Pres. Jair Bolsonaro and Education Minister Ricardo Vélez-Rodríguez

Earlier this week, Brazil’s Education Minister Ricardo Vélez-Rodríguez sparked outrage when he sent a letter requesting public schools to film their students singing the national anthem before class. To make matters worse, the letter ended with the slogan chosen by Jair Bolsonaro during the 2018 campaign: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.”  The letter was received poorly by the Brazilian public, not just for its crass jingoism, but because the minister’s request was illegal on a number of levels.

Firstly, children cannot be filmed without the express consent of their parents. Moreover, using campaign slogans in government documents is also forbidden. What was perhaps most jarring was seeing the Brazilian government engaging in initiatives reminiscent of anti-democratic regimes such as Nicolás Maduro’s, in Venezuela—to which the Bolsonaro administration is strongly opposed.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Economist Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca, who holds a Master&#8217;s degree in Philosophy from the University of São Paulo, voiced his concerns. &#8220;This paranoia is so fruitless. The problem with Brazil&#8217;s education is not political indoctrination—it&#8217;s the poor quality of our [school] system. Children are not learning &#8216;left-biased content&#8217; in schools. They&#8217;re not learning anything at all,&#8221; </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">wrote</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> Mr. Fonseca.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to journalist Filipe Barini, the move shows all the telltale signs of an impending &#8220;police state&#8221; in Brazil. &#8220;The new government has a fixation on filming people to spot [enemies], calling [for students to film and denounce their teachers for leftist indoctrination], content control, social network monitoring, and the attempt to criminalize the opposition,&#8221; he says.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Vélez-Rodríguez was handpicked by </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Olavo de Carvalho</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, a self-proclaimed philosopher who has become the political guru of was has come to be &#8220;Bolsonarism.&#8221; Mr. Carvalho&#8217;s track record of vetting cabinet members is somewhat tarnished. Besides the Education Minister, Mr. Carvalho also picked Ernesto Araújo for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Damares Alves as Human Rights Minister. The latter has been accused of child abduction by indigenous tribes, while the former was recently dubbed </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;The Worst Diplomat in the World&#8221;</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> by Jacobin magazine.</span></p> <h2>Missing the point</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Paulo Roberto Silva, a digital transformation and innovation consultant who holds a Master&#8217;s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of São Paulo, argues that &#8220;the big question on the Education Minister&#8217;s plate is how to prepare Brazilian future generations for the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">knowledge economy</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.&#8221; By targeting a non-existent political indoctrination conspiracy, &#8220;the government&#8217;s agenda for education ignores all the radical transformations of the structure of capital, which demands better performance from professionals.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Silva points out that Brazil has bet on a development model based on low wages and poorly-qualified labor. &#8220;At one point, that gave us a competitive advantage. But now, with the rise of </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Industry 4.0</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, that model is no longer sustainable. The global economic dispute is won by those who are capable of managing and implementing projects of high technological complexity, that is, the higher the qualification of the population, the more this country will be able to attract business.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Brazil, indicators of mathematics proficiency and educational performance as a whole are poor, and the elite sees no reason to educate the population; knowledge is not valued. Many students reach university </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">essentially illiterate</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;If President Bolsonaro likes praising dictators [such as Chile&#8217;s Augusto Pinochet and Paraguay&#8217;s </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Alfredo Stroessner</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">], he could at least turn to the likes of Singapore&#8217;s Lee Kuan Yew, or South Korea&#8217;s Park Chung-hee—who developed their countries through education,&#8221; Mr. Silva joked.</span></p> <h2>Undermining the economic agenda</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Initiatives like the one by Mr. Vélez-Rodríguez are by no means harmless. They create additional hurdles for a government that has proven to be politically weak in Congress—despite the ruling party occupying the largest bench in the lower house. Ill-advised moves are drawing criticism even from supporters, such as São Paulo state lawmaker Janaína Paschoal. &#8220;[Mr. Vélez-Rodríguez, you must] urgently hire a legal advisor. And please do something of concrete value—praise will come to you naturally then.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Meanwhile, Congress is starting to show its teeth. Even before any discussion around the government&#8217;s top priority, the pension system reform, lawmakers are openly threatening to block Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s agenda. Unless, of course, the government engages in horse-trading practices the president promised to avoid. This week, the president already admitted to lowering the minimum age of retirement for women from 62 to 60—and promised to let congressmen name their acolytes to executive positions.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The more energy the government spends dodging self-inflicted wounds, the weaker it gets to pass actual consequential agenda.

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BY Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Journalist and researcher at the Ph.D. program in Human Rights of University of Deusto, Spain.