Brazil: Students, teachers unions and civil society lead the struggle for the right to education
August 16, 2019
Por: Andressa Pellanda and Gabriel Morais, from the Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education
Even under the threat of use of Armed Forces, Brazilian students, teachers unions and civil society raise their voices against censorship and the precariousness of the right to education
On this World Humanitarian Day, we affirm that the student, education professionals and civil society-led mobilizations that took place across the country on August 13 are a strong reaction and a sign of resistance to a government that has been making great strides towards a not desired past.
This moment is one of a huge crisis in the Brazilian democracy. Not that we haven’t experienced crisis in the past, but what we have witnessed since the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 is the country’s democratic foundations and institutions being weakened and a backsliding in social achievements. We had never advanced so far in strengthening democracy and advancing social rights, and we had never seen setbacks at such a rapid pace.
Catastrophic budgetary decisions for education
Michel Temer’s provisional government was the symbol of the establishment of a new economic program, whose main mark and threat to social rights was the approval of Constitutional Amendment 95/2016, which established a new fiscal regime stating that no investment in social areas may exceed the inflation adjustment for a period of twenty years, i.e. a freeze on resources for education, health and social assistance by 2036.
Aside from the absurdity of stopping the progression of access to quality social rights, a fundamental prerogative of positive human rights and of the Brazilian Federal Constitution itself, it is astonishing to anyone who understands the importance of the rule of law to see a government decision for a budget contingency on behalf of future generations of decision makers – for 20 years – and under the ballast of the country’s highest law, the Federal Constitution.
In a rising climate of political and economic instability came the 2018 elections with the victory of Jair Messias Bolsonaro. A very populist group is now in power, made up of members of ultra-liberal economic groups who advocate for a vast reduction of the state, and of militant ultra-conservative groups who defend a more active state in the defence of family values and religion. This is a government that in eight months of operation has accumulated belligerent threats to civil society organisations and disastrous actions especially in the areas of education and the environment. A government that has attacked gender equality – and even censored the use of the word itself – in its national and international endeavors.
From a financing point of view, according to a survey by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (Inesc), from 2014 to 2018 there was a 13.5% reduction in the education budget and, in 2019, president Jair Bolsonaro announced a contingency of 5% of the funds approved for the year, resulting in the freezing of 5.84 billion reais (around 1.5 million US dollars) in the area of higher education and research, lighting a warning signal in federal public universities and in the thousands of Brazilian researchers who receive scholarships.
“The education crisis in Brazil is not a crisis; it is a project”
A quote from Darcy Ribeiro, a great Brazilian intellectual, says that “the education crisis in Brazil is not a crisis; it is a project”. There has never been a real concern on the part of our rulers to guarantee better public education. Our country is marked by profound social inequality that can be seen in schools in various regions where it is impossible to find a computer with internet access, science labs, sports courts and, in many cases, even electricity, sanitation and even drinking water.
While it is impossible to deny the remarkable progress of the area during Lula’s and Dilma’s governments, when new laws and public policies on education and social assistance have lifted millions of people out of poverty and come close to universalizing access to primary education, there are still 1, 3 million children and adolescents out of school in Brazil and we are far from meeting the goals set by the 2014 National Education Plan in order to achieve in ten years a public quality education, free and accessible to all Brazilians and residents in the country.
A climate of threat and censorship
Beyond the catastrophic budgetary decisions for education, there is a profound obscurantism and anti-scientism in the leadership of the Ministry. Bolsonaro’s first education minister, Velez Rodriguez, was endowed with a deep belief that Brazilian universities and schools were taken by “Marxist activists who indoctrinate their students to follow communist ideas”.
Within a few days of his nomination, Rodríguez dismissed dozens of people, proposed the exchange of textbooks, set up a commission to examine the issues of the National High School Examination – in order to rid it of possible “indoctrination” – and, in its most controversial and unbelievable measure, issued a resolution to all the schools in the country stating that teachers and students raise the flag and sing the national anthem daily, reading a letter containing Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above all”, and recording videos of those moments to send to the ministry.
In addition, he encouraged the creation of “pedagogical courts” in schools where students themselves were expected to supervise teachers who were carrying out “ideological indoctrination”, including by recording videos and audios in class. The measure was cancelled after huge negative repercussion and after intense popular pressure Rodríguez remained only 96 days in office. Despite his resignation, the climate of threat and censorship still hangs in classrooms across the country.
Militarization of schools
Jair Bolsonarois’ government is also marked by direct tutelage by military officers, the class most represented in the president’s appointments to government positions. The expansion of the militarization of schools is part of the Ministry’s planning. According to a survey carried out by journalists and the Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education, between 2013 to 2018, the number of public schools administered by the state public security folder, i.e. by the national army and state military police, increased from 39 to 122, an increase of 212%.
Besides representing another factor of the authoritarian pillar of the new government, the growing militarization of public schools, however, is unconstitutional from various perspectives and, in addition, violates the international treaties signed by Brazil.
The current Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub keeps giving belligerent speeches confronting his so-called “left-wing education activists” and recently presented a proposal for mass privatization to federal public universities as one of his management priorities. Statements by the minister and the president himself stated that students and teachers practiced “shambles” within public universities, “did not even know the multiplication table”, were “vagabonds”, among other speeches more than inappropriate and false.
A climate of insecurity and threat to human rights
But the censorship, threats and incitement to violence culminated last week, when the Ministry of Justice and Public Security authorized the use of the National Public Security Force to maintain public order on August 13th, a clear attitude of repression of the student and teachers unions movements planned on that day. The climate of insecurity and threat to human rights in Brazil and the violence that has cost the death of human rights defenders, such as Marielle Franco – a councilwoman shot dead in Rio de Janeiro is intense and is getting worse every day.
Social movements are leading the struggle for the right to education
It is important for everyone to know that a huge portion of the Brazilian population and especially young people are not just watching the growing threats of the new government. As in many other countries where freedoms and human rights are at risk (Hong-Kong, Sudan, South Africa, Albania, to name just a few examples) students stand at the forefront of the progressive social movement. The past few years have been marked by successive protests across the country and more and more people are fighting for human rights.
Student movements and representative bodies of education professionals – such as the National Confederation of Education Workers – have taken an important place in the struggle for the right to education and mobilizing youth, adolescents and society at large to protest and resist. Civil society organizations, such as the Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education, have been resisting in spaces like the National Congress, and in participatory spaces nationally and locally, as well as denouncing violations of state practices in international forums reaping important results from UN and OAS.
The International Community must take a stand
On this #WorldHumanitarianDay, we expose the fragile situation we are in as we are resisting so many attacks – some of which, in addition to restricting economic, social and cultural rights, threaten our civil and political freedoms and even our physical integrity.
On this World Humanitarian Day, it is urgent for the international community to take a stand and take action to protect activists and human rights in Brazil.
And as this year’s Humanitarian Day commemorates women dedicated to humanitarian actions (#WomenHumanitarians), we ask you to join the voices of women of Brazil, whose rulers pride themselves of misogynistic attitudes, veto the affirmative stance for gender equality and deliver speeches that deny violence against women in the 5th country with the most violent deaths of women in the world.
Brazil is suffering indeed. But Brazil is also resisting. Brazil is resisting with the raised arms and the constant walking of its young people, teachers and activists. Come raise your arms with us. Come march with us!