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Destruction and regression: the policies of the Bolsonaro government

This will be a decisive year for Brazil. As part of a larger electoral cycle that will likely bring great changes to Latin America, the country will decide in October whether to give another term to Jair Bolsonaro, or to follow the example of its neighbors and make a new turn away from the extreme right. If it opts for the second option, Brazil will still have many challenges to face, and the main one, perhaps, being to recover from three years of government policy guided by destruction and regression.

Jair Bolsonaro was elected on a central promise: to destroy. His agenda was to destroy the legacy of the Brazilian “left”. His speeches were focused on attacks on the achievements of identity movements and minorities, as well as on the rights and social policies erected after the 1988 Constitution. Make no mistake, in this legacy of destruction are the political and social achievements of the New Republic, which put this very covenant at risk. 

The effects of the destruction are everywhere. There is the demographic census that was not carried out; the data on the pandemic that had to be disclosed by a press consortium; the absence of transparency in public acts; and the insufficient data for monitoring the production of public policies. Finally, there has been the recent blackout of data on the Covid-19 pandemic, which has left us adrift just as the country was beginning to be ravaged by the Omicron variant.  

Cutbacks and the dismantling of Science and Education.

Destruction operates in different ways. It can occur through budget cuts in various areas, or through the discontinuation of programs and public policies. Secretariats, departments, sectors have been demobilized or closed. The science and technology sectors, for example, suffer from the paralysis of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher-Level Personnel (CAPES). Similarly, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) struggles to perform its tasks due to the systematic cutback of funds and research grants at various levels of training and areas of knowledge.

The National Institute of Educational Studies and Research Anísio Teixeira (INEP) and the National High School Examination (ENEM) are under a frontal assault. They suffer from dismissals without clear criteria, dismissals of directors, accusations of cases of moral harassment, work overload, in addition to ideological questions about the quality of the work of its specialists who are responsible for the preparation and implementation of the ENEM.  

How can we forget the recent fire in the Pantanal Forest and the lack of support from the federal government to fight it? The number of burned and deforested areas in the country have had a record increase since 2019, and the government’s response was translated into speeches with empty and manipulative rhetoric. This only added to the pain caused by the cut of funds to the Ministry of Environment, and to the agencies of inspection and control in this matter. 

Similar and more serious effects of this policy of destruction is the delay in making fundamental and urgent decisions. The pandemic has provided us with many examples. There was the demand for goods, such as oxygen in Manaus, whose urgency was ignored, and the provision of vaccines for Covid-19 only after an unjustifiable delay. This was a practice that was later on reproduced with child vaccination. For these, we paid with the lives of thousands of Brazilians.

Health setbacks

But the dismantling of public policies does not only consist of cutbacks, paralysis, and delays. Let us recall the National Mental Health Policy (PNSM) implemented in 2001, and the National Drug Policy (PND) of 2006. The current government has made fundamental changes to both, directly attacking the principles and achievements of the Psychiatric Reform. The objectives are the deinstitutionalization of mental health care and of the practice of harm reduction for the treatment of drug users. 

The mental health model that was in place until the beginning of the Bolsonaro government was guided by the recognition that people with mental disorders and drug users are political subjects. In other words, they are bearers of rights and should be treated in their own social environment. Above all, the PNSM recognized the right of people to make decisions about their own lives and treatment.

Technical Note 11/2019, which was issued by the Ministry of Health, brought changes that now allow the operation of services such as psychiatric hospitals and therapeutic communities. It also brought the possibility of compulsory institutionalization and the defense of total abstinence as a way to prevent and combat drug use. The result was an increase in the number of therapeutic communities starting in 2019. In 2018, the Federal Government funded about 2.9 thousand positions in these institutions. By 2019, the Ministry of Citizenship had already funded 11 thousand spots.

The latest setback in healthcare has been the proposal, without any scientific support, to include electroconvulsive therapy for the containment of aggressive behavior in cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder to the Clinical Protocol and Therapeutic Guidelines. This practice is considered torture by the UN. The resistance of the other instituted powers, politicians, and part of the media and civil society seems to have blocked the action for now.

The urgent task of reversing all of Bolsonaro’s policies.

It is impossible to list all the changes and their consequences in this article. They are present in all public policies. In 2022, we have the urgent task of trying to know and understand the meaning of each one of them, to scrutinize every decree, every technical note, every budget cut, and every program suspended and replaced. The task is gigantic. 

The next president will have to do much more than contain the advance of authoritarianism and institutional destruction that has been promoted by Bolsonarism. Getting rid of the Spending Ceiling and stopping the dismantling will not rebuild our institutions or our public policies. It will not recover our democracy, our social contract, or our dignity.

If Brazilian society is not aware of the size and meaning of the dismantling promoted during Bolsonaro’s government, we will not even be able to sweep away the rubble.

Translated from Spanish by Alek Langford


Social Scientist. Professor of the Post-Graduate Program in Political Sociology at the University Research Institute of Rio de Janeiro of the Candido Mendes University (IUPERJ / UCAM). Doctor in Social Sciences from the State Univ. of Campinas (UNICAMP).


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