Bolsonaro’s Attempt to Remake Brazilian Culture Bogged Down By Scandals

By  |  15 / March / 2020

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Just a few months into the year and the Bolsonaro government is up to it neck in scandals that have stymied its ambitious plans to reshape Brazil’s culture and impose a new conservative ideology based on nationalism, religious fundamentalism and militarism.

Three recent scandals have drawn international attention and exposed the profound changes proposed by the far-right government: a secretary of culture who openly touted Nazi references, the complete failure of the university entrance exam (ENEM), and the international uproar over the persecution of journalist Glenn Greenwald for unveiling the involvement of Bolsonaro’s minister of justice, Sergio Moro, in an illegal scheme connected to the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation.

A Nod to Nazi Culture

In a recently released institutional video, Bolsonaro’s  Special Secretary of Culture, Roberto Alvim, paraphrased the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in an official  video to announce a new federal arts fund. With Wagner in the background, Alvim called for projects for operas, plays, paintings, works of literature, music and comics with nationalist and religious themes.  The works would further the government’s conception of Brazilian art, which, in the words of Alvim himself, would be “heroic and national”. He stated “It will be endowed with a great capacity for emotional involvement and will be equally imperative, since it is deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing”, again echoing Goebbels. Alvim was fired that same day, but the program for nationalist arts projects to be funded by the federal government continues.

“Bolsonaro was willing to defend Roberto Alvim until he saw a far greater backlash than he expected and started feeling the pressure from all sides. In any case, the government’s Nazi-fascist project will continue to manage the arts,” says musician and cultural producer Makely Ka.

Indeed, Bolsonaro’s government continues to carry out changes in the area of culture, aiming to eliminate any trace of what it considers “left-wing ideology” and replace it with nationalist ideals. Alvim imposed radical changes before public outcry forced Bolsonaro to fire him after only three months, among them the appointment of Sérgio Nascimento de Camargo, an outspoken opponent of the black movement, to the Palmares Foundation, which has the stated mission “to promote the preservation of cultural, social and economic values resulting from the black influence on the formation of Brazilian society”. Camargo, who is black, denies the existence of racism in Brazil and vowed to follow Alvim’s guidelines.

Alvim also appointed Dante Mantovani, a conspiracy theorist, to Funarte, the program responsible for developing public policies to promote the visual arts, music, theatre, dance and circus. Mantovani has publicly stated his belief that rock music, abortion and satanism are interconnected.

Historian and doctoral researcher on “the new right” at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), Murilo Cleto, believes that this profound shake-up in the nation’s cultural institutions was predictable. “It was no secret that culture would be one of the areas most affected by Bolsonaro’s rise to power. We must remember that the right has focused its political activities on the so-called cultural wars,”

Cleto affirms that the bedrock ideology of the Bolsonaro government was established years ago among right-wing theorists. One of  main ideologists of the new right adopted by the Bolsonaro Government, Olavo de Carvalho, has for decades disseminated the idea that when the left was defeated in armed revolutions it set out to dominate the world through culture, especially in the universities, the arts and communication.

“This notion seems to have set in as a form of paranoia that sees ‘leftism’ in the most banal artistic expressions,” Cleto explains.

The idea that the left seeks to rule through culture in large part explains the government’s emphasis on “reforming” Brazilian culture, while seeking to neutralize dissenting voices.

As soon as Alvim took office, he set about modifying public funding and incentives for movie production, art exhibits and concerts to align with the right-wing agenda.  For example, he revoked a mandate to produce four films with a LGBT theme, since President Bolsonaro considers the LGBT community harmful to Brazilian values. Alvim redirected the ministry to promote works “in line with the political transformations of Brazil” and called for a “healthy cinema, linked to the values of Brazilian society and aligned with conservatism in art”.

The newspaper Folha de São Paulo revealed on October 4, 2019, that the Caixa Econômica Federal, a public bank, has created an internal system of prior censorship on projects linked to its cultural centres. Internal reports indicate that the bank gathered data such as political positioning and social media behavior for those seeking funding.

Critics say Bolsonaro is using the power of the state to impose a single standard on all Brazilian art. “You can say with reasonable certainty that there’s a clear project of destruction [of culture] and vengeance against the artistic class”, Cleto affirms. The president’s vision of “new art”, expressed through censorship and the actions of his subordinates, is aimed at promoting the idea of a conservative, Christian Brazil. While many pundits have compared Bolsonaro to Trump, the Brazilian leader goes much farther than his U.S. counterpart in promoting an authoritarian, religious fundamentalist, anti-indigenous and misogynist society.

Education in shambles 

Bolsonaro’s second misstep also came in January. In Brazil, all students must take an exam called the ENEM to enter a university. This year a “mechanical error” lead to a series of mistakes in correcting the exams, with students receiving incorrect grades. The malfunction caused harsh criticism of the Ministry of Education, run by a leader of the far-right, Abraham Weintraub.

This is not the first time that problems involving the exam have occurred – in 2009 the ENEM was cancelled after the questions were leaked – but mistakes never involved the correction phase of the exams before. The mistakes appear to be the result of changes of command within the ministry. For example, Inep, the body responsible for carrying out the tests, has changed president four times since Jair Bolsonaro took office. Also, for months the board directly responsible for the exam was vacant.

The entrance exam fiasco is not the only scandal involving Weintraub. He called the National Student Union (UNE) a “mafia”, insulted journalist Marco Antonio Villa by calling him a “sewer mouth”, and insulted  a woman Twitter user as “a mangy and toothless mare.” Weintraub has argued that students should film teachers to keep from being “indoctrinated” and has attacked public universities, comparing them to Islamic Madras. He has repeatedly come under fire for his grammatical errors on Twitter.

Weintraub also  appointed Benedito Guimarães Aguiar to chair the Coordinating Committee for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES), one of the country’s main bodies for promoting research. Guimarães is a well-known creationist who defends the teaching of “intelligent design” in schools and universities.

Teachers all over the country, from the primary to the university level, have expressed a sense of “living in a monitored lockdown,” in the words of a professor of basic education who asked to remain anonymous for fear of persecution. “The Secretary has questioned professors’ competence, and threatened the right of teachers to teach freely and have opinions. The secretary has taken a stand against the main scholars in education,” he adds.

Freedom of the press at risk

The press has been a frequent preferred target of Bolsonaro and his allies. A former employee of Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign, Hans River, falsely accused Folha de São Paulo’s journalist Patrícia Campos Mello of trading sexual favors for information on Twitter. River served as Campos Mello’s source for a December 2018 report that exposed  a network of companies that fraudulently used senior citizen documents to register cell phone SIM-cards to conduct illegal mass messaging via WhatsApp for the benefit of politicians, including then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro. River’s tweet launched a smear campaign against the journalist, supported by individuals close to the president.

Then on Jan. 21, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) charged seven people with illicit access to the phones of government officials, The Intercept’s journalist Glenn Greenwald. The charges range from collaboration with a criminal organisation and money laundering, to illegal phone tapping for having received conversations involving government officials that cast doubts on the propriety of the Lava Jato [Car Wash] investigation– the largest anti-corruption operation in Brazilian history. The conversations exposed a series of illegal acts involving one of the president’s main allies, former judge and current Ministry Minister or Secretary of Justice, Sérgio Moro, and several prosecutors. The messages published by The Intercept Brasil suggested that Moro interfered in the course of the investigations, taking sides with the prosecutors by discussing details of the investigation, giving suggestions and even reprimanding prosecutors.

A Brazilian court threw out the charges against Greenwald, recognizing his rights as a journalist, yet he still receives threats and intimidation online from government supporters. Other journalists working for The Intercept have also begun to receive threats on social media.

“[Bolsonaro] has an even more aggressive attitude than his predecessors,” says Fábio Zanini, special reporter and former editor of World and Power sections of Folha de São Paulo. “He doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the press. Bolsonaro is not the first to make tough attacks against the newspaper and the press as a whole, but he’s trying to go beyond what others did and threatened,” Zanini concludes.