© fotos: Robson Carneiro and Filipe Mendonça
The Crisis of Brazilian Universities: higher education under Bolsonaro
InterviewThe attack on science and knowledge production is known to be one of the main elements of the rise of the authoritarian right in the past decade. As one of the main global expressions of contemporary authoritarianism, Jair Bolsonaro is no exception to that. His government has been an important part of the context of difficulties for the higher education sector in Brazil, especially since research is highly dependent on public universities and funding agencies in the country. On top of that, the COVID pandemic in 2020 created difficulties for universities all around the world. If such a global crisis is expected to generate differentiated pressures across the Global North and South, the impact of authoritarian politics is surely prone to making the situation particularly delicate for universities.
The crisis that haunts Brazilian Universities precedes in many ways the current authoritarian far-right government, and yet it is severely aggravated by it. To provide some insight on how these elements are currently combined, I reached out to two higher education workers from the Federal University of Uberlandia (UFU). Filipe Mendonça is a professor of International Relations, a former vice-president of the union for UFU’s academic staff (ADUFU) who recently became the director for the local postgraduate programme on International Relations (PPGRI-UFU; although he remarks that the answers below reflect his own personal views, and not those of the programme). Robson Carneiro is a member of UFU’s administrative staff since 2009, being directly involved as an activist in the category’s union (SINTET-UFU, which he currently presides) since 2016. I posed the same four questions to each of them, which were transcribed and translated as follows.
How are the attacks by the Bolsonaro government perceived by the University?
Filipe: The austerity policies commanded by Bolsonaro and his minister of economics, Paulo Guedes, have strangled Brazilian public service as a whole. The constitutional amendment popularly known as teto dos gastos (expenditure limit), allied to the ultra-liberal measures spearheaded by Guedes is responsible for serious disturbances on public education in its entirety. It is not known, for instance, whether Universities will have the budget to cover for their expenses until the end of 2021. This policy of defunding universities forbids new hirings and strangles the financing of research, especially in the case of the humanities (which are constantly targeted by bolsonarismo).
Besides these economic attacks, bolsonarismo also offers a great deal of anti-intellectualism. This means that, in general, universities and intellectuals are broadly held by the president and his supporters as “enemies of the people”. As a result, the president himself and his sons have deployed many tactics to discredit public universities. The last minister of education, Abraham Weintraub, was an important part of these plans.
The anti-intellectualism displayed by Bolsonaro and his allies is extremely dangerous. Before the pandemic, it was displayed in countless policies completely out of touch with reality. Its most dramatic turn came precisely because of the pandemic, when pseudoscience took form of a range of magical solutions for COVID-19, which took Brazil to the second place in global ranks of deaths per capita.
Robson: Among UFU non-academic staff we find a wide range of views on Bolsonaro’s regime. A first part of the workers ignores the dangers presented by him, and his far-right ideology. A second one supports him unconditionally, for reasons that still challenge our understanding of bolsonarismo. The third, and fortunately the largest one by far, is extremely critical of the president and of everything he represents. The university has been heavily affected by bolsonarismo since 2019, through its brutal enforcement of the constitutional reform that freezes public investment (actually a product of Temer’s government). There have been many violations of the universities` autonomy, especially on cases where the internal democratic processes are bypassed by the appointment non-elected chancellors.
How has the rise of authoritarianism impacted activism and research at UFU?
Filipe: Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism has affected the research conducted at PPGRI-UFU in direct and indirect ways. In a direct sense, as I mentioned above, there are deep budget cuts that target research funding and the functioning of universities as a whole, added to a general harassment of intellectuals that is typical of bolsonarismo.
Indirectly, I have also noticed that many colleagues are avoiding adopting clear stances against the government, as a way of protecting themselves from political persecution. In other words, there is some degree of “self-censorship” among Brazilian scholars. Which is understandable, given how real this danger has been under Bolsonaro: the ministry of justice, the federal police, and ABIN (Brazil’s intelligence agency) have been mobilised to monitor researchers’ use of social networks and directly intimidate them.
In sum, it is a tough scenario for research in Brazil. Some groups have also been looking for partnerships with foreign research networks to avoid domestic persecution.
Robson: SINTET-UFU has not been directly targeted by Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism, but many difficulties were encountered as outcomes of the postures disseminated by the president. The main example was the judicialization of a peaceful democratic demonstration in Uberlandia, in a clear case of intimidation by the police and the judiciary system. The absence of more serious cases does not mean that the government is “not that bad”. Instead, it is because of the union’s own combative posture and the support it finds among workers. We do not let ourselves be intimidated.
The pandemic has posed many challenges for Universities over the past 18 months, and still they manage to be an important part of actions and campaigns against the virus, despite the president’s insistence on denying the pandemic’s relevance (which became an important part of his genocidal agenda). How did his actions affect UFU`s attempts to cope with these difficult times?
Filipe: The pandemic gave us plenty of proof that bolsonarismo kills. That became clear in the many policies of viral dissemination promoted by the current Brazilian government. It has increased uncertainties, and contributed to extend the crises indefinitely.
Universities have suffered from it in many ways. The sudden switch to online teaching, although understandable in this scenario, has left many students behind. Besides that, there is a generalized concern that this forced migration to virtual environments might be used as an argument to implement a broad transition towards long-distance and asynchronous teaching in Brazil, both in public and private universities. This is a major concern, since, in such a large and unequal country, face-to-face teaching is a strategic pedagogical tool to increase the quality of teaching and reduce social inequalities.
Robson: Universities have faced huge challenges throughout Brazil not only because of the pandemic, but also through the posture adopted by the current government, constantly rejecting scientific knowledge and all forms of education. During the pandemic, UFU in particular struggled with this rejection of science also through Uberlandia’s mayor. Instead of reaching out to UFU as an ally in the city’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus, he followed the postures adopted by the president and disqualified the University’s role and potential. It took a lot of effort by many actors in the city, among which SINTET played an important role, to challenge the mayor and defend the University’s image and its many contributions to society.
Massive street demonstrations against Bolsonaro took place across Brazil in in 2021 (May 29 and June 19). How were they perceived? What are the next challenges in the fight against authoritarianism?
Filipe: The Brazilian Left decided to face the paradox: occupy the streets, even facing the possibility of a third wave of the COVID pandemic, or continue resisting to Bolsonaro’s regime from home. After 18 long months, the option of protesting on the streets grew in popularity (although it is by no means consensual). It seems correct to say that bolsonarismo became itself a bigger danger than the virus.
Personally, I support these protests, although the measures ensuring sanitary safety must be observed. This is the only way of containing the advance of authoritarianism in Brazil, which has occupied the streets with clear support from the military since the early days of the pandemic.
The coming year will be a decisive one in Brazilian history. In general, the next election will serve not only to appoint the next president, but will effectively also represent a referendum on the current constitution. It has sustained the fragile Brazilian democracy through its ups and downs for the past 32 years, and it has not been through a more strenuous test than this.
Robson: Recent protests against Bolsonaro were an important demonstration of strength from the popular opposition to his government. If crowds are still not as large as we would like, they were significant given the long and ongoing period of isolation during which we have struggled to find new forms of activism, even adopting a model traditionally employed by the right: to do demonstrations in cars (carreata). We still had uncertainties about how to do this kind of large demonstrations, given that the pandemic is far from over. Thanks to the discipline and responsibility of everyone involved, we were able to safely mobilize over 4,000 people in Uberlandia in each of these demonstrations. Next challenges include maintaining the current level of safety and social distancing, increasing the volume of people on the streets. Of course, if vaccination proceeds, people will feel progressively safer to participate in these demonstrations. But perhaps the biggest challenge, besides maintaining the viral containment measures, is to spread among the population the notion that it is crucial to dismantle the current government as quickly as possible. We cannot think of “bleeding out” the government until the next election in 2022 when it can be defeated by popular vote. Our health, our economy, our education, and the entire country cannot continue to be submitted to this government’s nonsense for another year. Adopting this strategy means allowing this suffering to continue for another year, and our people do not deserve that.
 The notion of bolsonarismo used by both interviewees appears on Brazilian public discourse as the ideology shared – even if loosely – by social forces that support Bolsonaro and have led him to the presidency. It should be understood here as a descriptive term, not as a theoretical category. For a discussion of what it entails, see the edited volume O Ódio como Política:a reinvenção das direitas no Brasil (org. Esther Solano Gallego, Boitempo Editorial, 2018), and the special report Quem são e no que acreditam os eleitores de Jair Bolsonaro, organised in 2018 by Isabela Kalil (available here)
 Michel Temer was the president in charge before Bolsonaro was elected. Temer came into power himself through the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff. The 95th Constitutional Amendment was one of the main legacies of Temer’s government. Known as teto dos gastos and pec da morte (death’s amendment), it creates a new regulation of the state’s budget that limits its expenses to the values of 2015 (adjusted for inflation). For more detail on the coup against Rousseff and Temer’s role in the rise of Bolsonaro, see The Edge of Democracy (Costa, 2018, Netflix).