Brazil fires top culture official over Nazi-linked comments

Outrage rained on Brazil’s government from across the political spectrum after the culture secretary used language similar to that of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in launching an arts initiative focused on nationalism and religion, forcing President Jair Bolsonaro to fire him Friday.

The parallels between Thursday’s remarks by Roberto Alvim, who had held the culture post only since November, and those of Goebbels in the 1930s drew irate reactions from Jewish organizations, key lawmakers, political parties, artists and Brazil’s bar association.

Bolsonaro is normally defiant in the face of criticism, but he quickly removed Alvim. The far-right president, who often celebrates torturers and killers of Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, also denounced Nazism and authoritarian regimes in a Twitter post. 

Though the government is strapped for cash, Bolsonaro had announced Alvim’s $4.9 million arts initiative to foment the production of literature, theater, opera, music and other arts. 

Alvim, a born-again Christian who found renewed faith while recovering from cancer, delivered a separate message about the initiative using a phrase that local media identified as a paraphrase of a 1933 speech by Goebbels. Website Jornalistas Livres first detected the comparable quote in Peter Longerich’s popular biography on the Nazi propagandist, referenced as a speech to Germany’s theater scene at the time.

“The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and will be national,” Alvim said in the middle of his speech. “It will yield great capacity of emotional involvement and it will be equally imperative, as it will be deeply committed to the urgent aspirations of our people, or it will be nothing.”

In his 1933 speech, Goebbels said, “The German art of the next decade will be heroic, it will be steely romantic, it will be factual and completely free of sentimentality, it will be national with great Pathos and committed, or it will be nothing.”

Alvim, who has disavowed Nazism, acknowledged the similarity but said it was merely a “rhetorical coincidence.” After his firing, Brazil’s culture secretariat removed the video of his speech, saying that was done “in respect to all citizens who felt offended by its content.”

In reaction, the president of Brazil’s lower house said on Twitter that the video went beyond the pale and that Bolsonaro should remove Alvim from his position immediately. Davi Alcolumbre, the first Jewish president of Brazil’s Senate, said the video was “shockingly Nazism-inspired.”

Bolsonaro said in a statement that Alvim’s comments constituted “an unfortunate pronouncement, even though he apologized, that made it unsustainable for him to stay.” 

Friday evening, popular Brazilian actress Regina Duarte, who made her career in soap operas, told local media that she had been invited to replace Alvim, but had yet to decide whether to accept the job or not. She said she was “not ready, but he (Bolsonaro) told me to get ready.”

While the amount to be spent on the new program is a drop in the bucket compared to other arts funding, the project jibes with the government’s other efforts to overturn what Bolsonaro calls “cultural Marxism” and some of his ministers say is undermining society’s morals. The leftist Workers’ Party governed Brazil for 13 years until President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016. 

More than 57 million people — 55% of the voters in 2018′s election — embraced Bolsonaro’s anti-leftist campaign, in which he promised to fight corruption, violence and leftist ideology with the same energy. 

In his video Thursday, with a wooden cross atop his desk Alvim said he wanted 2020 to mark a historic cultural rebirth to “create a new and thriving Brazilian civilization.” 

He sat beneath a framed picture of Bolsonaro, and orchestral strings played lightly in the background. The music was from an opera by Richard Wagner, sometimes associated with Nazism and German nationalism. Alvim said in a radio interview that he chose the music himself, because the composer’s work is transcendent and stemmed from his Christian faith.

“Alvim’s speech is dangerous for many reasons. Firstly, due to the fact that it made a very direct and shameless apology to Nazism,” former culture minister Marcelo Calero said. “After that, the aesthetics: It’s a Nazi-fascist aesthetic that the video evokes.”

Some Bolsonaro supporters expressed dismay at the decision to fire him. 

“Brazil’s culture had taken the correct path through his hands. With his exit, the left will manage to use all its wrath and revenge against him,” tweeted Rosangela Deckmann of Porto Alegre. 

The cultural campaign in Brazil goes well beyond the arts. From school textbooks to teen pregnancy, from the walls of private museums to those of public institutions, the 2020 ideological push is shaping up on several fronts. And after a series of high-profile resignations and dismissals in year one, Bolsonaro begins his second year in office with a team that is keen to implement his conservative agenda.

“I’m back, ready for battle,” education minister Abraham Weintraub tweeted Jan. 5, calling his followers to support him in his fight against “oligarchs, corrupt individuals and the communist-socialist ideological wing.”

Bolsonaro has made education, especially in early childhood, one of his top priorities. On Jan. 7, he and Weintraub — his second education minister in a year — spoke live on Facebook and accused previous administrations of turning the ministry of 300,000 employees into a factory of “militants.” The two announced a complete “clean-up” of kids’ school textbooks.

“There are still some (textbooks) that we don’t like but a lot of filth has already come out,” Weintraub assured Bolsonaro. 

For Claudia Costin, a former education secretary in Rio de Janeiro and former senior director for education at the World Bank, the culture wars are a waste of precious time. Brazil ranked in the bottom third of the 79 countries and economies that took part in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the test’s results, Brazilian students have stagnated in mathematics, reading and science. Public schools are performing particularly poorly.

“We have a lot of homework to do,” Costin said. “All this is a distraction from what really needs to be done.”

The government’s agenda has also pushed into health matters.

Damares Alves, the minister of women, family and human rights, recently shared news of an approach to fighting teen pregnancy that would focus on advocating sexual abstinence. The campaign, expected to be unveiled in the coming days, will target youths, but also parents, educators and health workers, said Angela Gandra, secretary of family affairs at Alvares’ ministry. 

She stressed that the campaign is complementary to existing methods of contraception. 

“We want to bring reflection to the parents and the children about what human relations are,” Gandra said at the ministry’s building in Brasilia. 

At the building next door, in the culture’s secretary’s office, the future of Alvim’s promised campaign is now uncertain. 

The potential impact of his arts initiative itself was already dubious given its small price tag, said Fernando Schuler, a political philosophy professor at Insper university. Still, this could be the first phase of financial incentives that swell once Brazil overcomes its current fiscal crunch, he said. 

The newspaper O Globo said in an editorial later Friday that despite Alvim’s firing, “the administration and the official guidances remain the same.” 

“The burst of explicit Nazism of Roberto Alvim works to test the sensibility of the institutions and of society to detect what is inadmissible,” it said. “It was a positive test. Others must come.”

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