Summer of Discontent
Are the tumultuous events in Brazil threatening to undo all that the country has fought so hard to achieve?
When recently asked about the current political situation in Brazil, Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum quoted an extract from a 1949 short story by fellow writer Rubem Braga: ‘In its day-to-day, the mental level of our political life is strikingly mediocre. There is a tired sadness, an endless tedium in this small-minded game of arrangements through which the destiny of our nation is decided’.
The country is going through a complex period of growing political and economic instability. Barely a month ago, the course of the nation took a sharp U-turn. After the Brazilian Senate began impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff and suspended her mandate to lead the country, Vice-President Michel Temer became the acting President. His highly conservative right-wing interim government is dismantling a series of left-leaning constitutional provisions under the pretext of ‘quickly’ pulling the country out of the economic crisis. Both the press and society as a whole is struggling to keep up with the pace of Temer’s clumsy measures. A lot is being said and unsaid, done and undone, by a government that would have never have achieved power by democratic vote.
As I write, thousands of people are gathering for São Paulo’s annual LGBT Parade. This is the event’s 20th edition celebrating diversity and respect under the slogan/hashtag #amorsemtemer (#lovewithoutfear). In Portuguese, ‘amor sem temer’ plays with the double meaning of the word ‘temer’: the name of the Interim President and also the Portuguese verb ‘to fear’. The expression’s ambiguity could not be more suited to describe the climate of uncertainty and the wave of conservatism that is spreading across the country, threatening, amongst many other things, recent achievements secured by the LGBT community.
Looking at the colourful images of the crowds in Avenida Paulista, the contrasting emblematic portrait of the new administration comes inevitably to mind: a scrum of white men crowding a grinning Michel Temer on his inauguration day at the Presidential Palace. In a move reminiscent of colonial times and in disagreement with the majority of the population, a faction of middle-aged conservatives took control of government in a country that, despite hosting the biggest Gay Parade in the world, remains right at the top of inequality and social exclusion rankings. Temer’s self-proclaimed government of ‘national salvation’ has had to amend its line-up almost daily as new information is disclosed under the ongoing anti-corruption investigation known as ‘Lava Jato’ (‘Car Wash’), which has implicated many members of the new provisional government in corruption scandals involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras.
The majority of artists and cultural agents come from a dissident left-wing background, and Temer’s abrupt decision to stifle the cultural agenda was seen by many as a form of retaliation against the strong opposition he has faced from this section of society.
One of Temer’s first measures was to axe the Ministry of Culture, subsuming it under the Ministry of Education. Under the pretext of cutting costs and excessive bureaucracy, the Interim President’s decision – more symbolic than effective given the insignificant budget assigned to culture – generated an instant uproar amongst different segments of the Brazilian artistic community, which has a strong history of resistance dating back to the military dictatorship. The majority of artists and cultural agents come from a dissident left-wing background, and Temer’s abrupt decision to stifle the cultural agenda was seen by many as a form of retaliation against the strong opposition he has faced from this section of society.
The origins of Temer’s abrupt measure lie in the protests that brought the country to a halt in 2013, during Rousseff’s first term. The streets were filled with people affiliated to different social movements defending a clear agenda of social claims (such as against the rise in public transport fares) who were joined by crowds keen to show their discontent with the government’s policies and actions. The impacts of these diffuse protests were notable: whilst the President supposedly listened carefully to the demands coming from the streets, the municipal and state administration U-turned on their decision to raise transport fares, and all political parties began to think of strategies to win over the uniquely diverse bloc of voters who do not align with any party.
After two years of deep recession, long-held divisions only deepened. The far right – who had been mostly disengaged from partisan politics during the popular presidency of Lula Ignacio da Silva, Rousseff’s political godfather – came on the attack. Rousseff found her Workers Party (PT) unable to find a consistent support base in Congress, a majority of whose seats were filled by members of the conservative opposition, many of whom had been stealing public funds. Unable to address the country’s economic crisis, Rousseff’s government stalled (at one point, according to polls, almost 70% of the population evaluated her administration as ‘very bad’), and Brazil’s most reactionary factions began demanding her resignation. Large numbers of upper and middle class protesters took to the streets calling for an ‘end of corruption’. (Ironically, many of them wore the Brazilian national football jersey, even though the Brazilian Football Confederation is one of the country’s most corrupt organizations.) PT had always sold voters a progressive bill of change, in particular by promising to end political corruption, but in the end they became guilty of the same sins, causing many of their supporters to lose faith in the system entirely.
The anti-PT protestors often characterize the artistic community as a ‘den of communists’, indulging a Cold War stereotype of artists and other cultural practitioners ‘living off’ the State. In particular, a pitifully misinformed controversy around the existence and application of a federal law designed to foster culture, known as Rouanet Law. This liberal law – in force since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1989 – is the main public tool for promoting cultural projects in Brazil. It allows individuals and companies to use a portion of their income tax to support cultural initiatives previously approved by the Ministry of Culture. Almost every public cultural project completed in Brazil in recent decades was made possible, in its entirety or partially, by the Rouanet Law, which despite a series of structural flaws, old-fashioned language and often questionable applications, is fundamental for the development and dissemination of Brazil’s diverse cultural output, as well as the cultural sector’s growing professionalization. In a recent article for the newspaper O Globo, columnist Ancelmo Góis reports that this year, of an estimated R$295.9 billion in Treasury tax breaks to the Free Economic Zone of Manaus, foreign car manufacturers, churches, non-profit entities, and others, the portion assigned to cultural initiatives under the Rouanet Law – R$1.8 billion –is a meagre 0.6% of the total.
The response from the artistic community was immediate. From the Cannes Festival, where the crew from the Palm D’Or-nominated film Aquarius held a red carpet protest, to the occupation of the Ministry of Culture offices in Rio de Janeiro, many have declared Temer’s government a coup. A programme of free cultural activities, intended as civil disobedience, has been taking place under Cândido Portinari’s tiled murals between the slender columns of the iconic Modernist building Palácio Gustavo Capanema (the current headquarters of FUNARTE, National Foundations of Arts, and former Ministry of Culture of Rio de Janeiro, or MINC). It was also there that, soon after the new administration announced the end of MINC, an orchestra accompanied activists who had been camping there since 16 May, as they sang the epic opening to Carl Orff’s famous opera ‘Carmina Burana’, changing the chorus to ‘Temer Out!’
Faced by this outcry, Temer quickly retreated and reinstated the MINC, just one week after announcing its closure, and the artistic community cautiously celebrated their first victory over his administration.
From the same makeshift stage, Caetano Veloso performed one of his most famous ballads, ‘Tieta’ as a direct and humorous attack on Rousseff’s chief accuser, Eduardo Cunha, the former President of the Lower House of Congress, who is currently suspended amidst accusations of corruption and money laundering. Later during the performance, as Veloso sang ‘Odeio Você (I hate you)’, the assembled crowd chanted the titular chorus, many completing the verse with the Acting President’s name.
Faced by this outcry, Temer quickly retreated and reinstated the MINC, just one week after announcing its closure, and the artistic community cautiously celebrated their first victory over his administration. Some people defend the recreation of MINC as a way of maintaining the sector’s institutional autonomy and management that only a dedicated office can guarantee; however, others believe that they should not – under any circumstances - negotiate with a government they see as illegitimate.
Temer’s actions could not be more opposed to Lula’s, when he appointed musician Gilberto Gil as Minister of Culture. Unsurprisingly, Temer changed the government’s motto ‘Educating Nation’ to the anachronistic ‘Order and Progress’ that adorns the national flag. The expression quotes Auguste Comte’s French Positivist maxim: ‘love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal’. The love element doesn't feature in the motto but it would have come in handy in the current state of tension faced by the country. In an interview, musician Jards Macalé declared: ‘It is a matter of historical truth. Why have they left love out? I want to know why. I think it’s ludicrous. I want to put love in the Brazilian flag; it’s my mission. It's not a matter of point of view, but a matter of poetry. A political-poetical issue. Love is the most powerful political weapon there is.’
Temer tried to address criticism of his all-white, all-male cabinet by offering the resuscitated Minister of Culture post to several women, but all refused. Diplomat Marcelo Calero eventually accepted the position. Little known by the artistic community, Calero stands out as young and seemingly well intentioned. In his first official declaration, he proposed an open dialogue with society and emphasized the economic and social importance of culture.
Almost at the hour of the new Minister’s inauguration, two backbenchers from the far-right DEM (Democrat) Party submitted a CPI (Parliamentary Investigation Commission) request to look into the application of the Rouanet Law resources. Their request relies on the foolish arguments that incentive laws ‘take away’ money from hospitals and schools, and that artists (alleged supporters of their opponents, the Workers Party) live off money paid by honest taxpayers, revealing that they know nothing about how cultural policies actually work. The request is unlikely to become a full-blown investigation, but it still fits Braga’s 1949 description of Brazilian political life like a glove.
Few analysts dare to forecast the next chapter of this farcical situation, as it unfolds in the no-man’s land that the Federal Capital, Brasília, has become. Most people whose opinions I respect are confused, which I understand as a sign of good sense. The São Paulo city centre and Avenida Paulista, Brazil's main business hub, are taken over almost daily by women incessantly fighting for an end to sexism and Brazil’s rape culture; secondary students protest for higher quality teaching; and artists and activists from all backgrounds clash with violent military police – all in the name of the social democracy that Brazilians fought so hard to achieve after the fall of the brutal military dictatorship. The ongoing impeachment process is only one of the focal points in this complex debate. The country’s true political agenda is being determined on the streets and social media. Commenting on the discovery of pre-historic rock paintings in Brazil, well-known Brazilian cartoonist Millor Fernandes said: ‘As we see more and more archaeological discoveries, it is evident that Brazil has a long past ahead, or a long future behind, whatever you prefer’. Civil society must take a clear stand in favour of Brazilian culture so Fernandes’s quip doesn't become prophetic.