RIO DE JANEIRO — On his second day in office, Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, delivered on a campaign promise that was backed with widespread support: dismantling the Ministry of Culture.
Mr. Bolsonaro has instead created an umbrella Ministry of Citizenship, which now covers sports, communications, social policy, and culture, all in one. Cultural affairs will be handled by the Special Secretary for Culture, a branch subordinated to the larger Ministry of Citizenship.
Vowing to cut back on public spending was a central part of Mr. Bolsonaro’s campaign, and he promised, in a live address on Facebook last October that if elected he would reduce the number of ministries from 29 to 15. After taking office on January 1, Mr. Bolsonaro rang in the new year with 22 ministries under his belt.
While downsizing institutions helps curtail public spending, data shows that funding for the arts isn’t what’s draining the national budget. According to the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), the percentage of public resources allocated for cultural policies over the past decade have always represented far less than 1% of the total federal budget. In fact, the percentage of national funds set aside for culture have been plummeting. Studies conducted by IPEA in 2015 show that number wavering — for the first time in ten years — under the 0.10% mark.
Inaugurated on March 15th, 1985, the Ministry of Culture was created by former President José Sarney, whose term in office marked the end of a 30-year military dictatorship in Brazil. Mr. Sarney split what had previously been the Ministry of Education and Culture in two and created designated ministries for both. Things remained that way, for the most part, throughout the course of over three decades — except for a brief two-year period when President Fernando Collar transferred cultural affairs to the Secretary of Culture, a measure that was overturned by the following government.
Now downgraded once again to “secretary” status, cultural affairs will be overseen by former federal deputy Osmar Terra, who is now the head of the new Ministry of Citizenship. Mr. Terra also served in ex-president Michel Temer’s government as Minister of Social Development.
In an email to Hyperallergic, the press office for the Special Secretary of Culture wrote that the new configuration “maintains the same structure as the old Ministry of Culture. Therefore, there will be no interruption in the policies developed by the institution.”
The office shared that it will be making use of “the previous budget approved by the former administration” and added, “Beyond that, it is expected that an estimated $118 million provided by [government subsidized] ‘Loterias‘ to the National Culture Fund will not suffer cuts.”
The email also stated that “the current administration of the Ministry of Citizenship will work towards guaranteeing more resources for culture and sports.”
Juca Ferreira, who served two terms as Minister of Culture in previous administrations, isn’t as optimistic about the new administration allocating more funds for the arts.
“I think there is already a significant reduction [in funds]. We saw a cut back with Temer [the former President] and the new administration will cut back even more.” Mr. Ferreira says.
“In terms of budget, things are going to get worse. A lot worse.”
Mr. Ferreira also says that despite the administration saying otherwise, downgrading the Ministry of Culture to the Special Secretary of Culture does have practical ramifications. Mr. Ferreira argues:
First of all, the Ministry loses its importance. It loses funds, it will not be able to maintain the programs and projects that have been previously developed. It will become a second-rate institution, symbolic. In other words, it’s still technically there but it never develops into anything more.
Unlike in 2016 when demonstrations across Brazil stopped former President Michel Temer from extinguishing the Ministry of Culture, Bolsonaro was not met with an organized resistance when he announced his willingness to downgrade the ministry’s status during his campaign. That statement was made a day after a tragic fire engulfed Brazil’s National Museum in flames and left the oldest scientific institution in the country in ruins. On that occasion, he amped up support for his plans by saying that the “Rouanet Law” intended to boost artistic production in Brazil, “needed to be revised” because it was unnecessarily draining public funds.
Created in 1991, the Rouanet Law is the main financial mechanism for promoting culture in Brazil by providing tax breaks for companies that invest in the arts. The law became a great point of contention during Bolsonaro’s campaign when he took to Twitter to say that:
Cultural incentives will remain, but for talented artists, who are initiating their careers and lack structure. What will end is the millions of public funds that are spent financing “famous” artists under the false pretense that they are fostering culture, when they are really just buying support!
This statement fanned the fire of an online smear campaign. The hashtag #RouanetNão or “Not Rouanet” hit Brazil’s trending topics on Twitter in September and created a wave of backlash that painted artists as freeloaders who live off of public funds.
Gilberto Gil, world-renowned artist and former minister of culture, was targeted online. In late September, a judge ruled that Alexandre Frota, a federal deputy who belongs to Mr. Bolsonaro’s PSL party, has to pay a fine of about $5,000 (R$ 20,000) to Mr. Gil for offensive comments he made on Twitter accusing him of “freely benefiting from Lei Rouanet resources.”
The office of the new Special Secretary of Culture has dedicated a page on its website to explain the law, stating that “Since it was passed in 1991, the Rouanet Law, put into effect 53,368 projects of theater, dance, circus, film, literature, visual arts, music, design, cultural heritage, festivals, and more. On average, 1,976 projects a year, 164 per month, 5 per day.” The site also adds that the law “injects $4.7 billion into Brazil’s creative industry, “a sector which is comprised of “240,000 companies.”
Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters rallied together against the Rouanet Law in December and the “Not Rounaet” hashtag made the trending topics list on Twitter once again. Still, the President said there are no plans to extinguish the law, but announced on social media that “In 2019 we will begin to rigidly control these grants. It’s clear that funds which can be regularly applied to essential areas are being wasted.”
Earlier that month, eighty-nine-year-old, Oscar-nominated Brazilian actress, Fernanda Montenegro, spoke out on one of Brazil’s most-watched television talk shows about recent attacks being directed at the artistic community. “We are not corrupt,” she said. “We are not thieves who use the Rouanet Law to steal. Find the real pits of corruption in this country.”
“We may not be the priority, our profession is not a priority, but we do have a liberating profession. Our stages, our TV drama series are part of a constant desire to expand our imagination, our sensibility. It allows us to become an integrated nation of culture.”