The election of the far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, to Brazil’s presidency, sent shockwaves of fear through the international press, Brazil’s Latin American neighbours, and the Brazilian people.
The new president has also brought panic and dismay to Brazil’s artistic communities.
Bolsonaro has not been afraid to conjure up nostalgic imagery of the country’s former military dictatorship, which was violent, authoritarian, and stringent on freedom of expression. He has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump – a man not known for his benevolence to the art world – and he fits right into the wave of right-wing, fascistic, strong man politics that have begun to infiltrate democracies the world over.
Artists, cultural professionals, and commentators are beginning to discuss what a Bolsonaro presidency will mean for the arts. The consensus is summed up by expectations of decay and negligence at best, and outright censorship and spending cuts at worst.
Bolsonaro, like many far-right politicians, has his sights on shrinking government, dissolving programming, and cutting funding. The president-elect has suggested that he would dismantle the Ministry of Culture by merging it with Tourism and Sports.
When prompted about his plans for the reconstruction of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro’s after a devastating fire in September, he told the Associated Press that “It caught fire already. What do you want me to do?”
Left-wing protesters have been outspoken over the last week in condemning Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency. Protests have roiled Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Recife, and Porto Alegre. That being said – art professionals are going to have a significantly harder time speaking out against his rule. Brazilian artists already receive the lion’s share of their funding from government sources, and the country’s artists appear understandably wary of biting the hand that feeds them.
Bolsonaro’s orientation towards the arts and social liberties has drawn some comparisons to another Latin American authoritarian of the 21st century in Hugo Chavez. Chavez was extremely critical of the arts, lambasting it as an elite pursuit, and he went so far as to purge many of Venezuela’s artists, curators, collectors, and cultural institutions. Brazilians fear a similar exercise at home under Bolsonaro.
Fears are not unfounded nor are they based on his rhetoric and policy alone. Throughout 2018, artists and cultural professionals were being targeted, harassed, and threatened by right-wing supporters of the president-elect’s candidacy. Free speech advocacy organizations like Reporters Without Borders have also been quick to warn that his presidency will “pose a serious threat to press freedom and democracy in Brazil.”
Authoritarian rhetoric, a plan to weaken the Ministry of Culture, and limitations on freedom of expression are all dangerous signs for artists in Brazil. However, widespread protests and vocal opposition to Bolsonaro’s presidency are all potentially good signs that he might not be able to do the damage to Brazil’s cultural infrastructure that his rhetoric and policies would imply.