The Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies hosted a panel on Wednesday discussing the state of Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro and reflecting on how his rule has impacted higher education in the country. 

About 45 students, faculty and community members attended the event, which consisted of presentations and a question-and-answer session from three professors and historical professionals. Benjamin Lessing, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, highlighted the politics of crime and violence in Brazil, while WCED Postdoctoral Fellow Marília Corrêa spoke on the history of Brazilian military dictatorship. Guilherme Casarões, lecturer in international relations at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas São Paulo Business School, focused on how Bolsonaro has reshaped Brazil’s national identity. 

Brazilians elected Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, as president in October 2018 after a controversial and polarizing political race. Since his election into office, Bolsonaro has angered many Brazilian citizens and people across the globe with his contentious policies. In a video address, he threatened jailing and banishing his political opponents, and in an executive order, he undermined the rights of indigenous people and the LGBTQ community.

Panelists discussed the controversies surrounding Bolsonaro with his administration’s attacks on the press, loosening of environmental protections and cuts to education spending.

Panelist Casarões described the corruption present in the Brazillian cabinet, especially due to Olavo de Carvalho, self-described Brazilian philosopher, and his strong influence on Bolsonaro’s administration. 

“The most important feature of Bolsonaro’s narrative and Carvalho’s role in shaping Bolsonaro’s narrative is the fact that he was able to appoint a number of different people to Bolsonaro’s cabinet,” Casarões said. “So it called people’s attention when the government was being formed that Carvalho was able to appoint at least three ministers out of 24 ministers in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, even though Carvalho had no vote at all.”

Casarões described how one of the positions Carvalho appointed was the Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub. Three of Carvalho’s former students are also in Bolsonaro’s administration, filling crucial roles in international affairs and foreign relations. Bolsonaro’s sons hold two of these three positions

Many have been angered by the corruption within Bolsonaro’s administration, especially in regard to the lack of focus on higher education. In May, tens of thousands of students, teachers and academics stormed the streets of São Paulo, protesting the Ministry of Education’s plan to cut 30 percent of the funds to the discretionary expenses budget for universities in Brazil. This freeze is equivalent to over $1.8 billion of Brazil’s education budget. 

In April, Bolsonaro tweeted a tweet which originally appeared in Portoguese, stating that the Minister of Education planned on reducing investment in sociology and philosophy courses in order to “focus on areas that generate immediate return to the taxpayer,” like engineering and medicine. 

Lessing described the disorder present within the Brazilian education system and the issues with Bolsonaro’s lack of emphasis on the humanities.

“To me, a huge risk that we haven’t talked about yet is what I see as an attack on the federal university system in Brazil,” Lessing said. “The attack on higher education — which (Bolsonaro) sees as infiltrated by communism and basically in need of flushing out — it’s really trying to create chaos within the federal university system and it’s kind of a vision of you don’t need humanities, you don’t need social sciences, you just need technical education.”

As a Brazillian herself, Corrêa described her hesitation with teaching in Brazil in the midst of the unsupportive education system promoted by Bolsonaro.

“So for me particularly, I am Brazilian and people often ask me if I want to go back to Brazil to teach there, but right now, as one of the speakers spoke just a little bit ago, the Bolsonaro government has been kind of moving against the university system there,” Corrêa said. “They have been cutting costs, so we’re actually seeing brains leaving Brazil to go elsewhere in the world that value what they’re doing… it’s a really hard time right now for the research, in the sciences too but especially in the humanities.”

Corrêa emphasized it is important for students to come to events like these and recognize the impacts the events occurring in Brazil have on the rest of the world.

“So I think that even for students who do not necessarily know much about Brazil, it is important to see what’s happening around the world,” Corrêa said. “Today, we live in a global world where there are a lot of connections and world leaders. Things that happen in Brazil have an impact in the U.S. and things that happen in the U.S. have an impact on Brazil and around the world, so I think it’s important to have your eyes open to these global events and processes.”

Law student Tommy Desoutter explained the reason he believes students should attend events similar to today’s panel is due to the similarities found in the conflicts occurring in Brazil to the ones occurring in the U.S. 

“I think the political situation (in Brazil) really closely parallels what’s happened in the U.S., and there are a lot of sort of comparative lessons to be learned and also lessons about how we impact the rest of the world and its discourse,” Desoutter said. “It’s a huge country full of people who many of them will be looking to come here in the future as the situation there deteriorates, and I think it’s worth learning more about.”

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