Academic freedom(s) in the drift towards authoritarianism (3/4) : Brazil

Antonio Pele
Bethania Assy

 by Antonio Pele (Pontifical Catholic University – Rio de Janeiro) and Bethania Assy (Pontifical Catholic University – Rio de Janeiro / Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro)

Antonio Pele is an Associate Professor at the Law School of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro where he teaches « human rights » and « critical legal theories ». His research essentially unfolds in the fields of critical theory, human dignity and the history of human rights. 

He has recently co-organized a bookDireitos Humanos e Neoliberalismo: Ligações Perigosas  (Rio de Janeiro: Lumen Juris, 2018) .

For more information, Antonio’s personal webpage:


Bethânia Assy obtained her PhD in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City (USA). She is currently an Associate Philosophy of Law Professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, and the co-director of the UNESCO Chair on Violence, Government and Governance at Puc-Rio.


Academic Freedom in Brazil : Threats and Resistances

As we were writing the present post, Jair Bolsonaro – the current President of Brazil – opened his speech to the UN by denouncing gender ideology, corrupted socialism and international human rights NGOs that allegedly intend to destabilize the sovereignty of Brazil by protecting indigenous rights and lying about Amazon fires. This speech was not targeted to an international audience but to national one, and more precisely to Bolsonaro’s supporters. As such, it perfectly epitomizes the political mood in which Brazil has been living since the October 2018 presidential election: proto-fascist politics whose level of violence is proportional to the degree of brutishness it intends to spread among the Brazilian population. It is even more obvious in the case of education and academic freedom, where the current administration has intended (and so far, sometimes failed) to crush the political opposition the academia represents. In the following lines, we discuss the political agenda that the Bolsonaro government intends to implement in Brazil and the threats it embodies to academic freedoms. 

Funding: The Precarization of Higher Education 

So far, the main strategy of the Bolsonaro proto-fascist administration has consisted in sharp budget cuts in the funding of Higher Education in order to weaken academic freedom, foster social inequalities and trigger ideological polarization. Brazilian universities have long been relying on public research agencies in order to develop their scientific research, turning Brazil into one of the leading countries in term of academic excellence. However, in September 2019, CNPq and CAPES, the two most important Brazilian research agencies have announced budget cuts of almost 90 % which have now dramatic consequences: the end of numerous scholarships, grants and scientific projects in all the areas of Brazilian Higher Education. Students (in particular those from lower income backgrounds) no longer receive their grants, and will most likely be forced, sooner or later, either to find alternate sources of income or to stop studying. Many scholars are no longer able to fund their ongoing research and are forced to work under precarious conditions. This current situation echoes two other radical measures taken by Bolsonaro’s government earlier this year: the cut of 30 % of public funding of Federal Universities and the 42 % budget freeze of the science and communication ministry. Those measures affect all the universities in Brazil (public and private) since they all depend on public funding in order to invest in scientific research and to attract students (both undergraduate as graduate) through grants and scholarships. It is above all, a political strategy from the current Brazilian government to target the academia as a place of lazy and unproductive people who have lived for too long at the expenses of the rest of the Brazilian society.

However, resistance is taking place. First, the Order of Attorneys of Brazil (OAB) has stood against the current budget cuts in Education and has asked the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court to rule out those economic measures. Second, large demonstrations have taken place last August in all major Brazilian cities, bringing together nearly 2 million people standing for Brazilian Education. Students and professors in colleges, high schools and universities, have bravely stood up against the precarization Education is suffering in Brazil. Simultaneously, the Bolsonaro administration has relied on the old school “witch hunt’ strategy, assimilating the academia to a place of leftist counter-insurgents.  

Paulo Freire, Cultural Marxism, and “Schools without parties”

  During his presidential campaign in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro had pointed out that it would be necessary to “purge [schools] from Paulo Freire’s ideology” in order to improve Brazilian education. The president and several of his government officials and supporters continue to claim that Freire’s pedagogy personifies an attempt of “Marxist indoctrination.” Bolsonaro claims his combat is justified by the objective of a “neutral” education -the so-called “Schools without Parties”  (Escola sem partidos). 

What truly is the basis of Paulo Freire’s educational philosophy -and why has he come to personify the enemy that Bolsonaro and his supporters wish to combat? In 1963, a teacher of Portuguese language (and former lawyer), Freire came up with his own method of literacy. Applied to a small countryside town in Brazilian northeast, the method was a success, being able to literate 300 adults in 45 days, based on their own previous knowledge. Freire thus bestowed education as a tool for social transformation, as well as for recognizing and claiming rights. In 1964, only months after the implementation of the National Literacy Plan, the military dictatorship extinguished the project. Even though it was based on an essentially enlightened philosophy, Freire was accused by the regime and exiled from Brazil for 16 years (he went to Bolivia, Chile, USA, and Switzerland). The Freirean method of education provides a process of educating entirely connected to students’ daily lives and their current experiences. It is therefore strongly intertwined with politics, as it factors in the actual living conditions and standpoints of those (adult and non) that he seeks to empower by ensuring their literacy. Based on the dialogue between teacher and student, the method’s main goal is to transform the student into an active learner. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire highlights the role of education as a political act able of liberating individuals through a “critical, transformative and differential consciousness that emerges from education as a practice of freedom.” One of the central points of Freirean thought is to demystify the idea of neutral education. According to Freire, educating works either as a form of integration and conformity to a system of oppression or as a practice of freedom, in which individuals critically deal with their reality and discover how to participate in transforming their world.   

 As a matter of fact, even before the election of Jair Bolsonaro, such Freirean pedagogy was far from being systematically and formally applied to the Brazilian National Curriculum Base (BNCC) -whereas in several foreign countries, such as the United-States, it was and still is commonly referred to and used. Paulo Freire’s educational philosophy is only present in Graduate and undergraduate faculties of Pedagogy. Ironically, Bolsonaro’s policy of massive attack on Paulo Freire’s “Cultural Marxism” has however placed his philosophy in a new light into many intellectual environments, implying clear actions of resistance. Professors’ and teachers’ associations have been created in order to protect academic freedom. It is the case for example of the new refoundation of the PUC-Rio professors’ association (ADPUC), which intends to monitor reforms and attacks, and protect academic freedoms in the university. 

The contemporary Brazilian Government  has used the infamous “cultural Marxism” and “gender ideology” rhetoric in order to weaken the academic freedom of teachers/professors in general and of human and social sciences scholars in particular. This rhetoric is part of a broader strategy to implement the “Escola sem partido” legislation. In the meantime, and in order to denounce and remove socialism, feminism and other so-called leftist ideologies from classrooms, a curious strategy has consisted in urging students to record “indoctrinator teachers” and to post corresponding videos on social media. The current Brazilian Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, has explicitly expressed the notion that students have a right to do so, while Carlos Bolsonaro (the son of the Brazilian President, and city councillor of Rio de Janeiro) has defined this practice as an “act of légitime défense of students against ideological predators disguised as teachers”.

However, the two strands of Bolsonaro’s policy of cleansing the educational realm are much weaker that they appear. Both legislations on “Schools without parties” and on “filming and denouncing alleged leftist propagandist teachers” have been found unconstitutional. They have been banned by the Brazilian judiciary –who, against the odds, might well constitute the ultimate protector of the rule of law in Brazil. Within this framework, the current Brazilian government has also intended to qualify the autonomy of public universities. 

 University Autonomy Threats

The elections of federal universities’ presidents usually follow a three-steps process. First, the university community (students, professors and administrative staff) is consulted and votes for different candidates. Second, the electoral board makes a list of the three candidates who have gathered this highest number of votes. Finally, and following the Brazilian Constitution, the President of the Republic chooses one among these three candidates and nominates him/her as university president. Until now, the president conventionally chose the candidate who had obtained the highest number of votes by the university community, so as to preserve university autonomy. However, this convention is undergoing radical change: as of August 2019, in 6 out of the 12 most recent federal universities elections, Jair Bolsonaro has picked a candidate that had not been the most voted one. This has occurred for instance in the following Federal Universities: Triangulo Mineiro (UFTM), Reconcavo Baiano (UFRB), Ceara (UFC) and Fronteira Sul (UFFS). In two occasions, the Bolsonaro administration has chosen a president that was not even on the list of the three most voted candidates. This has been the case at the Federal University of Grande Dourados (UFGD) and at the Federal Center of Technological Education of Rio de Janeiro (Cefet-Rio). Such direct intervention of the Brazilian government in the political life of the universities gravely endangers academic freedom in Brazil. It also results in students, professors and academic staff finding themselves subject to the will of university presidents who only respond to the Brazilian proto-fascist government. Simultaneously, the government has engaged a new educational politicy agenda which reframes it within a neoliberal perspective. 

Future-se (Future-up)

In July 2019, the Ministry of Education launched the Future-se (Future-up) program that is supposed to restructure the funding of federal institutes and universities. The program’s main goal is to encourage institutions to operate in private business basis in order to provide professors their own incomes, by establishing contracts with social organizations and working within private corporations. Future-se is organized around three main axes. The one which calls more attention is Axis 1: Management, governance and entrepreneurship. This is the main anchor for private capital in institutions. The program argues that public schools and universities should form alliances with various investment fund (such as real estate investment funds) in order to increase their profits and create business-friendly environments.      

Education experts say it remains unclear how the Future-se program will actually unfold. The fear is that this is a strategy of the Bolsonaro government to reduce the State’s presence in guaranteeing social rights, such as the right to education, and to turn education into a commodity by the association of financial corporations. In fact, since April 2019, there has already been a 70% increase of the new licenses for private universities. The government insists that adhesion to the program is voluntary, but by deciding not to join, public schools and universities run the risk of being budget-impaired. They would then continue to rely only on public resources but, as seen above, the government’s plan in that respect is to reduce spending and cut funding. Since there are almost 45 million people studying in the Brazilian public education system (from schools to higher education), the stakes are high. It remains to be seen how the situation will evolve; to this day, many universities have not joined Future-se program and have rather engaged in a movement of resistance against this neoliberal authoritarian policy.                 

Besides strictly financial considerations, Future-se conveys real threats to education as a (social) right. The logic that comes with the model of the program is one that posits the rationality of economic efficiency. This goes against a quality higher education and academic freedoms, since teaching and research will be driven by economic and neoliberal logics. Future-se specially targets social and human sciences who are hypothesized as not profitable domains. Within this context, the silence of many scholars within academic structures seems surprising. On the one hand, and as seen above, there are popular manifestations and resistances against Bolsonaro’s attacks on Education. On the other, and in terms of scientific publications and events, there is little personal academic exposure against the policies taken by Bolsonaro’s government.

Academic Harassment

One striking aspect of the efficiency of the current threats on academic freedom in Brazilian Higher Education, is the relative lack of academic debates on Bolsonaro’s policies. Although this does not mean that there are no events or publications criticizing the current Bolsonaro administration; but they have not been very numerous so far. For instance a on Google Scholar Brazil search shows that roughly only 35 academic articles have been published in Portuguese since 2018 criticizing the current Brazilian government. In the Scielo-Brazil database, only one article with those keywords is available since 2018. Academic events (seminars, conferences) on Bolsonaro are equally rare in the majority of Brazilian universities. An easy interpretation would be to explain this phenomenon by a form of lethargy or apathy of human/social sciences Brazilian scholars. This however is not the case. Brazilian academics are well aware of the danger that the Bolsonaro government represents. This danger is embodied in no less death threats that do produce tragic effects. For instance, several academic scholars and political activists such as Jean Wyllys, Márcia Tiburi and Débora Diniz have been forced to leave Brazil. These examples should not obscure the fact that many more professors and teachers across Brazil feel similarly threatened but may lack the resources necessary for fleeing to a safer place (through in particular posdoctoral/visiting fellowships). Death threats targeted against academics are often believed to come from the so-called “militia”, which is an euphemism used in Brazil to refer to the mafia-type organization who works within the Brazilian (deep) State. The militia has developed its power in the favelas by “protecting” its inhabitants against “drug traffickers” and has corrupted some sectors of the Brazilian administration. It usually involves politicians, police officers and militaries. Trustworthy sources such as New York Times journalist Glenn Greenwald has established that the Bolsonaro family has very close ties with the militia, which he refers to as ‘paramilitary gangs” that are responsible for Brazil’s horrific levels of violence1 . Consequently, the seeming silence of academics on Bolsonaro must be recast as guided by the imperative of prudence and of the fear of harassment and potential reprisals against their very integrity. It may thus imply self-censorship within academic debates at this moment in time, but it should not be equated with passivity at the political level. Along with students, and often outside and beyond the traditional forms of academic expressions, different forms of actions and resistances are taking place. 

Despite Bolsonaro’s deep setback program, one still identifies evident instances of institutional and civil society resistances. On the one hand, one can rely on Constitution’s authority and its institutional structures that have so far been preserved. Even if the Brazilian Supreme Court has endorsed controverted  political and judiciary measures (such as the impeachment of Dilma and the Lava Jato operation), it still seems to intend to preserve the rule of law in Brazil.

On the other hand, one can still hope that the newly strengthened educated population will eventually organize and defend academic and other freedoms. It must be noted that during the course of the last 14 years, many government educational programs such as Prouni (University For All Program) and others, have brought generations of low income students that had long been maintained outside of the public system of higher education into public universities all around the nation. This is a radically new configuration that has significantly strengthened the link between social movements and student movements (both at the high school and at the University levels). This has politically improved the university’s capacity for resistance. Let’s hope the normativity and legitimacy of some legal intuitions and a new generation of young citizens could hold back Bolsonaro’s fury.

  1. Accessed: 30/09/19 []

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