On February 7, The Guardian published a very important Open Letter, signed by more than 2000 artists, intellectuals, and journalists — among then Caetano Veloso, Noam Chomsky, Nancy Fraser, and Julian Schnabel — to denounce the attacks perpetrated by Bolsonaro’s government against Brazilian democracy and freedom of expression. This open letter was ignited by a Facebook live video by Roberto Alvim — at that moment, federal minister of culture — quoting Goebbels and presenting the government’s plan for a “national and heroic art.”
The government is not only restricting our freedom of expression, though. It is more than that. They are attacking our educational system, and thus attacking our common culture. Brazil is a very diverse country, in terms of culture, and unequal, in terms of wealth and opportunities. It is not at all clear, with such diversity, that one can speak of a common culture. Since the end of our dictatorship, we have been struggling for achieve such commonality, in order to support democracy. But on the other hand, we need democracy to build a common culture, a democracy that respects our diversity at the same time that fights against our inequalities. Now, as the title of Petra Costa’s film states, we are at the edge.
The attacks referenced in the open letter have been very effective. The federal government is pushing to transform common sense, and trying to normalize hideous moral views. Bolsonaro goes on Twitter daily and suggests things like that HIV+ people should stop receiving public health treatment, not only because of its a high cost for taxpayers, but also because of the supposedly immoral behavior attached to HIV. He also recently stated that our indigenous people, especially those still living in the Amazon Forest and National Reserves, are not humans. Paulo Guedes, his minister of finance, now trying to enact an administrative reform, attacks public servants as parasites. Ernesto Araújo, minister of international affairs, keeps defending the idea that the military dictatorship we had from the 1960s until the 1980s never existed, that it is at the most a matter of interpretation.
The actions of Abraham Weintraub, the minister of education, have undoubtedly played a most prominent role. In his policies, he is advancing a counter-revolution in everyday Brazilian life. Since the first day he took office, Weintraub made clear that his objective is to tear apart our public education system, from kindergarten to the University. The government views our school public system as captured by Gramsci and The Frankfurt School, and they see themselves as the crusaders that will free Brazil from the plague of cultural-Marxist infidels, restoring Christianity and true family values in our Schools.
No doubt there is much hypocrisy in all this, but hypocritical or not, the policies — or lack of them — is real. Even though our constitution divided the responsibility for the public education system between municipal (K12), state (High-School), and federal (Universities) governments, that fact is that due to regional disparities, the Federal Government has a prominent role in all the system. The executive branch is particularly vital to all this work. In 2006, working together with congress, our executive created a Public Fund, called FUNDEB, that helps municipalities and states to open, maintain, and improve their schools.
FUNDEB is a fund that must be renewed periodically, and that is when the executive and legislative must come together and compromise concerning our educational system and policies. This fund is set to expire, and the federal government has given no sign that it intends to work with the congress to renew it. So we are now facing the real possibility of a total collapse. The reason for the executive branch not to play ball is only one: to force local governments to adopt the only educational program this fascist government has to offer, the militarization of our schools. The program is called Civic-Military School, and it was created by executive decree on September 2019. To imagine that any country will give its educational system to the military is absurd. To propose to a society that not long ago was facing a brutal military dictatorship do it is even more so.
At the other point in our public educational system, we have our public universities, responsible not only for undergraduate courses but almost for all good graduate ones. More than 90% that our scientific research, in all areas, is done by public Universities. Last year we faced serious budget cuts. This is in itself a huge problem, of course. However, there is more, and it may be useful to make a distinction that is not precisely correct but may help to understand where the danger comes from.
The budget for undergraduate courses comes from one source; that money that pays for everything, from electricity to staff salaries, etc. The budget for graduate courses and all research comes mainly from two other sources, CAPES, that is responsible for M.A. and Ph.D. financing, and CNPq, responsible for financing scientific research. The government doesn’t have much latitude to nominally reduce the budget that keeps — at least for now — the University open and working in its undergrad courses, but it can simply shut down all our public graduate system.
In the presidency of CAPES we now have a true believer in creationism. If this was a private matter, no problem at all. However, it is not, since he is committed to giving creationism the same status as evolutionary theory. The government may want to create a Center for the Research of Intelligent Design, the problem is not that. The problem is that they are trying to blur the difference between what is science and what is not, what is a matter of objective knowledge, and what is only a question of simple — no matter how profound — belief, faith. We do not need to start a discussion about the objectivity of knowledge to see how dangerous this is, in particular for the humanities. Though it should not surprise us given that a high government official said that whether or not a dictatorship occurred is a matter of interpretation. No, it is not! It is a historical fact!
The government launched a further attack against our Universities, however. At the very end of 2019, they presented a law that changes the way the Presidents of the Universities are appointed. If this law passes through congress, the government will have an even stronger hold on our academic life and freedom. They will not only appoint the President of the Universities they chose, but they will outright control all the University, even our University Council.
Brazilian democracy is facing another hard year in 2020, but we will keep fighting and resisting. This moment is a harsh lesson we are passing through, but we will learn. Last week some representative members of Congress, from parties that go from right to left, present an appeal to our Supreme Court to remove Abraham Weintraub from office. Fascism is insidious and grows like cancer. But cancer is not undefeatable, and we can defeat our fascists. Resisting the attacks on education is an important starting point.
Daniel Peres is Professor of Philosophy at Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), Brazil.