RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s government has drawn criticism after launching a project that aims to revamp the country’s arts scene, with a focus on nationalism and religion. The project is part of the far-right administration’s answer to what it sees as decades of leftist hegemony in the cultural sphere — from art to education and family.
Though cash-strapped, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro will spend $4.9 million to foment the production of literature, theater, opera, music and other arts. It was announced by Bolsonaro, Education Minister Abraham Weintraub and culture secretary Roberto Alvim from a library of the official presidential residence in a live Facebook video.
Alvim, the driving force behind the initiative, is a born-again Christian who found renewed faith while recovering from cancer. He delivered a separate message about the initiative using a phrase local paper O Globo compared to a speech by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; Alvim said on Facebook on Wednesday that it was merely a “rhetorical coincidence.” The president of Brazil’s lower house said on Twitter the video went beyond the pale, and that Bolsonaro should remove Alvim from his position immediately.
While the amount to be spent is a drop in the bucket compared to other arts funding, the project jibes with the government’s efforts to overturn what Bolsonaro calls “cultural Marxism” that some of his ministers say is undermining society’s morals. The leftist Workers’ Party governed Brazil for 13 years until 2016.
“When culture becomes sick, the people become sick, too,” Alvim said in the video beside Bolsonaro. “Brazilian culture was deliberately sickened during the recent decades. Culture is the basis of the homeland.”
More than 57 million people — 55 percent of the voters in 2018’s election — embraced Bolsonaro’s anti-leftist campaign, in which he promised to fight corruption, violence and leftist ideology with the same energy.
The government will stimulate film projects that focus on Brazil’s independence and historical figures, and be aligned with conservative values, Alvim said.
The cultural crusade in Brazil goes well beyond the arts. From school textbooks to teen pregnancy, from the walls of private museums to those of public institutions, the 2020 ideological push is shaping up on several fronts. And after a series of high-profile resignations and dismissals in year one, Bolsonaro begins his second year in office with a new ministerial team to implement their leader’s conservative agenda.
“I’m back, ready for battle,” Weintraub tweeted Jan. 5, calling his followers to support him in his fight against “oligarchs, corrupt individuals and the communist-socialist ideological wing.”
Bolsonaro has made education, especially in early childhood, one of his top priorities. On Jan. 7, he and Weintraub — his second education minister in a year — spoke live on Facebook and accused previous administrations of turning the ministry of 300,000 employees into a factory of “militants.” The two announced a complete “clean-up” of kids’ school textbooks.
Without presenting concrete examples, Bolsonaro had previously described textbooks as an “embarrassment” with too much writing in them, and said parents only want their sons to be boys and daughters to be girls.
“There are still some (textbooks) that we don’t like but a lot of filth has already come out,” Weintraub assured him.
Few specific proposals have been put forward as an alternative — an emphasis on family values, the national anthem (already included in textbooks by law), and a Brazilian flag on the cover.
For Claudia Costin, a former education secretary in Rio de Janeiro and senior director for education at the World Bank, the culture wars are a waste of precious time. Brazil ranked in the bottom third of the 79 countries and economies that took part in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the test’s results, Brazilian students have stagnated in mathematics, reading and science. Public schools are performing particularly poorly.
“We have a lot of homework to do,” Costin said. “All this is a distraction from what really needs to be done.”
The government’s conservative agenda has also pushed into health matters.
Damares Alves, the minister of women, family and human rights, recently shared news of an approach to fighting teen pregnancy that would focus on advocating sexual abstinence.
The campaign, expected to be unveiled in the coming days, will target youths, but also parents, educators, and health workers, said Angela Gandra, the secretary in charge of family affairs at Alvares’s ministry. She stressed that the campaign is complementary to existing methods of contraception.
“We want to bring reflection to the parents and the children about what human relations are,” Gandra said at the ministry’s building in Brasilia. “Sexual relations have an impact on human beings, have a greater transcendence than an isolated incident.”
In 2017, the latest year for which data is available, more than 480,000 babies were born in Brazil to mothers aged 10 to 19, health ministry statistics show.
At the building next door, in the culture’s secretary’s office, Alvim’s promised crusade is underway. On Twitter, he regularly uses the hashtag #DeusVult, or “God wills it,” echoing the Christian battle cry of Middle Ages crusaders. It’s also popular with white nationalists in the U.S.
Speaking in a recorded message released Thursday, with a wooden cross atop his desk, Alvim said he wants 2020 to mark a historic cultural rebirth to “create a new and thriving Brazilian civilization.” He sat beneath a framed picture of Bolsonaro, and orchestral strings played lightly in the background. The music is from an opera by Richard Wagner, often associated with Nazism and German nationalism.
Associated Press writers Marcelo de Sousa and Mauricio Savarese, and photographer Eraldo Peres, contributed to this report.
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