Interview. We spoke with Professor Roberto Leher about the new phase of political upheaval in Brazil. ‘Identifying the internal enemy within the universities, theater, the world of culture, all those who do not profess their ways of seeing the world, is part of a strategy of cultural warfare as a military strategic type of thinking.’

In defeat, Bolsonaro supporters launch a culture war against internal enemies

Following the electoral defeat, Bolsonarist militias in Brazil have engaged in an escalation of violence against social movements, universities and cultural centers. Roberto Leher, university professor and political analyst, rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro from 2015 to 2019, sees the latest violent acts against these targets as part of a culture war strategy to which only critical education will be able to provide an answer.

How can we interpret these constant attacks?

At dawn on November 12, neo-Nazi groups, militias and Bolsonarist protesters attacked the Paulo Freire Training Center of the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST), spray-painting it with swastikas and setting fire to the coordinator’s house. With this act, they tried to attack two important symbols of democracy: the educator Paulo Freire and the social movements. On election day, after they set up more than 400 roadblocks, they attacked a bus of students from the University of Rio de Janeiro, threatening to set it on fire and burn them alive. They don’t recognize the electoral process and are gathering in front of barracks clamoring for military intervention, or “federal” intervention, which is nonsense from a legal point of view.

Identifying the internal enemy within the universities, theater, the world of culture, all those who do not profess their ways of seeing the world, is part of a strategy of cultural warfare as a military strategic type of thinking. As in warfare, in addition to creating an enemy, strategic infrastructure is being hit: the Bolsonaro government has eliminated the extraordinary resources approved for university investment and halved the ordinary funds for maintenance, cleaning, and energy; it has reduced investment in public schools by 30% and canceled a law already passed that guaranteed free internet to students during the pandemic. In the same way, research institutions have been hit – all the institutions that contradict the anti-scientific worldviews that Bolsonaro holds dear, unfortunately now widespread in our country.

This culture war has also used the vilification of students and professors as a method.

They concocted stories that students and professors did drugs, cavorted in the classrooms, even that they walked around university campuses naked, thus building the image of the internal enemy. After the cuts and fake news, the Bolsonaro government was moving towards the third act of this culture war: to destroy the enemy. Some military personnel wrote an official document called the “Nation Project” aiming to outline how the country should look in 30 years, which said, among other things, that “it will be necessary to neutralize the professors.” Bolsonaro’s re-election would have advanced this dystopian agenda and incentivized the violent repression of students, evident in the episodes of aggression we are currently seeing.

Yet Lula’s victory was recognized both in Brazil and internationally.

Yes, but there are millions of people who live in a condition of “cognitive dissonance,” in a narrative context where the critical and autonomous use of reason has no place. They are disappointed in Bolsonaro because Bolsonaro – realizing he didn’t have the needed support – didn’t opt for a coup. They hate the public universities, the scientific institutes, because they are a space of humanity, of democracy, of research and production of critical and scientific thought, even capable of refuting Bolsonaro when he touted chloroquine as a remedy against Covid.

During the previous Lula governments, there had been an expansion of the universities through quotas for the poorest populations and the creation of federal institutes and campuses in the inland areas. How do you explain that – despite this growth – the social situation is so dramatic?

With Lula, there was an unprecedented social change, but I think the avenue of communication between research institutes and universities and regular people immersed in online networks is still fragile. We have a clear view of how algorithms are favoring the extreme right. Millions of people don’t inform themselves through in-depth newspaper reports, but live in an alienated environment featuring the repetition of fake news. It is incredible to think that almost 10,000 people celebrated the fake news that they themselves had created, namely that Alexandre de Moraes – president of the Superior Electoral Tribunal – had been arrested for the crime of respecting the results at the ballot box. There is a need for social control on social media that would no longer allow the propagation of false news and, above all, for an international movement at the educational level capable of promoting – as Freire teaches – the passage from a fanatical conscience to a critical conscience, going beyond just common sense.

This movement must also go through the public school system.

In Brazil, public schools are welcoming over 45 million people every day, and are often the only reference point in the most difficult areas. In my opinion, the challenge is not to tell those who are living in this dimension of “cognitive dissonance” that they are wrong and out of touch with reality. This does not lead to communication between culture and the popular sectors.

Schools can have a very important role if – instead of entering the clash of opposing worldviews – they would act in a dialogical and complex way, based on critical reflection. Unfortunately, as part of the commodification of education and in a competitive model, many teachers are trained superficially, without this critical spirit. So we will have to work at the international level on teacher training to change the world of schooling, promoting a critical consciousness that would be able to unravel the functioning of the algorithms, social networks, disinformation, to question the ways power is constructed and recover a democratic spirit.

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