Brazil’s Far-Right President, University Autonomy, and Academic Freedom

A frontal attack on universities by "The Trump of the Tropics."
By James N. Green

image of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro superimposed over part of Brazilian flag

Soon after Jair Bolsonaro received the presidential sash in Brasília on January 1, 2019, as part of his inauguration ceremonies, the US media dubbed him the Trump of the Tropics. Many would argue that he is ten times worse. His policies seek to slash environmental protections, undo efforts to slow down the deforestation of the Amazon, deny LGBTQ people basic civil rights, and dismantle social and labor protections for the working class and poor. He has attempted to eliminate indigenous people’s land rights and has promoted lax gun restrictions and a crime bill that will inevitably lead to more killings of Brazil’s Afro-descendant population and rural activists. He has also unleashed a frontal attack on Brazilian universities. Academic freedom, university autonomy over teaching and governance, and scholarly research are all seriously threatened.

The ascension of this far-right politician to power is the result of a complex process. A brief overview of recent Brazilian history can help us understand the reasons behind Bolsonaro’s assaults on Brazil’s public educational system. During the waning years of the military dictatorship (1964–85), new social movements and invigorated labor unions played a leading role in expanding notions of Brazilian democracy. Among the new political developments was the founding of the Workers’ Party, led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, a charismatic labor leader. His prominence in the process of democratization represented the emergence of new social and political actors who mobilized to seek fundamental changes in a country long known for the gap between the rich and the poor within the context of a socioeconomic system built on more than three and a half centuries of indigenous and then African slavery.

When Lula was elected president in 2003, he and his party had abandoned a more traditional socialist program and embraced a moderate form of Western European social democracy. President Lula managed to balance a series of socioeconomic reforms with an allegiance to the capitalist market. The measures that he and his successor, former guerrilla fighter Dilma Rousseff, implemented were far from radical, but they upset the social hierarchy enough to engender considerable resentment from the middle and upper classes that had traditionally benefited from the status quo.

At the same time, some politicians in the Workers’ Party and among its political allies succumbed to an age-old system of using access to the state either for personal gain or to obtain resources in order to direct them toward electoral campaigns. In the United States, it is entirely legal for a donor to give millions to a candidate who will favor her or his political agenda. In Brazil, that form of monetary lobbying is prohibited. So, a complex under-the-table system has developed over recent decades whereby influence peddling is done discreetly. The practice has been widespread across the political spectrum. Kickbacks for successful government contract bids and other forms of graft have become commonplace.

Workers’ Party politicians allegedly involved in such schemes, uncovered in a major federal investigation known as Operation Car Wash, gave fuel to anti–Workers’ Party sentiment. Although she was not charged with corruption, President Rousseff was impeached by the Brazilian Congress in 2016 for alleged budgetary mismanagement when she began to move against political adversaries engaged in these illegal activities. Sérgio Moro, a federal judge with prosecutorial powers, then jailed Lula for supposedly receiving an apartment in exchange for political favors. He was also barred from participating in the 2018 presidential elections, although he polled far ahead of his political rivals. (Recently leaked conversations between the prosecuting attorney in the case against Lula and Moro, who is the presiding judge and current minister of justice, have revealed blatant and illegal collusion between the two parties, which could lead to a mistrial.) Lula’s substitute, Fernando Haddad, the former minister of education and ex-mayor of São Paulo, gained 45 percent of the votes in the second round of the October 2018 presidential elections, but it wasn’t enough to block Bolsonaro’s victory at the polls.

Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, built his career in politics as a staunch defender of the armed forces and as a law-and-order candidate. He remained a backbench politician as a member of the Rio de Janeiro city council and then as a federal congressperson but gained notoriety in recent years for his vitriolic diatribes against women, blacks, LGBTQ people, and the Left. He proudly defended the military dictatorship when he cast his vote in Congress to impeach President Rousseff. He also praised the army official who had overseen Rousseff’s torture in 1970, when she was arrested as a political opponent of the military regime.

Among Bolsonaro’s many controversial and ideologically based appointments to his cabinet has been the minister of education. His first choice, Ricardo Vélez-Rodriguez, lasted ninety-seven days and was pushed out for his controversial positions. The last straw was a tweet (à la Trump) in which Vélez-Rodriguez declared his intention to rewrite Brazil’s history textbooks to offer a more positive assessment of the Brazilian military dictatorship. The widespread public outcry made it untenable for Bolsonaro to keep him in the position.

Vélez-Rodriguez’s successor, Abraham Weintraub, defends similar far-right ideological perspectives. An economist by training with experience mostly in the private sector, he and his predecessor are disciples of Olavo de Carvalho. This self-proclaimed philosopher, astrologer, and journalist, who has resided in Richmond, Virginia, since 2005, has also caught the ear of Bolsonaro’s sons, who, like the Trump clan, help run presidential politics from the inside. Olavo de Carvalho is part of the Far Right that denies climate change, decries globalists, and agrees with Steve Bannon’s extremist worldviews. Weintraub has amplified those concerns within the Ministry of Education by targeting Brazilian public universities as centers of “cultural Marxism” and “gender ideology.”

The battle by the Far Right against Brazil’s higher education system, however, did not begin with the election of Jair Bolsonaro. Since middecade, conservative groups have introduced state and local legislation to curtail alleged left-wing ideological influences in public education. Their goal is to discredit those educators in secondary schools and universities who offer critical instruction that examines the country’s recent authoritarian history, employs gender as a category of analysis, and supports affirmative action programs. For example, the current minister of education has targeted the writings and philosophy of world-renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the author of the classic text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, claiming his teachings to be subversive. “Schools without ideology” legislation, as it is known, has been blocked on appeals, but now Weintraub has attempted to implement the same ideas in his role as minister of education.

Weintraub’s main targets have been federal and state universities. They expanded significantly under the Lula-Dilma administrations between 2003 and 2016 and offer free tuition and food and transportation subsidies for low-income students. Broad-based affirmative action programs have also dramatically increased the number of people of indigenous and African descent who have been able to participate in higher education. No longer are Brazil’s public universities reserved almost exclusively for middle- and upper-class students whose parents have traditionally sent them to private high schools to prepare for the rigorous entrance exams that guarantee a tuition-free university education.

Among the best institutions of higher education in Latin America, Brazil’s federal and state universities are also the prime centers of research in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. With the exception of the Catholic universities and a few select independent institutions, most private universities do little research and focus primarily on offering diplomas for hefty tuition fees.

One of the first policy measures of the education ministry was to propose eliminating programs in philosophy and sociology, seen as disciplines that undermine traditional moral and political values. Eliminating these disciplines in universities would also undercut similar courses taught in public high schools. When this proposal got significant pushback, including a petition signed by the leading international associations of philosophers and sociologists, the ministry retreated. Then in early April Weintraub proposed cutting off funding for three top public universities, which, he argued, were sites of “disorder.” Again, this suggested measure backfired, leading the minister to order a 30 percent budget cut to all federal universities that would largely affect contracted infrastructure services, students’ scholarships, and research grants.

Bolsonaro jumped into the controversy by decrying alleged leftist influences in planned mobilizations against the cuts and in favor of public universities. He insisted that protesting students didn’t know how to multiply seven times eight and were not able to recite the elemental components of water. These comments, along with the proposed spending reductions for higher education, sparked a major response by faculty, students, university staff, and the public on May 15. Organized protests took place in more than two hundred cities nationwide. Of particular significance was the participation of students, faculty members, and researchers in the sciences, who noted on placards and posters that high-quality research depended almost exclusively on government support and that the administration’s actions threatened to eliminate interdisciplinary scholarship. A subsequent national mobilization, which garnered less support but nonetheless revealed the strong reaction to Bolsonaro’s policies, has to date failed to derail the government’s proposed draconian budget cuts.

In addition to planning the slashing of resources for higher education, the Ministry of Education has issued an order to eliminate the use of the term gender in all educational activities supported by the state. Criticizing the category of gender as an instrument of scholarly analysis has been a goal of conservative Christians, who have been one of Bolsonaro’s main political bases of support. They argue that instructors in all levels of public education use the concept of gender to promote sexual education and discussions of LGBTQ issues within the classroom, rather than allowing parents to determine what information their children will receive about these matters. Opponents of “gender ideology” argue that the public educational system is imposing radical thinking on students and in turn destroying the traditional family and Christian morals. While these extreme measures by the Brazilian government might seem incomprehensible to US academics, who consistently use the category of gender as an important way to understand sexual and social roles in a given society, the Brazilian president has used his office to reinforce such conservative thinking. Students and parents have been encouraged to make video recordings of teachers or professors if they discuss gender in the classroom and to denounce them to the school administration and the Ministry of Education.

In his first six months in office, Bolsonaro has had mixed results in implementing many of his campaign promises. His efforts to purge the universities of progressive influences have met strong resistance. In other realms, he has managed to carry out some of his strategic goals. He has appointed more generals to top administrative posts than during the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship in the early 1970s, although the Congress has blocked his proposals to expand firearms possession. Large-scale agricultural interests working through the Ministry of Agriculture have led to a 60 percent increase in deforestation this year. New policies also threaten indigenous lands. The country’s economy, however, is perhaps Bolsonaro’s biggest challenge. Confronted with a staggering 12 percent unemployment rate, creeping inflation, and a slowdown in economic growth, Paulo Guedes, the conservative University of Chicago–trained minister of the economy, has emphasized a radical makeover of the public social security and pension systems as a means of jump-starting the economy. So far, no other significant economic proposals are on the table, leaving many to wonder if the government has a long-term plan in this area.

As of this writing, the proposed budget cuts to public higher education remain in place. At the same time, scholars in Brazil and abroad remain concerned about the government’s threats to academic freedom and universities’ budgetary solvency.

James N. Green is the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Chair in Latin American History at Brown University, the director of Brown’s Brazil Initiative, and the national coordinator of the US Network for Democracy in Brazil. He is the author of eleven books and coedited collections on Brazil and Latin America. His email address is [email protected].