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Brazil’s Universities Are Under Attack — And So Is Its Democracy

Brazilians are fighting to maintain their public universities

Brazil’s democracy is on the edge of an abyss. Its new far-right government has begun an attack, first against humanities, sociology, and philosophy, and then on Brazil’s Public Universities. First it was said that Philosophy and Sociology Programs should be defunded. Then, the government announced a 30% cut in the budget of three Universities, mine included, citing ideological bias. Eventually, the cut was extended to all federal Universities and after that to all public educational system.

Cuts in the public budget are something usual — not desirable, but normal nonetheless. What is not normal is when the cuts are justified in ideological terms. For Brazil’s new elect government, the Brazil University system is an enemy to be destroyed. Our universities, so they say, are all dominated by cultural Marxism — in fact, they want the population to believe that Marxism is all over our educational system, from kindergarten to Ph.D. Programs. It could be funny, but in fact, it is a real tragedy.

Brazil, like all other countries of Latin and South America, has experienced a constant oscillation between democratic and authoritarian governments. With the end of the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 until 1985, and the adopting of a new constitution in 1988, Brazil started its most prolonged period of democracy and the rule of law. Of course there were huge problems to be worked out. Under the normal functions of its institutions, Brazil lived with an absurd social inequality — a constant in our history — and an almost dysfunctional economy, with skyrocketing inflation, enormous external debt, and a public deficit inherited from the military government. During the terms of Presidents Itamar Franco and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the government addressed the economy problem. Under the presidency of Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef, the government began to respond more directly to the country’s social problems. Very slowly, things were changing and changing for the better: more democracy, more transparency, and less inequality in terms of opportunity for the poor, largely black population has historically been left behind.

In 2013, massive protests erupted in almost all the big cities of Brazil, at first against the high price of public transportation, and eventually to fight for better public services in general. Especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, things got violent, with clashes between protesters and the police. We had, almost in the same streets at the same time, people asking for more democracy, more transparency and participation, and people asking for military intervention and protesting against corruption. Some people were asking for more and better public services, and others believed the State was already too big. For protestors on the left, the country’s respect for civil, social and human rights as written in the constitution itself, was a faded image for the majority of the population, an idea with no real meaning in their lives: a life under poverty, police brutality, precarious work conditions, with an unsatisfactory health and educational system. For most radicals on the left, the Constitution was just the mask of the real state of exception as the permanent and true condition of democracy under capitalism. At the other side of the spectrum, we had people that felt uncomfortable with all the social policies. With an economy that was beginning to show signs of slowing down and growing public expenditures, the rhetoric of austerity and meritocracy grew popular again. Too much public deficit, too much public corruption, and too much State. In 2016, President Dilma Roussef got impeached after a very dubious process, but with broad public support.

By 2018, Brazil was an electoral autocracy under Jair Bolsonaro, an anti-system candidate. (Even though he had been in Congress for 28 years without ever presenting a single law proposition.) We discovered a military movement ready to ascend to power, and people that were eager to give them their votes. We discovered an authoritarian culture we thought was gone for good or at least was not strong to reach power. We failed to stop the rise of authoritarianism. We did not see it coming as fast as it was necessary to stop it. After Poland, Hungary, Turkey, USA, Brexit, it was our time. Our party system, our electoral process and some of the circumstances under which the election took place, made it very difficult to build a front from left to center parties to face the autocratic storm. Massive social media manipulation and a flood of fake news made public debate impossible. The constant attacks against the press did not help either. The presence of far-right evangelists and their TV channels turned the election into a choice between good and evil, between Christianity and communism, between virtue and corruption, between “decency” and LGBT “immorality.”

As President Bolsonaro has shown us, his government has no intention to build anything; all he wants is to destroy. He wants to destroy the democratic culture that has been built in Brazil since 1988. He has no government plan because he is on a mission to destroy communism and all left and center-left parties, because we are all “communist.” He wants to destroy all that has been built so that Brazil can get back to its Christian, white and patriarchal past. In his crusade, Brazil’s Public University System has become the main target. All knowledge, all science, all research in Brazil, from genetics to space engineering, from history to computer science, takes place in public universities. Arts and sciences, the humanities and critical thinking, all this has its place in our federal public universities. Maybe more important: today almost 50% of the new students are black poor young people.

This is why the attacks in the universities, especially against the humanities, are so urgent for our far-right government. Not because our universities are the last refugee or lost paradise for all the marxist in the world, but because our universities represent an idea of society that contains freedom and social solidarity, with democracy and human rights as core values. And we, we that work in the universities, are ready to fight for these values. Our Public University System is not yet 50 years old. But since its inception, it has symbolized a modern and liberal Brazil.

The attacks begun in April 2019, and so did our reaction. In four days, a petition in favor of universities got 1.5 million signatures. Lots of institutions from abroad, such as the American Philosophical Association, the French Philosophical Society, and the British Philosophical Association gave support to our fight. Petitions have been made by colleagues from Canada, Germany, Holland, and the U.S., and gathered thousand of signatures.

On May 15, almost a million citizens came out and marched in protest against the government and in support of our University System and public education. As a response, the President asked his supporters to march on May 27. It was not a victorious march, but it helped him keep his supports active. On May 30, we marched again.

But this is not a street fight. In campuses, we are building a network of humanities scholars to confront this attack against our historical knowledge and our sociological and philosophical reflections. In Congress and outside Congress, political parties from left to center are building a front line to defend our constitution and our democracy. We will not make the same mistake again, and we do not believe that democratic institutions can work without a democratic culture. The next four years will be hard years. As I finish this article, I see in the news that a high government official asked for the creation of a political police, not to suppress freedom of speech and teach in our campuses, they say, but to inhibit indoctrination. This is McCarthyism; this is fascism. We will continue to fight for our Universities. After all, the fight for them is the fight for our democracy.

Daniel Peres is Professor at the Department of Philosophy of the Federal University of Bahia-Brazil (UFBA) and researcher of the National Council for the Development of Science and Technology (CNPq). He works with political philosophy and is finishing a book on political judgment and political imagination.

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Daniel Peres

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