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Brazilian Artists Protest Interim President’s Dissolution of Ministry of Culture

stop coup in brazil
Protesters climb a sculpture in Rio de Janeiro with signs that say “Stop Coup in Brazil” and “Out Temer” (all images courtesy Ocupa MinC RJ unless otherwise noted)

Vice President Michel Temer has only just assumed the interim presidency of Brazil, and already he’s implementing contentious policies. President Dilma Rousseff, largely unpopular and associated with the country’s worst recession since the 1930s, was suspended last week and is on trial for impeachment by the Senate on charges of disrespecting budgetary and fiscal responsibility laws. Temer, however — who could assume the presidency after this trial, which may take up to six months — has even worse approval ratings. He, unlike Rousseff, is suspected of being involved in the Petrobras oil scandal, and many worry about his conservative leanings. In the week since he’s become interim president, Temer has filled his cabinet exclusively with old, white men, promised to post billboards across the country saying “Don’t speak of crisis; work!,” and abolished the Ministry of Culture.

The latter decision comes out of an effort to cut the number of ministries down from 32 to 23, whereby culture is now a Secretary, or subset, of the Ministry of Education; the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights has also been subsumed into the Ministry of Justice and Citizenship. In response, the artistic community — which has largely opposed Rousseff’s impeachment from the start — has risen in protest all over the country.

On Monday, hundreds of actors, producers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, and members of major cultural organizations gathered at the Gustavo Capanema Palace, an icon of Brazilian modern architecture. The building used to house the Ministry of Education and Culture when Rio was the Brazilian capital, and today it is home to the Ministry of Culture in that city. Protesters gave the building a symbolic “hug” and occupied the mezzanine and second floor, chanting, “Out Temer!” and “Coup no, culture yes.” A quickly growing Facebook page called Ocupa MinC RJ continues to mobilize crowds. On Tuesday, at least 500 protesters followed suit at the Teatro Oficina, a theater known for being a force of resistance during the years of the military dictatorship. The protesters, who included the famous theater’s director, José Celso Martinez Corrêa, adopted the popular song “Baile de Favela,” singing, “you messed with CULTURE, you’ll end up losing … Be prepared, for if it closes, we’ll occupy!”

Ocupa MinC RJ
Protesters at the Gustavo Capanema Palace

Thousands of others have congregated at cultural institutions in the past week, most directly associated with the Ministry of Culture, in Brasília, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Fortaleza, and other cities. On Tuesday, at the Cannes Film Festival, the film crew of the movie Aquarius, competing for the Palme d’Or, held up signs saying, “Brazil is experiencing a coup d’état” and “Chauvinists, racists, and scammers as ministers!” A number of famous artists have been speaking out as well. In an article he wrote for O Globo, the musician Caetano Veloso claims “the extinction of MinC is a retrograde act.” The actor Wagner Moura, who was asked to write an article on the topic for O Estadão that it then rejected, laments: “How could one think that the country is better off without the complexity of a ministry which took care of generating and spreading all the manifestations of Brazilian culture here and abroad?”

The Ministry of Culture, which has existed as an independent entity ever since the fall of the dictatorship in 1985, supported culture in the country’s different regions, creating cultural spaces and funding classes, residencies, scholarships, and research in multiple disciplines, including music, dance, and the visual and performing arts, and had made notable efforts in involving minority and marginalized communities.

The day following the decision to absorb the Ministry of Culture into the Ministry of Education, two important music organizations — the Associação Procure Saber and Grupo de Ação Parlamentar Pró-Música (GAP) — published an open letter in O Globo addressed to Temer, demanding he reconsider. From a series of videos where artists protest Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment to a wave of activist art, including, most recently, an exhibition of pro-democracy posters at the Centro Cultural São Paulo, artists have made strong efforts to be heard in the midst of the country’s political scandals.

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The film crew of ‘Aquarius’ at the Cannes Film Festival red carpet (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

The Ministry of Culture dissolved once before, during the doomed presidency of Fernando Collor, who was also impeached. For two years beginning in 1990, it became a Secretary of Culture directly under the president. And while Brazil has a rich cultural history and life, government support for the arts has never been robust, with the Ministry of Culture suffering major budget cuts as recently as last year. Some have pointed to this, including Ferreira Gullar, one of Brazil’s most distinguished poets. “The existence of this ministry made possible the creation of a series of cultural programs that to this day activate Brazilian life,” he told Hyperallergic via email, though he added that “they are making a storm in a teacup. The integration of MinC into the Ministry of Education does not mean fatally that culture will be underestimated. …. In fact, the reason for this merger was the need to reduce public expenses since the country is bankrupt.”

However, between March 2015 and March 2016, the Ministry of Culture’s annual budget constituted less than 0.2% of Brazil’s overall budget. “The economy gained from the extinction of MinC would be minimal, due to the extremely low budget of this ministry,” Sergio Paulo Rouanet, a respected philosopher who served as Secretary of Culture in the early 1990s, told Hyperallergic. During his term, Rouanet created a law that allows nongovernmental institutions and citizens to seek funding from the government, a law that has been set in place and widely profited from ever since. “What really matters is not the institutional status but rather the budget allocated to culture,” he continued. “It would be of little value to have a nominally independent ministry if the available resources would continue to be as insignificant as they are today.”

But many in the artistic community consider the decision a symbolic blow. “Culture has long been hindered, with no specific projects and too much politicking in the middle of it,” the Brazilian writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão told Hyperallergic. “The problem is that too many see the Ministry of Culture as merely an organ to finance and produce shows, plays, and movies … Culture is a country’s friend. Culture represents us, defines us.”

In an article in O Estadão, the president of the Ministry of Culture’s Civil Servants Association, Sérgio Pinto, expressed concern: “We don’t know what is going to happen with the policies of MinC, if the Ministry of Education will embrace them.” However, the Minister of Education, Mendonça Filho, cited in O Globoreassured dissenters: “There will be more money as soon as the [Ministry’s] structure scales down, becomes more rational, efficient and focused so that we can invest in activities pertaining to cultural promotion.”

Hyperallergic reached out to the Ministry of Education for further details of the revised budget and what it might mean for what is now the Secretary of Culture, but received this response: “It’s still too nebulous. These details are still being defined.”

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