Education Is in the Crosshairs in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Education Is in the Crosshairs in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Education Is in the Crosshairs in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

The president-elect seeks to ban from the classroom political opinions, debates, and any issues that could be construed as leftist.



Florianópolis, Brazil

Ana Caroline Campagnolo is a 27-year-old high-school history teacher with thick-rimmed glasses and long, straight, dark hair, parted to one side. For several years she has waged a campaign to rid Brazil’s education system of what she believes to be deep-rooted “communist indoctrination.” This year, that activism won her a seat in the Santa Catarina statehouse representing the Social Liberal Party of far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro.

Just hours after the presidential election results rolled in, Campagnolo posted a message on her Facebook page calling on students to film and report teachers who express negative views about Bolsonaro’s victory. She set up a hotline where students could send the videos and complaints.

“Monday, October 29, is the day that indoctrinated professors will be revolted. Many of them will not contain their rage and will make the classroom a captive auditorium for their political complaints as a result of Bolsonaro’s victory,” she wrote.

The message went viral. Bolsonaro shared his own video in support of the initiative and called for it to be duplicated around the country. Teachers called the move censorship. Federal prosecutors opened an investigation into the case.

At universities across Brazil, the atmosphere may appear normal on the surface, but many are worried. “There is a climate of tension and of fear,” said Adriana D’Agostini, an education professor at the Santa Catarina Federal University (UFSC).

Several teachers from different universities say they have changed the way they conduct their classes. “In the center where I teach, the rule is that we should now police ourselves a lot. We know that there are Bolsonaro supporters in the course, so we try to control what we say,” says Lais Donida, a young PhD student who teaches an undergraduate linguistics class at UFSC. “We are censored, even without there being censorship.”

According to Donida and professors, among the taboo subjects is anything related to inequality or the factors that cause it, because that can be seen as a critique of capitalism and misinterpreted as supporting so-called Marxist ideology. “We live in an era of a witch hunt,” said D’Agostini. “And Ana Caroline [Campagnolo] is one of the instigators of this witch hunt.”

There is no registry of the number of videos made or accusations by students against teachers, but some have gone viral online. In one prominent video from a public high school in the northeastern state of Bahia, a student defies a teacher’s order to turn off his cell phone.

“You want to film the whole school, and everything that happens in it,” says the teacher. “It’s not like that. We have freedoms. If you film and publish this there will be serious consequences.”

“I’m filming and I’m going to publish this,” the student responds, laughing into the camera. Under the video reads the caption, “Welcome to the new era of fear and persecution.”

Three days after Campagnolo posted her message on Facebook, a court in Florianópolis ordered the post to be taken down and threatened to fine her if it wasn’t. According to Judge Giuliano Ziembowicz, Campagnolo’s message intimidated professors, was a direct attack on students’ freedom of expression, and broke state laws that prohibit the use of cell phones in classrooms.

But many believe this is only the beginning. Teachers are concerned it will get much worse.

Under Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled from 1964 to 1985—when thousands were tortured and hundreds killed—education was strictly policed. Curriculums and materials were developed and approved by the regime. Students were encouraged to tell on their peers and their teachers. An official, known as an “inspector,” was responsible for discipline and moral conduct.

According to D’Agostini, Campagnolo’s post was a harsh reminder that a return to those days may not be far away. The country’s next president is a far-right former military captain who served under Brazil’s last dictatorship. For most of the past three decades, Bolsonaro has been known for his sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks as a congressional representative as well as for his harsh criticism of the country’s democracy. In 2016, he dedicated his vote to impeach then-president Dilma Rousseff in honor of the late Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the few Brazilian officials to be convicted of torture under the dictatorship (Rousseff, a leftist guerrilla during the dictatorship, was captured and tortured by the military regime).

Bolsonaro has promised to carry military doctrine to the presidency and appoint former army officials to top positions in his government. His vice-presidential running mate, Hamilton Mourão, is himself a retired military general. Bolsonaro has vowed to “end activism in Brazil” and attack crime, corruption, and his political opponents head-on.

“Either they go overseas or they go to jail,” Bolsonaro told boisterous supporters at a rally in São Paulo one week before the election. “These red outlaws will be banished from our homeland. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”

Bolsonaro won the country’s October 28 election with over 55 percent of the vote, his victory aided by an intensive social-media campaign, complete with a fake-news machine—in part paid for by wealthy businessmen—and a declared commitment to using ruthless means to cleanse the country of its problems.

Chief among those “problems,” he and many of his supporters believe, is the left, in particular Brazil’s Workers’ Party, which the right, after a years-long propaganda campaign, has transformed into the country’s bogeyman, allegedly responsible for Brazil’s corruption and financial crisis and for brainwashing the nation.

According to Bolsonaro’s government plan, this “strong indoctrination” is one of the country’s “worst evils.” In response, he has promised to “purge the ideology of Paulo Freire,” the renowned author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) and Brazil’s most famous educator. The country’s next president has condemned Freire for introducing Marxist thought into the classroom and for stunting the development of students’ education.

Bolsonaro will also be pushing a project known as Escola Sem Partido (School Without Political Parties), with the goal of banning from the classroom political opinions, debates, and any issues that could be construed as leftist.

The concept, developed by Brazil’s far right, has been at the root of Campagnolo’s activism and has been bolstered by congressional hearings in Brasília. Powerful Catholic and evangelical leaders such as Rio de Janeiro televangelist Silas Malafaia have enthusiastically backed the project for its focus on “family values” and its goal of eliminating discussions of gender diversity and sex education in the classroom.

The project has slowly gained force. “There is nothing more powerful than going to parents and telling them that their children are under a terrible threat at school, that they are being morally indoctrinated, and that School Without Political Parties has to be approved,” said Jimena Furlani, an education professor at the Santa Catarina State University. “Then you tell them that you will be the assembly member who will protect their families. And that is an important reason why these representatives are being elected.”

A bill under the same name, already moving its way through Congress, would bar teachers and university professors from expressing their political views in the classroom, ban the use of the terms “gender” and “sexual orientation,” and force the teaching of “moral and religious education” if parents request it.

Until now, such moves have been a hard sell at both the national and state level. An attempt to implement School Without Political Parties legislation in the state of Alagoas was blocked by the Federal Supreme Court in 2017, which declared it unconstitutional. A vote in a congressional subcommittee planned for the Wednesday after this fall’s elections has been postponed twice amid protests but is rescheduled for next week.

The measure has found fertile ground in some conservative municipalities, which have implemented similar legislation at the local level. Among them is Itajaí, along the Santa Catarina coast—Campagnolo’s hometown.

The School Without Political Parties campaign has also empowered others to take action. In October a group of parents at the private Santo Agostinho elementary school in Rio de Janeiro successfully blocked sixth graders from reading the well-known book Children Without a Homeland (1981), which is about a family persecuted and exiled during the dictatorship. The young-adult book has sold more than a million copies, and it’s been used in classrooms for years, but the parents said it was a tool of “communist indoctrination.” “I never imagined that in 2018 it would be censored,” the book’s author, Luiz Puntel, told the newspaper El País.

One man has been key in the development of this cohesive, albeit factually warped, far-right discourse—journalist turned astrologer turned self-made philosopher Olavo de Carvalho. Since 2005, from his home in Richmond, Virginia, he has trained thousands of young Brazilians through his online philosophy courses.

Carvalho’s classes are geared toward a young audience looking for answers. He exudes an air of importance, riddling his speeches with references to foreign books and little-known facts. He’s also informal—he smokes, he uses profanity, and he attacks his opponents. Many of his monologues—shot in his study, with rows of books behind him—are available on his YouTube channel, which has nearly half a million subscribers. His followers call themselves “Olavetes.” Among them is Campagnolo, who in 2013 was wearing his T-shirt and promoting his books on her own conservative YouTube channel.

“There is a very favorable scenario for someone like Carvalho, who presents a certain vision of the world from a supposed position of authority,” said Alexandre Meyer Luz, a UFSC philosophy professor. “He reconstructs traditional concepts in order to win the current political war.”

Carvalho’s conspiratorial far-right theories would be amusing if they were not so dangerous: He believes that 99 percent of Brazilian political parties are either communist or communist-allied; that there is an international left-wing conspiracy to take over Brazil and the world; that Africans themselves are to blame for the transatlantic slave trade; and that affirmative-action programs only exist to promote a leftist agenda. “Why is a blond American embarrassed to be white?” Carvalho asked in one video posted in 2010. “Well, because there’s a 200-year-old campaign of lies, qualifying the white race as the great slave master of the planet.”

Carvalho has even gone so far as to say that Fascism and Nazism were left wing, the result of communists, not the far right. This concept was further promoted on Facebook a few years ago by one of Bolsonaro’s sons, Eduardo—himself a prominent congressional representative. After this issue came to the fore again in September, the German embassy was compelled to respond in a Facebook video in Portuguese, in which it reaffirmed the existence of the Holocaust and that Nazis were indeed a political ideology on the far right and not the left.

The growing prominence of Carvalho and others like him has lifted once-ridiculed and marginalized views into the mainstream. They have created an alternate reality, a parallel universe spun from loosely correlated facts, vague suppositions, and outright falsehoods. Multiplied by the megaphone of social media, in particular the messaging application WhatsApp, this campaign helped drive millions to the polling stations in support of Bolsonaro.

When Bolsonaro delivered his acceptance speech from his home in an upscale neighborhood of Rio, four books sat on his table: the Bible, Brazil’s Constitution, Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War, and Olavo de Carvalho’s The Minimum You Need to Know to Not be an Idiot.

Brazil’s education system is likely to be one of Bolsonaro’s first targets. He has threatened to scrap decades-old tradition and impose friendly directors at federal universities. He has promised to “attack” and close hundreds of Landless Workers’ Movement schools.

According to Reuters, the former head of the Brazilian military’s tech center, Alessio Ribeiro Souto, is slated to become education minister. Souto has said he wants to eliminate sex education, require that creationism be taught alongside evolution, and revise school materials to include a more “balanced” view of the country’s military dictatorship.

“School curriculum will probably be limited. Didactic books will be reorganized, as well as the materials we will be permitted to use,” said UFSC professor D’Agostini. “Resources for education may be further frozen. Another thing that concerns us is the possibility of the militarization of schools.”

During evening classes at the Santa Catarina State University a few days after the election, a trio of students played ping-pong near the courtyard of the Human Science and Education Center.

“It’s ridiculous that someone can come into the classroom and tell us what we can and can’t study,” said a 27-year-old geography student with a thick beard and a tattoo on his arm of Mafalda, the Argentine cartoon figure that became synonymous with the struggle against that country’s dictatorship. “This is going to have unimaginable consequences. It’s surreal. I don’t want to even think about it, because I don’t want to fuel the fear.”

Like many students interviewed for this story, he asked that his real name not be used for fear of repercussions. Students are becoming increasingly cautious, as schools and universities are poised to become a key battleground against Bolsonaro.

Days before the elections, military police raided more than two dozen campuses after electoral authorities ordered that #EleNao—the hashtag that exploded with the women’s movement against Bolsonaro—and anti-fascist banners be taken down from university buildings. They claimed the materials were supportive of Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad.

According to the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, the police confiscated pro-democracy flyers from a federal university in the northeastern state of Paraíba. Electoral authorities even barred an event in Rio Grande do Sul called “Against Fascism. For Democracy,” claiming it would be a campaign rally inside a government institution.

Never before under Brazilian democracy had the police and judicial system acted on such a mass scale to block actions at dozens of universities in the lead-up to an election.

Students and teachers responded with rallies across the country, marching and holding teach-ins. At the University of Brasília, an orchestra of students performed the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao,” the anthem of the anti-Fascist resistance during World War II.

For the first time in decades, Fascism—and the fight against it—is now being openly discussed on campuses around the country. Thousands have packed auditoriums for lectures on resistance and the dictatorship.

The questions on everyone’s mind: What will happen on January 1, when Bolsonaro is sworn in? Will the country’s checks and balances be enough to stop him from steamrolling the country’s democracy?

Like Donald Trump in 2017, on inauguration day Bolsonaro will have at his disposal a staunchly conservative Congress, packed with loyal members ready to back his agenda. His Social Liberal Party eviscerated its opponents in this election, rocketing from next to nothing into becoming the second-largest party in the lower house. Bolsonaro will be further supported by a wealth of members from the hefty “bullets, beef, and Bible” caucus, which unites a growing gun lobby with evangelical Christians and powerful landowners.

“No one knows what will happen in two months,” said Marlene de Faveri, a long-time gender-studies professor at Santa Catarina State University. “But when this new government begins, we will be in the shadows. It is very serious. It means a rollback of 30 or 40 years of advances in Brazil.”

Bolsonaro has already spoken openly of wanting to criminalize social movements, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Homeless Workers’ Movement. The Senate Constitution and Justice Commission is expected to vote in the coming days on amending the country’s 2016 anti-terrorism law to label protests and demonstrations “terrorism.”

“This is the greatest danger that we face today,” said Danilo Marques, a 25-year-old UFSC economics student. “The movement against School Without Political Parties could be criminalized from the very beginning.”

There is no turning back. Two months—that is how much time teachers and students, unions and social movements, feminists and the LGBT community, have to prepare for the coming assault. They do not know how it will come. But they know it will. What they have seen until now has only been a small taste of what to expect.

“Yeah, I’m scared,” said Davi Carvalho, a 16-year-old high-school student from a poor neighborhood in Florianópolis. “I’m scared they are going to try and control what we study.… But even if they do, we are going to fight.”

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