Unemployment, possible bankruptcy of the country, conflict with Venezuela, destruction of the education system and… an internal conflict punctuated by purges.
The first few months of the Bolsonaro administration will be interesting for historians of the future, but they are a nightmare for those who are narrating and trying to figure out the events as they unfold. And especially for those who suffer and will suffer from the direct consequences of the actions of the government of a president who still seems to be campaigning — or who simply has no idea how to govern.
Like Don Quixote, Bolsonaro is in constant fight against windmills, seeking imaginary enemies as a way to justify his actions and to please his supporters’ base — that’s shrinking more and more.
Since the Dilma Rousseff administration (2011–2016), but especially during her second term (2015–2016) that resulted in impeachment, Brazil has faced an acute economic crisis that led to the cutting of billions of reais from different ministries and state investments. With the transitional government of Michel Temer, Rousseff’s former vice president, the situation has worsened, with Brazil reaching the Bolsonaro government in a situation that is, at least, complicated — if not alarming.
Many already imagined that spending cuts would be necessary — and soon they came, but disguised as ideological revenge.
Slashing education funds
Education Minister Abraham Weintraub, who replaced former minister Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, who was replaced due to blatant incompetence, announced to the press that it would cut up to 30% of the funds of 3 federal universities (UFF, UnB and UFBA) for promoting “uproar” with public money, ie, carrying out events and activities contrary to the ideological beliefs of Weintraub and Bolsonaro (and Olavo de Carvalho, pseudo-philosopher and astrologer who acts as guru of the administration and who is also pivot of immense internal crisis).
This announcement was followed by another, in which the court was extended to all universities and federal institutes. At the same time, Bolsonaro announced that his intention was also to cut funding for the humanities, which for him would be a waste of public money, as part of his crusade against knowledge and critical thinking — and against what he and his supporters call “cultural Marxism” and “gender ideology,” which would have taken over universities.
Not surprisingly, the crusade against the human sciences, where one can find philosophy, comes from a government whose guru, Olavo de Carvalho, declares himself a philosopher without ever having set foot in an institution of higher education. We are facing what the president of the Education Commission of the House, Deputy Pedro Cunha Lima (PSDB-PB) called an “ideological revenge”. Those who did not have space in the academy for their (mostly un-scientific) ideas then choose to destroy it in the face of the inability to win the battle with arguments alone.
According to Bolsonaro, the money cut from universities would be used to finance basic education, the problem is that the cuts also affect basic and technical education, such as the 17% cut in funding for the construction of daycare centres or the freezing of 21% of the funds from the National Fund for Education Development. Some government propagandists claim that the cuts would actually be just a freezing or contingency and that the release of funds could happen if the country’s economic situation improves. The cut for universities alone is 1.7 billion reais (a bit over 400 million dollars).
The main targets of the contingency would be the budget for maintenance services, cleaning, security, among others and the investment budget (reform or construction of new buildings, classrooms, for example), in addition to research grants and generalised cuts at CAPES and CNPq, the two main agencies to promote research in the country.
Political commentator Caio Almendra explains that the government “cut 30% of discretionary spending. Adding discretionary spending to the tied [or compulsory] spending [mostly wages], this cut represents 3.4% of total university spending. That’s the big danger of the whole thing.”
He explains that “in exchange for saving 3.4% of spending in one of the most essential sectors of our society, education, the government is undermining the capacity of universities to remain open. If power, water, safety or cleaning services are interrupted because of this cut, all the other 96.6 percent of investment in education goes to waste. The university will not be able to function without these things.”
The contingency in some cases, however, exceeds 30%, reaching 67% in the University Hospital Gaffree and Guinle and 100% in the case of the University Hospital of the Federal University of Piauí, according to the Association of Teachers of the University of Brasília (ADUnB) and of other three university hospitals in different regions of the country.
To many, the cut, freezing or contingency would, in reality, be a form of blackmail to gain support for the reform of social security proposed by the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, a reform that, according to experts, would enormously harm the poorest, who would retire with a salary lower than the minimum — and would maintain the privileges of the military — Bolsonaro, not surprisingly, is a former army captain.
In addition, behind the scenes conversations point to another factor, such as Bolsonaro’s intention to benefit owners of private universities — the Ministry of Education accelerated the accreditation of new private universities by 70% this year, and among its government programs was the incentive to distance education, the collection of tuition fees at public universities and the so-called educational “vouchers,” that is, instead of public education, parents of students would receive vouchers to be used in private schools.
In this respect (as in others) Bolsonaro resembles Dilma Rousseff’s government that, despite the investments made by Lula da Silva in the expansion of federal universities, also invested heavily in private education, often of very poor quality and with heavy and successive cuts in the Ministry of Education (MEC). Rousseff was even accused of electoral fraud for having, in a campaign for re-election, promised to invest in education (and even having as a government slogan “Educating Homeland”), but doing the complete opposite after re-election. In 2015 Rousseff even cut 47% of planned investments in federal universities.
As a result of the policy of deep cuts in education, millions took to the streets on 15 February in over 200 cities (other sources point out to 140 cities), to protest against the Bolsonaro government, demanding that investments in education be maintained or even expanded. These have been the largest street demonstrations in the country since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment protests in 2016 and the June 2013 protests.
While in a trip to Dallas, USA, the president’s reaction was to call the protesters “useful idiots”.
A few days later, on May 26, several far-right groups took the streets to protest in support of Bolsonaro. Some of these groups openly called for the closure of the National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court (STF), which led less-radical sectors to walk away from the protests that ultimately took place in fewer cities than the protests against the government and with a noticeably smaller audience.
On May 30 another wave of protests against the government took place in several cities of the country. They were smaller than the ones on May 15, yet rivaled those of the 26th in favour of Bolsonaro.
The political consequences of the protests for the government (and the country) are not yet known, though on the next day government, Congress and STF agreed to sign pact in response to demonstrations, which may indicate their success despite their size.
Bolsonaro’s government is an embarrassment internationally and at home
On the international stage, Brazil has been subjected to constant embarrassment with a chancellor, Ernesto Araujo, who is not only inept, but who also thinks he is on a crusade to defend Christianity. On a trip to Israel, both Bolsonaro and Araújo made disastrous statements about Nazism being a leftist ideology, as well as damaging years of relationship with Palestine and potentially with Arab countries after opening a commercial representation in Jerusalem (but retreating from the change of embassy).
On the eve of the 55th anniversary of the military coup that led to a 21-year period of dictatorship (1964–1985), Bolsonaro ordered the Armed Forces to celebrate the coup (a celebration that had been suspended by Rousseff, a former guerrilla fighter), while defending the legacy of death and torture of the period — which caused discomfort even among the military members of the government.
Bolsonaro also praised dictators such as Alfredo Stroessner (who was also a rapist and paedophile) from Paraguay and Augusto Pinochet from Chile during international visits — being received in Santiago with protests and criticism from even President Sebastián Piñera.
In relation to Venezuela, the country adopted an automatic alignment with the USA, giving up a mediating position in the conflict that is dragging on in the neighbouring country. Bolsonaro and Araújo did not spare adjectives in their pronouncements against Nicolás Maduro, just as Bolsonaro, on Twitter, even suggested the possibility of declaring war against Venezuela — despite opposition from the government’s military core and the president of the Chamber of Deputies.
In six months of government, Bolsonaro has little or nothing positive to show. He hasn’t been able to carry out any of the promised reforms (particularly the pension reform), nor has he achieved any commercial or diplomatic success — on the contrary.
In March, during Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington, the country had announced that it would give up its status as a developing country in the WTO, which gives the right to special and differentiated treatment in negotiations within the organisation, in exchange for the country’s entry into the OECD. At first, he U.S. maintained the impasse over Brazil’s entry into the organisation, but by the end of May, the ministry of foreign affairs’ twitter account announced the US decided to support Brazil’s candidacy to the organisation — however, it is unknown when proceedings will start and how long it’ll take.
The balance so far is that of failure with an immense internal crisis in the government for the dispute between two great fractions: That of the military and that of the “olavists” — followers of Olavo de Carvalho.
The military insistently seek to move away from extreme ideological poles, adopting a technical profile and are often critical of the government itself (Vice President General Hamilton Mourão has openly voiced criticism of various areas of the government), while Olavo de Carvalho’s followers (notably the Minister of Education and the Chancellor, as well as the sons of Bolsonaro who has great weight in the government) seek to impose a conservative and… nonsensical agenda. An exact term is missing to define the erratic character of Olavo de Carvalho — called “Trotsky of the Right” by General Villas Boas, former commander of the army — and his followers.
For the military, the replacement of one dominant ideology (from the left) by another (from the right) does not contribute to the country, but only inflates supporters. According to experts, the ideological vindictiveness promoted by the olavist fraction of the government delays and distracts the government from the reforms they claim are necessary for the country. Olavo has publicly criticised the military — many of them laden with personal offenses and curse words — who feel disrespected. For Olavo, the generals, as well as the media, would be communists.
Bolsonaro, without any political skill, insists that there is no crisis.
And the economy in tatters
As the government disintegrates, the country faces an unprecedented crisis, with unemployment reaching 12.7% (or 13.4 million unemployed), and without effective leadership governing the country. The government has blocked 100% of the resources of 140 diverse projects from 11 ministries. The cuts are part of the 29.792 billion reais (aprox. 7 billion dollars) blockade of the 2019 Union Budget to overcome the crisis. In addition, another 300 projects have had more than 40% of the funds frozen so far.
Experts say that the Brazilian economy oscillates between stagnation and depression, with loss of purchasing power of the population and unemployment and marginal GDP growth.
In apparent despair in the face of the immense economic crisis and his inability to carry out effective political coordination with Congress to approve his proposed measures, Bolsonaro shared via WhatsApp anonymous text (the authorship was later attributed to a public official affiliated to the Novo (New), a liberal-turned-far-right party informally allied to Bolsonaro) in which Brazil is described as “ungovernable.” A few days later, the president released, on Facebook, a video in which an evangelical pastor calls him “chosen by God”.
Worse, there is not even a minimally organized opposition. The Workers Party (PT), after having thrown the country into crisis during the Dilma administration, seems more concerned about defending the freedom of its main leader, former president Lula da Silva, who has been sentenced twice for corruption and money laundering with added sentences that exceed 24 years in prison. Also, PT still pays the price for having promoted the demobilisation (and even criminalisation) of unions and social movements during the years in which the party was in power.
Other parties and candidates defeated in the past presidential election, such as Marina Silva and Ciro Gomes, have not been not capable of agglutinating the opposition to Bolsonaro who, however, seems capable of sinking his own government without outside help.
Thus, the reforms proposed by Bolsonaro during the campaign do not seem will be carried out so soon, not only because of the political inability of the government, but also because of the internal crisis in which Bolsonaro has got itself into. It is necessary to wait and see what the possible effects of the pro-government demonstrations will be in the medium and long term, as well as whether the opposition will have the capacity to maintain pressure beyond a single day of mobilisations.
This article is based on “Jair Bolsonaro: 6 month to destroy the education system of a country” published by The Wry Ronin, “Brazil’s fascist president fails to deliver on far-right reforms” published by Crikey and a forthcoming article for Razpotja magazine that will be published in Slovenian later this month.