Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during an event with young Venezuelan migrants at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, January 16, 2020. (Photo: AP)
Brazilian culture secretary Roberto Alvim was fired on Friday after using phrases similar to some used by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Alvim made the comments while discussing a new art prize in Latin America’s largest democracy. Alvim had held the post since November. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro made the decision after a backlash from Jewish organizations, key lawmakers, political parties, artists and the country’s bar association.
Brazil’s government has drawn criticism after its culture minister launched an arts initiative focused on nationalism and religion, while using language he later acknowledged was similar to that used by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Though cash-strapped, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro will spend $4.9 million to foment the production of literature, theater, opera, music and other arts. It was announced by Bolsonaro, Education Minister Abraham Weintraub and culture secretary Roberto Alvim from a library of the official presidential residence in a live Facebook video.
Alvim, the driving force behind the initiative, is a born-again Christian who found renewed faith while recovering from cancer. He delivered a separate message about the initiative using a phrase that local paper O Globo and some other commentators identified as resembling language in a speech by Goebbels. Alvim, who has disavowed Nazism, acknowledged the similarity but said it was merely a “rhetorical coincidence.”
The speeches, whose words have been reviewed by the AP, both say the nation’s art “in the next decade will be heroic” and “will be national.” Both men conclude: “Or it will be nothing.”
The president of Brazil’s lower house said on Twitter the video went beyond the pale, and that Bolsonaro should remove Alvim from his position immediately. Bolsonaro’s press office declined to comment, saying Alvim had already made a public statement.
While the amount to be spent is a drop in the bucket compared to other arts funding, the project jibes with the government’s other efforts to overturn what Bolsonaro calls “cultural Marxism” and some of his ministers say is undermining society’s morals. The leftist Workers’ Party governed Brazil for 13 years until 2016.
“When culture becomes sick, the people become sick, too,” Alvim said in the video beside Bolsonaro. “Brazilian culture was deliberately sickened during the recent decades. Culture is the basis of the homeland.”
Roberto Alvim, director of theater, dance and opera at the Brazil's National Arts Foundation, poses for pictures in Brasilia, Brazil, October 25, 2019. Brazil’s government has drawn criticism after launching a project that aims to revamp the country’s arts scene, with a focus on nationalism and religion, with Alvim being the driving force behind the initiative. (Photo: AP)
More than 57 million people — 55 percent of the voters in 2018′s election — embraced Bolsonaro’s anti-leftist campaign, in which he promised to fight corruption, violence and leftist ideology with the same energy.
The government will stimulate film projects that focus on Brazil’s independence and historical figures, and be aligned with conservative values, Alvim said. Speaking in a separate recorded message released Thursday, with a wooden cross atop his desk, Alvim said he wants 2020 to mark a historic cultural rebirth to “create a new and thriving Brazilian civilization”.
He sat beneath a framed picture of Bolsonaro, and orchestral strings played lightly in the background. The music is from an opera by Richard Wagner, sometimes associated with Nazism and German nationalism. Alvim said in a radio interview that he chose the music himself, because the work is transcendent and stemmed from Wagner’s Christian faith.
“It’s a Nazi-fascist aesthetic, but I ask myself whether there isn’t method in the midst of this chaos,” former culture minister Marcelo Calero said by phone, adding that cultural projects should strive to create jobs and income. “Culture in the view of this government isn’t about economic issues, it’s about attacking an enemy to make people think critically.”
The cultural campaign in Brazil goes well beyond the arts. From school textbooks to teen pregnancy, from the walls of private museums to those of public institutions, the 2020 ideological push is shaping up on several fronts. And after a series of high-profile resignations and dismissals in year one, Bolsonaro begins his second year in office with a new ministerial team to implement its leader’s conservative agenda.
“I’m back, ready for battle,” Weintraub tweeted Jan. 5, calling his followers to support him in his fight against “oligarchs, corrupt individuals and the communist-socialist ideological wing.”
Bolsonaro has made education, especially in early childhood, one of his top priorities. On Jan. 7, he and Weintraub — his second education minister in a year — spoke live on Facebook and accused previous administrations of turning the ministry of 300,000 employees into a factory of “militants.” The two announced a complete “clean-up” of kids’ school textbooks.
Without presenting concrete examples, Bolsonaro had previously described textbooks as an “embarrassment” with too much writing in them, and said parents only want their sons to be boys and daughters to be girls.
“There are still some (textbooks) that we don’t like but a lot of filth has already come out,” Weintraub assured him.
Few specific proposals have been put forward as an alternative — an emphasis on family values, the national anthem (already included in textbooks by law), and a Brazilian flag on the cover.
For Claudia Costin, a former education secretary in Rio de Janeiro and senior director for education at the World Bank, the culture wars are a waste of precious time. Brazil ranked in the bottom third of the 79 countries and economies that took part in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the test’s results, Brazilian students have stagnated in mathematics, reading and science. Public schools are performing particularly poorly.
“We have a lot of homework to do,” Costin said. “All this is a distraction from what really needs to be done.”
The government’s conservative agenda has also pushed into health matters.
Damares Alves, the minister of women, family and human rights, recently shared news of an approach to fighting teen pregnancy that would focus on advocating sexual abstinence.
The campaign, expected to be unveiled in the coming days, will target youths, but also parents, educators, and health workers, said Angela Gandra, the secretary in charge of family affairs at Alvares’ ministry. She stressed that the campaign is complementary to existing methods of contraception.
“We want to bring reflection to the parents and the children about what human relations are,” Gandra said at the ministry’s building in Brasilia. “Sexual relations have an impact on human beings, have a greater transcendence than an isolated incident”
In 2017, the latest year for which data is available, more than 480,000 babies were born in Brazil to mothers aged 10 to 19, health ministry statistics show.
At the building next door, in the culture’s secretary’s office, Alvim’s promised campaign is underway. The potential impact of his arts initiative itself is dubious given its small value -- one complex opera alone can cost $250,000 -- though that will only be clear once the government publishes official rules, according to Fernando Schuler, a political philosophy professor at university Insper. Still, this could be the first phase of financial incentives that swell once Brazil overcomes its current fiscal crunch, he said.
On Twitter, Alvim regularly uses the hashtag #DeusVult, or “God wills it,” echoing the Christian battle cry of Middle Ages crusaders. It’s also popular with white nationalists in the US.
Following release of his taped video, Brazil’s Israel confederation Conib said in a statement that Alvim’s emulation of Goebbels was a “frightening signal of his vision of culture that should be combated and contained,” and called for Alvim’s dismissal.