Still from an official promotional video for Vale Cultura (via

A little over a decade ago, President Lula de Silva announced his vision that every Brazilian would eat three meals a day. He worked to achieve that dream through the Bolsa Familia program, which economists say has lifted 22 million people out of extreme poverty. Last month, Lula’s successor President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated another innovative program called Vale Cultura, which Minister of Culture Marta Suplicy says will now offer poor Brazilians “food for the soul.”

YouTube video

Announced last year, the program gives workers earning up to five times the minimum wage (3,110 reais or $1,322 per month) an allowance of 50 reais ($21) to spend on culture every month. That means free tickets to the theater, cinema, museum, concerts, and also the circus. Program participants can purchase CDs and DVDs — whether on or offline — as well as movie rentals, books, newspapers, and magazines. Credit is cumulative, so Brazilians can even save up to buy musical instruments. It’s the state’s official attempt to democratize the arts; now, to participate in the humanities is to claim and express one’s Brazilian citizenship.

In order for workers to enjoy this right, the companies that employ them must first sign up, and an income tax break incentivizes them to do so. As of last week, 1,140 companies had registered and 150,000 cards had been distributed. The government hopes that Vale Cultura will not only promote culture but also boost local economies by generating as much as $25 billion once the program reaches the 42 million workers of low and middle income to which it’s targeted.

São Paulo business owner Paulo Vitor Camargo Barros told Cruzeiro do Sul he’s excited about how the program might impact his staff. “I realized that on Mondays, whenever I asked them how the weekend was, they said they had not done anything because they had no money,” he said. “Now they can at least go to the movies.” (A ticket costs about 20 reias).

Writing on UOL, Angela Costa de Souza praised it for leveling the cultural playing field and encouraging both employees and families to remember that “intellectual consumption is more important than material consumption, and that in the end the 50 reais can bear fruit of immeasurable value.”

But Vale Cultura has also seen its fair share of criticism within the country. The program could cost Brazil $10 billion a year, and it comes just months after bus fare hikes incited unprecedented protests. At worst, it’s been dismissed as a populist scheme by the Workers’ Party (which has ruled for the past 11 years) to buy votes. Some fear it’s going to eat up public funds that might be more usefully directed to hospitals, day care centers, and public schools.

A videogame prompted by Minister Suplicy's statements. (Courtesy of Facebook)

A video game prompted by Minister Suplicy’s statements has players hurl video game consoles at a target labeled “Culture” while the Brazilian Cultural Minister tries to interfere. (Courtesy of Facebook)

An interesting debate has sprung up around how the state decides what is or what isn’t culture. While Suplicy admitted people can use the money to buy pornographic magazines, they can’t use it to purchase video games. “I do not think videogames are digital culture,” she said. In response, one outraged company created a snarky video game in which players must hit buttons marked “culture” while a villainous Suplicy avatar does everything possible to block them. Additionally, cable television subscriptions that were initially allowed have since been removed from the list of items people can buy  — perhaps because 85% of Brazilians say they already spend their free time watching television, according to the government’s statistics bureau.

Compare that to the 96% of Brazilians who do not attend museums, 93% who have never been to an exhibition, and 78% who have never attended a performance. Only 13% of Brazilians go to the movies at least once a year, as only one in nine cities actually has a theater. And though almost all of Brazil’s municipalities has a library, only one in four has a bookstore. Most theaters, concert halls and museums are found in large cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where the city orchestra already performs classical music concerts on Sunday mornings at the Teatro Municipal for the accessible admission cost of 1 real (less than 50 cents). It’s possible that the new law will simply fuel the dominant mass culture, strengthening the same existing cultural divide between urban and rural areas that also exists in the United States.

Piero Locatelli, a reporter with CartaCapital, told Hyperallergic:

“There is fear from some that it would only be used on blockbusters and books that are already popular. In other words, that it would only increase cultural production for a few in Brazil.”

This points to an additional problem, which is that just because Vale Cultura creates a demand for culture doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will trigger a supply of the kind politicians were seemingly considering when they passed the law. That type of culture doesn’t spring up overnight; it’s nurtured with time. Poorer Brazilians who were previously unable to even purchase books or movie tickets aren’t likely to suddenly begin reading Dostoyevsky, attending the opera and flocking to conceptual art openings just because the government now thinks they should — not anymore than Americans or others would.

“You must always remember that the issue of consumption of cultural goods is not confined to economic and financial issues,” Paulo Miguez, a sociology professor at the Federal University of Bahia, told the Observatory of Cultural Diversity. “There is the question of the cultural capital of individuals, something that forms in the family and in the school system.”

Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian political cartoonist, told Hyperallergic that he is skeptical about the program’s loftier goals. For Vale Cultura to work, he said, education is needed:

“With the bad public school system that we have in Brazil, it is difficult to create in the population a taste for these cultural attractions. The people recognize culture as what they see on TV.”

A more comprehensive cultural policy for Brazil, providing better arts education and helping finance the construction and renovation of cultural facilities, is essential. Yet most seem to agree that Vale Cultura is a start. It remains a provocative social experiment, one that will likely improve the quality of millions of people’s lives. And if it does, we may soon see it duplicated in developing countries around the world.

“The point is social inclusion,” Suplicy told the Washington Post. “But I am under no illusions that it will happen quickly. It is a big challenge, and it’s going to take time.” For now, Secretary of the Ministry of Culture Ana Cristina Wanzeler said that the next step will be to evaluate how the program is being used: “We want to know what and how people are spending Vale Cultura. The market has a long way to go.”

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

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