Brazilian students lead protests

17 May 19

Brazilian students have led large protests against cuts to spending on higher education as the government struggles to bring a precarious fiscal situation under control.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in more than 200 cities on Wednesday in the first national protests against the administration of far-right populist president Jair Bolsonaro.

The outspoken Bolsonaro responded during a trip to Texas with characteristic disdain by branding the marchers “useful idiots and imbeciles”.

The protests were called by the Brazilian National Student Union against what it has described as savage spending cuts after the Education Ministry decided to freeze nearly a quarter of discretionary spending.

Bolsonaro’s economy minister Paulo Guedes is struggling to halt a slide towards recession amid what he admits is a rapidly deteriorating fiscal situation, and on Monday cut the government’s 2019 growth forecast to 1.5% from 2.2%, Reuters reported.

Minutes from the Brazilian central bank’s last policy meeting also showed that policymakers believe the economy may have shrunk in the first quarter.

Guedes has been pinning considerable hope for restoring growth on Congress approving the Bolsonaro government’s fiscal reforms, and in particular a major pension reform that aims to save more than 1 trillion reais ($252bn) over the next decade.

Speaking about the education protests during a trip to Texas, Bolsonaro said: “They are useful idiots, imbeciles, who are being used as the manoeuvring mass of a clever little minority who make up the nucleus of many federal universities in Brazil.”

In Congress, the education minister Abraham Weintraub blamed the education freeze on the fiscal situation bequeathed by the previous government, and defended a shift away from spending on universities to elementary schools.

His comments and Wednesday’s demonstrations reveal growing tensions over Brazilian education as Bolsonaro and other right-wing ideologues seek to confront what they claim is “indoctrination” by leftwing teachers in schools and universities.

Bolsonaro’s approval ratings are falling due to the weak economy, infighting in his cabinet, and as his unruly coalition stumbles in its efforts to steer legislation through Congress.

  • Gavin O'Toole

    A freelance journalist. He has written six books about Latin America and taught the politics of the region at Queen Mary, University of London.

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