Neo Colony

“Country has foresaken its dignity”, says Roberto Amaral about cuts to the sciences

Ex-minister analyses the role of research in combating covid and the “destruction” of national industries by Bolsonaro

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Under Bolsonaro, Roberto Amaral sees a bleak future for science and technology and a prolonged covid-19 pandemic - National Congress

Amid one of the biggest health and economic crisis in the country’s history, the Federal government, going against a worldwide trend, attacks and suffocates science – a key factor in combating the thousands of deaths caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

For the 2021 fiscal year, the budget proposed by the Jair Bolsonaro administration imposes a 27% cut in funds to science and technology, and a reduction of almost U$200 million in investments into Federal universities, according to the National Association of Federal University Administrators (Andifes).

In former Science and Technology Minister Roberto Amaral’s view, the proposed budget attests to Brazil’s return to the status of “colony”.

“For you to undo a country’s development, destroy its vision for the future, the first thing you need to do is destroy science and technology, the second thing, which is a consequence of this, is to destroy the country’s industries. We have downsized to pre 2015 investment levels. What we had as national industrial production has been destroyed,” Amaral stated.

From 2003 to 2004, in his time as Science and Technology Minister, Amaral concentrated his efforts into the implementation of policies seeking the redistribution of resources allocated to the sciences towards efforts aimed at combating social inequality. Emphasis was given to the creation of the Social Inclusion Science and Technology Secretariat.

Concerning his political career, in 1985, Roberto Amaral was one of the founders of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), where he was seen as an ideological leader during the country’s post dictatorship period. In 2014, he resigned as the party’s national director when he decided to endorse right wing politician Aécio Neves in his failed presidential bid against Dilma Rousseff.

This coming Tuesday at 7pm, Amaral will be one of the guest speakers at the sixth class of the Brazil People’s Project course, which discusses exit strategies to the current crisis. In this edition, Amaral and Márcio Pochmann discuss “Paths to industrialization and scientific development.”

Read the full transcript of the interview with Amaral below:

Brasil de Fato – How is the defunding of science being orchestrated in the country?

Roberto Amaral - This is an wider, deeper project, this defunding of science in the country. It is also the defunding of the economy, of the judicial order, the defunding of knowledge. For you to destroy the country’s perspectives for the future, the first thing you need to do is destroy science and technology. The second, which is a consequence of this: is the destruction of industry. Industry needs development, it needs progress, needs investments.

We are down to investments levels below those of 2015, in the middle of 2020. The government, besides reducing budgetary resources, has limited the distribution of these resources, with policies that are not discussed with Universities, with Congress or the community at large. 

The budget then becomes a fictional one, because the government only allocates to things that fit its interests. We are witnessing a sequential process of destruction within education, science, technology, and lastly the country’s industries.

The cuts to public universities alone are set to be around U$200 million dollars. We are heading towards collapse. It is expected that budget cuts will lead to a 64% decrease in science based scholarships. This means the end of masters and doctorate programs, beyond the personal tragedy for those studying abroad, who depend on these programs in order to survive.

As a secondary effect, this will entail opening up avenues for our best students, our best teachers, the best graduates we have to abandon the country. They will continue working, but will seek to live in other countries. There is not a single example of a developed nation anywhere in the world, that didn’t start off by developing as an industrial nation first. There is no great economic power that wasn’t a great industrial, scientific and technological powerhouse first.

We are witnessing a short, medium and long term tragedy. Even if we put an end to what is going on, it will take years to regain lost ground. We already missed out on the 18th century [industrial] revolution, the 19th century one, we missed out on the introduction of the steam engine, we were late as an electric energy civilization, late to the petroleum boom, and now we run the risk of missing out on the decisive robotics and artificial revolutions. If this occurs, we are doomed to being a huge colony for many many years.

The classical structure we have lived in till today, between developed and developing nations is done with. Nowadays, the division is between countries that produce knowledge and countries that import knowledge. This government has opted for the latter: we will be importers of knowledge, better said, a colony.

How do these physically and politically destructive mechanisms manifest in practice, beyond the more visible aspects such as interfering in the process for selecting Deans?

We have a recent example of this: the nomination of a navy captain to head the foundation and museum dedicated to intellectual Rui Barbosa. This is the government’s calling card. We are an occupied nation, like Japan was at the end of WWII, occupied by troops that do not have the country’s best interests in mind. This is happening all over.

When you nominate the person with least votes on a three person shortlist, you are sending a message, one of disrespect to the academic will and consciousness. This is the scenario, one of no motivation. What motivation does a young person about to graduate have nowadays to go into research? To go to a lab and research scientific advancements, healthcare? It is a serious situation. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, that people aren’t communicating, but the both academia and the country as a whole are not seemingly aware of the significance of this. I don’t understand this calm, this peace surrounding all of this. When we wake up we might not even have any universities left.

You were one of the key figures in the dissolution of the deal between Brazil and United States, that allowed the Americans to use the Alcântara base in the state of Maranhão, replacing it with the Alcântara Cyclone Space-ACS project, in partnership with the Ukraine, which was seen as more favorable to the nation by progressives since it boosted Brazil’s space program. Today, under Bolsonaro, Alcântara was once again handed over to the Americans. Is it correct to say that there is a direct relation between science and sovereignty, and that this is a determining factor in overcoming historical social inequalities?

Brazil has given up all aspects of its sovereignty- the political, ideological, the formal, the territorial and the military. Brazil has given up on foreign policy. Our submissive foreign policy is dictated by the interests of the Pentagon and the U.S State Department. The worst thing is: we get nothing in return.

A country with no industry is a country without armed forces. We don’t have the autonomy to produce a single rifle. This is the country being used as a tool of war, provoking Venezuela.

Today, we are country that has renounced its own dignity, its role in Latin America. We are tearing up a long standing Brazilian foreign policy tradition. The Brazilian armed forces have turned into goons for the United States. Our role is to frighten our neighbors, so that the U.S can save some money.

We have no military industry, we have no defense policy. Nowadays we think that a military force is not necessary. The U.S, our protector, will take care of our foreign defenses. It’s up to us to deal with internal enemies. We ARE the internal enemy. It’s the armed forces themselves that will turn against its own people.

In your time at the Ministry of Science and Technology, one of the pillars of your mandate was, thinking of science in a systemic way, integrated with other government policies like healthcare, education and industrial production. Is it safe to say that Bolsonaro’s project depends on the destruction of your vision?

He works in the shadows, however, behind it all there is a structured plan. We incorrectly, and dangerously assume that this government doesn’t have a larger thought process behind it. If we examine the last two years we can see there is a logic behind it all.

Their extremist logic is one of associating classical neoliberalism, which no one anywhere advocates for anymore, with its antithesis, which is an authoritarian state. For this to work, you need to destroy all institutions.

We need to remember that this process began before Bolsonaro, before Bolsonarism, when the mainstream media invested in destroying politics, demoralizing politics, politicians and institutions in order to reverse the empowerment of the masses, of popular mobilization and left wing governments. This is the path Bolsonarism treads, one of negating the country.

Bolsonarism's foremost goal is to deconstruct what was in place. This is the reason behind his attacks on Congress, the Justice system, education, science, technology; attempts to destroy public services, state owned companies, of public investment and development agencies, of strategic state enterprises like Eletrobras (power supply) and Petrobras (gas company).

Today, we are the only country of this size, with so many natural resources, that doesn’t have a space program. When you don’t have one, you are at the mercy of those who do.

Brazilian health sciences have long been a reference worldwide. This is demonstrated by examples such as Brazil’s leadership role in combating the Zika virus, in the Yellow Fever and Smallpox vaccines, as well as the fight against H1N1, when 100 million Brazilians were vaccinated. Even with the denial of science propagated by Bolsonarism, which led to hundreds of thousands of covid-19 deaths, has the history of research and funding into public health in Brazil contributed to stemming the advance of the disease?

It was the Public Healthcare System (SUS) that kept things from falling apart during this pandemic, an utopic project envisioned by our scientists in the 80s and enshrined in the 1988 Constitution. It is the biggest public health system in the world, admired worldwide, but in this country, it is demonized by the mainstream press, by part of the medical class and by corporate healthcare companies.

We need to pay homage to SUS, and society needs to understand that the tragedy spearheaded by Bolsonaro wasn’t any worse only because of SUS, which stemmed the spread of the pandemic.

However, I need to mention something that in my view is very serious: we don’t have a pharmaceutical industry. We don’t make our own aspirin. Brazil’s big industry is packing. We pack the medications. What we had as national enterprise has been destroyed. This is very serious because faced with an international crisis, we have no way of providing for our own population.

Even now, amid the pandemic, our main role is to provide people to be tested on. This is our big international contribution. We are not taking part in the production of vaccines. Due to our territorial characteristics and the diversity of our population, we are a really good human laboratory. The United States tests things here, China tests things here, Russia tests things here, but there are no Brazilian projects in the works.

With the advance of the pandemic, scientists have never moved forward so rapidly to fulfill the needs of people. There are 136 vaccine trials underway. In Brazil, counter to all this, the budget proposed for 2021 imposes steep cuts to science and research. What can we expect from all of this? Is it possible to maintain integrated scientific institutions within a right wing government that seeks their destruction?

There is a plan behind all this. The logic is one of constructing our dependency. This government has become an oxymoron, we are a puppet republic. We have returned to the beginning of last century. According to this government, we don’t need to produce what we can import. We don’t need to think, there are those who can do the thinking for us. It’s hard to impart the significance of this to people.

It’s also important to remember that the ruling class is bothered by what has been created. It’s not enough to just blame Bolsonaro and his cohorts. Every time we see a slight advancement of the masses in this country, of the working class, of the poorer sectors, the “big house” intervenes, always with the backing of the armed forces. They will intervene with a classic coup like in 1964, or more covertly like how they are doing now.

In conjunction with this intervention, there is an ideological process stimulated by the mainstream media, by the big newspapers. They create a narrative, and based on this narrative they justify halting the development process for the masses. The truth is that over the past 4 election cycles, Brazil had opted for a certain type of societal project, one of development and protection of the poor. This project made the large media conglomerates uneasy.

What we are seeing at the moment in this country has no historical parallel. Not even in 1938, when fascist forces were growing, not even at the height of Hitler’s time, never have right wing forces been so strong in the country. This is a central question. This is what we as progressives, people like me who see themselves as the socialist left need to think about. It is the long term challenge.

What do you think about the growth of anti-vaccine and pro hydroxychloroquine movements, what impacts might they have on the continuity of the covid-19 pandemic? Is Brazil ready for other pandemics?

Brazil isn’t ready for the next predictable pandemics in the same way that it wasn’t ready for this one. For the next ones, we will be even more fragile than we were for this one, our institutions are already worn out. We will certainly have our own pandemics. The destruction of the Amazon will surely turn into a focal points for viruses and diseases. The tendency is for people to become even poorer and more fragile.

At the moment, 65% of [covid] deaths are among poor black people, the people in our impoverished areas. These areas only tend to grow over time. Based on this, we need to prepare for hard times ahead.

There is no possibility of progress, of national salvation, with the current powers that be. That means that it is fundamental to combat the correlation of these forces in our country. We need to find ways to bring down the powers that be, to advance democratic ideals.

The left needs to stop being afraid of debating its ideas. Let’s go ahead with an ideological debate, let’s face it head on, lets organize our base, let’s discuss things like primitive religious fundamentalism. Let’s stand up against what is before us. Our options are: the past or the future.

Edited by: Geisa Marques