First mass anti-government protests raise uncertainties for Bolsonaro

. May 16, 2019
First mass anti-government protests raise uncertainties for Bolsonaro Protest in Rio de Janeiro

In the first major public protests against the Jair Bolsonaro government, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in at least 170 cities across Brazil yesterday to protest education budget cuts implemented by the sitting administration. Organizers estimated that 150,000 people took part in demonstrations in São Paulo, which closed at least six blocks of the city’s iconic Paulista Avenue and marched on the state’s legislative assembly. In Rio de Janeiro, the protest gathered around the Candelária church in the city center, completely closing Presidente Vargas Avenue.

</p> <p>The Ministry of Education decided to freeze BRL 5.7 million of the department&#8217;s budget, including a 30-percent cut in discretionary funding for federal universities. A further BRL 1.7 billion in cuts were announced this week. Salaries and other obligatory expenses will not be affected.</p> <p>The protests were largely peaceful, with isolated reports of police repression in the cities of Brasilia and Porto Alegre. In Rio de Janeiro, a bus was torched and police used tear gas to disperse protesters later in the evening.</p> <p>When asked by journalists earlier that day, President Jair Bolsonaro declared the protesters were &#8220;useful idiots&#8221; and &#8220;imbeciles.&#8221; Mr. Bolsonaro is currently in <a href="">Dallas</a>, Texas, on an official visit. &#8220;The majority of them are militants, their heads are empty. If you asked them what 7&#215;8 is, they wouldn&#8217;t know. If you asked them the formula for water, they wouldn&#8217;t know. They are useful idiots, imbeciles being used by a cunning minority which makes up the nucleus of most federal universities in Brazil,&#8221; said Mr. Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Students were incensed by the president&#8217;s comments and made reference to them in many of the placards on display during Wednesday&#8217;s demonstrations. Signs saying &#8220;7 x 8 = 56&#8221; and &#8220;water = H2O&#8221; were among the most common.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="682" src="" alt="protest avenida paulista" class="wp-image-17512" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Protest on Avenida Paulista</figcaption></figure> <h2>Minister in the hot-seat</h2> <p>On Wednesday afternoon, Education Minister Abraham Weintraub sat before the House of Representatives&#8217; general committee to defend his budget cuts. However, instead of being a debate on the merits of cost-cutting in Brazilian education, the session quickly descended into namecalling and ideological bluster.</p> <p>At one point, Mr. Weintraub claimed that former President Lula had personally asked the head of Santander Brasil to fire an analyst colleague of his, after she wrote that the Brazilian economy would deteriorate if Dilma Rousseff was re-elected. He also provoked the members of Congress in attendance, implying that they had never worked in their lives.</p> <p>Student unions have called for further demonstrations on May 30.</p> <h2>Education on the chopping block</h2> <p>In order to justify its cuts to the education system, the government dressed the move up as a temporary freezing of funds, until the approval of the pension reform in Congress. Speaking alongside the president in a live Facebook broadcast last week, Education Minister Abraham Weintraub likened the measure to &#8220;holding back chocolates to eat in September.&#8221;</p> <p>On Tuesday evening, the night before the protests, rumors circulated that the government had decided to back down on its plans for cuts. Delegado Waldir, the House whip of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s Social Liberal Party (PSL), declared that he held a meeting with the president that day in which Mr. Bolsonaro telephoned Mr. Weintraub and asked him to re-evaluate the budget cuts. Whips of four other parties corroborated the story, claiming they were also present at the meeting.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="602" src="" alt="abraham weintraub education brazil" class="wp-image-17513" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Education Minister Abraham Weintraub</figcaption></figure> <p>Hours later, however, the Education Ministry and Chief of Staff denied the government had backtracked on its proposed cuts. Joice Hasselmann, also of PSL, called Delegado Waldir&#8217;s statements &#8220;cheap gossip.&#8221;</p> <h2>A crushing defeat for the government</h2> <p>Wednesday was a public relations disaster for the Jair Bolsonaro government, which cannot seem to catch a break amid the <a href="">disarray in its relationship with Congress</a> and the <a href="">general public</a>. Underestimating the size of the student movement, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s decision to ridicule protesters ended up inflating the size of Wednesday&#8217;s demonstrations.</p> <p>The government&#8217;s attempt to link education cuts to an ideological discourse of reducing &#8220;shenanigans&#8221; in universities was a terrible decision, only appealing to Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s hardcore supporters and alienating the wider population. Even the right-wing libertarian <a href="">Free Brazil Movement</a> (MBL)—which has protested alongside Jair Bolsonaro in the past and is in favor of the cuts to the education budget—came out against the government&#8217;s public relations strategy. </p> <p>&#8220;The government spent a week on a false narrative and the left was able to capitalize on it,&#8221; tweeted the MBL&#8217;s official account. &#8220;[Protests] attracted people outside the left-wing bubble and that&#8217;s not good for the government.&#8221;</p> <p>In 2013, faced by widespread street protests, then-president Dilma Rousseff took too long to acknowledge the public clamor and saw her approval ratings tank. Despite eventually proposing reform measures in line with the demands of the streets, the damage had already been done. The sitting government should be wary of making the same mistake.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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