Tens of thousands of demonstrators have protested in cities across Brazil against education spending freezes in the biggest rallies to date against the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who called marchers “useful idiots and imbeciles”.
Brazil’s National Student Union called for protests on Wednesday against what it called spending cuts, after the education ministry said it was freezing nearly a quarter of discretionary spending due to the government’s precarious fiscal situation.
The marches mark the first national protests against the administration of Bolsonaro, whose poll numbers are falling as he struggles with a weak economy, rising unemployment, an unruly coalition in Congress and infighting in his cabinet.
Speaking in Dallas, Texas, where he travelled to attend a gala dinner, Bolsonaro denied his government had cut education budgets and cast the protests as a partisan spectacle. “They are useful idiots, imbeciles, who are being used as the manoeuvring mass of a clever little minority who make up the nucleus of many federal universities in Brazil,” he said.
In the capital, Brasilia, 7,000 students and university professors marched on Congress, carrying signs against the cuts. One said: “Education is not an expense, it is an investment.” Another read: “Without investment there is no knowledge.”
“Our message to Bolsonaro is that society will not accept these cuts of 30%,” said marcher Luis Antonio Pasquetti, the head of the National University of Brasilia’s teacher union.
Nationwide, official crowd estimates were not immediately available, and the protests were expected to gain steam over the course of the day.
“The importance is to show that civil society is organised against these cuts,” said Rodrigo Tonieto, 22, in Sao Paulo. “Together, we are going to say ‘no’ to the Bolsonaro government … To say ‘no’ to the mess that this government is.”
Called to explain the cuts to lawmakers in Congress, education minister Abraham Weintraub blamed the situation on the legacy of the previous government, while defending a shift away from spending on universities to favour elementary schools.
Students light flares as they protest against a massive cut in the education budget imposed by Jair Bolsonaro. Photograph: André Penner/AP
“The priority is preschool, elementary school and technical school,” he said. “A scientific, technical, number-based, efficient and managerial approach is vital to save this country from the economic stagnation of the last 20 years that we are living.”