Last week, a police operation targeted Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). The reason was an alleged corruption scheme related to the building of UFMG’s Amnesty Memorial, a museum dedicated to remembering the years of military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. The police arrested both the university’s rector and vice-rector, and six professors and administrative personnel.
It wasn’t the first time policemen have invaded a public university in the country and harassed their faculty members, staff and students in recent times. While such practices were common during the years of military rule, in the past year another six public institutions of higher education in Brazil—among them the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and the Federal University of Paraná—have been accused of illicit practices and, as a result, Brazilian federal police intervened supposedly to investigate the wrongdoing—against the backdrop of Brazilian universities being granted full managerial autonomy by 1988 Federal Constitution.
In every case under consideration, due process of law was bluntly substituted for martial law and sensationalist press coverage— with or without the endorsement of the judiciary branch. Even Brazil’s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, once a proud supporter of these ‘anti-corruption’ measures, released a short note on his social media accounts openly criticizing the Brazilian Federal Police’s abusive unconstitutional moves.
In tune with the cultural wars being fought around the world, there is a growing anti-intellectual movement in Brazil today associated closely with U.S. President Donald Trump and his populist movement. But President Trump isn’t alone.
Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela have also demonstrated and even built a political movement based on disregard and attacking academia and healthy, informed political debate and differences of opinion. This revolt against intellectuals and academia isn’t without consequence. The defaming and persecution of universities and educational entities can lead to a stifling of ideas and objective, fact-based research, as scholars grow afraid of exposing themselves and making themselves vulnerable to state officials’ ridicule or even punishment.
In Brazil, President Michel Temer has directed a massive setback for education, science and technology. Temer has inaugurated his buffer mandate by passing a constitutional amendment that has frozen public expenditure on education for the coming 20 years. Large budget cuts for Brazilian science and technology have followed triggering a wave of solidarity on the part of the global scientific community in favor of their now-beleaguered colleagues. Twenty three Nobel Prize winners signed a manifesto protesting the Brazilian government’s disdainful attitude towards science and technology.
The siege against public universities in Brazil runs parallel to the recent release of a World Bank report on higher education. The report openly posits that the Brazilian government should spend less on national universities and start charging tuition fees from students, a significant shift from the current—free of charge—taxpayer-funded federal system. The World Bank report claims that the rich are the main beneficiaries of the current system—a claim that has already been proven wrong by nation-wide surveys—and misleadingly compares per capita costs at both public and private institutions, while ignoring the different nature of their services. (Unlike for-profit schools, public universities boost Brazil’s registration of patents, and research and development investments, not to mention welfare programs).
The alternative to sustaining and improving Brazil’s system of higher education is well known. South America’s commodity boom in the 2000s gave rise to an accelerated return to the primary-product-based and de-industrialization of the Brazilian economy. For being directly associated with Brazil’s foreign trade surplus, the primary products are now as important in the Brazilian economy as they were 100 years ago. It all adds up to a very modern-day form of “dependency,” one in which East Asia absorbs most of the Brazilian iron ore, cereals, and meat exports and in turn Brazil imports manufactured goods from China. In the same vein, China has recently become keen on acquiring Brazilian public companies and land, leading to a growing debate over whether the country’s sovereignty is at stake.
It’s not that being a natural resource net exporter would be bad in and of itself. In fact, Brazil’s status as a world leader in agribusiness has helped cushion the country from the economic crisis of the last three years. Nevertheless, one basic historical fact remains: in the modern economy a country has never become rich, powerful and influential through sales of raw materials alone. For that reason the attacks on the Brazilian federal government’s support for education, science, and technology is not just anti-intellectual and short-sighted, it risks the country’s entire economic and social future.
It is time to leave anti-intellectualism behind and come to the defense of Brazilian publicly funded universities and research institutions. These institutions still represent the main source of innovation-based economic development and social progress in the continent. If the growing depreciation of academia wins out in Brazil, South America’s giant—which accounts for roughly half the GDP, population and territory in the region—might well sink into a república bananera. The effects would be felt beyond Brazil’s borders and bring down the region’s broader economy and its potential for development.
Dawisson Belém Lopes is a professor of international and comparative politics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and a researcher of the National Council for Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq) in Brazil.