Minister Weintraub and the metamorphosis of Brazil

The last example of an attack on freedom of expression was the incident that the Minister of Education of Brazil, Abraham Weintraub, was protagonist to only last night, a minister famous for his attacks on freedom within universities and for his disdain towards ordinary people.

Weintraub was dining with his family yesterday on the terrace of a restaurant in Alter do Chão in the state of Pará when a small group of activists from the organisation Engajamundo carried out an act of protest.

The act consisted of delivering him a ‘kafta’, a popular Turkish dish. It was a satire that refers to the Czech writer Franz Kafka, who among many other books authored works literary masterpieces The Metamorphosis and The Trial, works which any minister of education should be familiar with.

The protest was accompanied by cardboard signs that alluded to the controversial measures of the minister took against public universities or budget cuts for public schools. Memorably, he tried to make pedagogy of this cuts through presenting bars of chocolate in a Facebook live show recently, where he was separating 4 bars from a pile of 100 to show his cuts only affected 3.4% of the total budget.

What’s more, for the demonstration to be more representative of 3.4%, he needed three and a half bars and not four, so one of the bars had to be cut in two. However, as the minister was incapable of doing so, president Bolsonaro bit into the bar and ate the spare half without remorse. It’s hardly surprising that such a trivial way of dealing with such a delicate subject as education budget cuts is highly offensive to the citizens of Brazil, and has done little to foster good feelings towards Weintraub.

But before the act of protest of the activists, Weintraub reacted with aggressiveness and rage, and took over a microphone of a group of street musicians close by, with which he began shouting insults long after the activists left.

The tension and polarisation tearing through Brazil is epitomised in this example. The aggressive and unpleasant discourse of the minister provoked a reaction from many in the square, including indigenous people, who booed the politician and accused him of being a fascist and even took the microphone to defend themselves. He insisted that his insults were the truth and even used his daughter to provoke sympathy from the crowd, before eventually leaving to the sound of claps from the crowd.

The incident came to an end with no major problems however it provoked a wave of frustration among those present in the square and this tranquil and relatively remote village that is seemingly detached from the political tension in the cities.

The organisation Engajamundo published a statement explaining that it was only a symbolic protest event, and that after handing him the plate of kafta and the two cardboard signs, the activists abandoned the area without harassing anyone.

Engajamundo uses creativity to visibilise their fight but it would never carry out aggressive actions nor would it ever intend to attack and offend as Weintraub himself did when he grabbed the microphone and began to launch insults to the crowd.

The arrogant attitude of the minister and people’s reactions to his words gave Engajamundo’s protest an unintended dimension, but it demonstrates more than anything the extent to which tension exists in the country, even in villages that seem far from everything, left on their own in the Brazilian Amazon.

Education has always been a central focus of Brazilian politics since Paulo Freire’s times, and during the past governments, despite some inefficiencies, there were several initiatives and significant investments that intended to improve the quality of education of ordinary people and make public university education far more accessible to the popular classes, including to marginalised groups such as the very poor, indigenous people, and afro-Brazilians.

However, Bolsonaro arrived with the intention of ending the dream for equal opportunities with his agenda based on the idea that the weak must be sidelined along with all those considered ‘parasites’ for having benefited from social aid during the Worker’s Party governments.

Under this prism, it is hardly surprising that a member of his government should lose his temper in such a way when a small and harmless group of activists mocked his inability to pronounce Kafka properly.

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Soon after the incident, the president of the Community Council of Alter do Chao published a shameful ‘Letter of dDisgust at the Hostile Act Suffered by the Minister of Education’, where he named the protest ‘a hostile act of political intolerance’ and demanded to the authorities that these ‘aggressors’ should be identified and punished for their actions.

Later on, a group of Bolsonaro supporters gathered in the square to support the minister and the president who named him. This kind of incident in any functioning democracy would be perceived as the cons of the job, but in today’s authoritarian Brazil it is seen as a hostile and aggressive act that displays intolerance.

This is a clear demonstration of the extent to which the rule of law has been deteriorating in Brazil, where freedom of expression is under threat whist the authorities attempt to intimidate citizens who exercise their right to protest and who in exchange receive a tirade of insults and threats of punishment.

Minister Abraham Weintraub should read The Metamorphosis by Kafka and reflect on the state of his own country, and on the fact that if he and his colleagues continue to assault the fundamental rights and freedoms of Brazilian people, the country may wake up one day as a giant insect.

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