from Brasilia