Jewish group: 'Frightening signal of his vision of culture'

Brazil minister fired after speech parroting Nazi propagandist Goebbels

Culture secretary Roberto Alvim made comments while launching arts initiative focused on nationalism and religion; also gave interview with Wagner playing in background

Roberto Alvim, then-director of theater, dance and opera at the Brazil's National Arts Foundation, poses for pictures in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019.  (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Roberto Alvim, then-director of theater, dance and opera at the Brazil's National Arts Foundation, poses for pictures in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian culture secretary Roberto Alvim was fired on Friday after using phrases similar to some used by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Alvim made the comments while discussing a new art prize in Latin America’s largest democracy. Alvim had held the post since November. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro made the decision after a backlash from Jewish organizations, key lawmakers, political parties, artists and the country’s bar association.

Alvim drew criticism after he launched an arts initiative focused on nationalism and religion, while using language he later acknowledged was similar to that used Goebbels.

Though cash-strapped, the Bolsonaro government will spend $4.9 million to encourage the production of literature, theater, opera, music and other arts. It was announced by Bolsonaro, Education Minister Abraham Weintraub and Alvim from a library of the official presidential residence in a live Facebook video.

Alvim, the driving force behind the initiative, is a born-again Christian who found renewed faith while recovering from cancer. He delivered a separate message about the initiative using a phrase that local paper O Globo and some other commentators identified as resembling language in a speech by Goebbels. Alvim, who has disavowed Nazism, acknowledged the similarity but said it was merely a “rhetorical coincidence.”

Joseph Goebbels, German minister of propaganda, speaks to a crowd of 100,000 Germans in Zweibruecken on May 14, 1934. (AP Photo)

The speeches, whose words have been reviewed by the AP, both say the nation’s art “in the next decade will be heroic” and “will be national.” Both men conclude: “Or it will be nothing.”

The president of Brazil’s lower house said on Twitter the video went beyond the pale, and that Bolsonaro should remove Alvim from his position immediately.

On Twitter, Alvim regularly uses the hashtag #DeusVult, or “God wills it,” echoing the Christian battle cry of Middle Ages crusaders. It’s also popular with white nationalists in the US.

Following the release of his taped video, Brazil’s Jewish confederation Conib said in a statement that Alvim’s emulation of Goebbels was a “frightening signal of his vision of culture that should be combated and contained,” and called for Alvim’s dismissal.

Bolsonaro said in a statement that Alvim’s comments constituted “an unfortunate pronouncement, even though he apologized, that made it unsustainable for him to stay.”

While the amount to be spent is a drop in the bucket compared to other arts funding, the project jibes with the government’s other efforts to overturn what Bolsonaro calls “cultural Marxism” and some of his ministers say is undermining society’s morals. The leftist Workers’ Party governed Brazil for 13 years until 2016.

“When culture becomes sick, the people become sick, too,” Alvim said in the video beside Bolsonaro. “Brazilian culture was deliberately sickened during the recent decades. Culture is the basis of the homeland.”

More than 57 million people — 55% of the voters in 2018’s election — embraced Bolsonaro’s anti-leftist campaign, in which he promised to fight corruption, violence and leftist ideology with the same energy.

The government will stimulate film projects that focus on Brazil’s independence and historical figures, and be aligned with conservative values, Alvim said. Speaking in a separate recorded message released Thursday, with a wooden cross atop his desk, Alvim said he wants 2020 to mark a historic cultural rebirth to “create a new and thriving Brazilian civilization.”

He sat beneath a framed picture of Bolsonaro, and orchestral strings played lightly in the background. The music is from an opera by Richard Wagner, sometimes associated with Nazism and German nationalism. Alvim said in a radio interview that he chose the music himself, because the work is transcendent and stemmed from Wagner’s Christian faith.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during an event with young Venezuelan migrants at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

“Alvim’s speech is dangerous for many reasons. Firstly, due to the fact that it made a very direct and shameless apology to Nazism,” former culture minister Marcelo Calero said at his home. “After that, the aesthetics; it’s a Nazi-fascist aesthetic that the video evokes.”

Some Brazilians reacted with shock at Alvim’s comments, while some Bolsonaro supporters expressed dismay at the decision to fire him.

The cultural campaign in Brazil goes well beyond the arts. From school textbooks to teen pregnancy, from the walls of private museums to those of public institutions, the 2020 ideological push is shaping up on several fronts. And after a series of high-profile resignations and dismissals in year one, Bolsonaro begins his second year in office with a new ministerial team to implement its leader’s conservative agenda.

“I’m back, ready for battle,” Weintraub tweeted Jan. 5, calling his followers to support him in his fight against “oligarchs, corrupt individuals and the communist-socialist ideological wing.”

Bolsonaro has made education, especially in early childhood, one of his top priorities. On Jan. 7, he and Weintraub — his second education minister in a year — spoke live on Facebook and accused previous administrations of turning the ministry of 300,000 employees into a factory of “militants.” The two announced a complete “clean-up” of kids’ school textbooks.

Brazil’s Education Minister Abraham Weintraub attends a Senate hearing on budget cuts of public universities, in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Without presenting concrete examples, Bolsonaro had previously described textbooks as an “embarrassment” with too much writing in them, and said parents only want their sons to be boys and daughters to be girls.

“There are still some (textbooks) that we don’t like but a lot of filth has already come out,” Weintraub assured him.

Few specific proposals have been put forward as an alternative — an emphasis on family values, the national anthem (already included in textbooks by law), and a Brazilian flag on the cover.

For Claudia Costin, a former education secretary in Rio de Janeiro and senior director for education at the World Bank, the culture wars are a waste of precious time. Brazil ranked in the bottom third of the 79 countries and economies that took part in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the test’s results, Brazilian students have stagnated in mathematics, reading and science. Public schools are performing particularly poorly.

“We have a lot of homework to do,” Costin said. “All this is a distraction from what really needs to be done.”

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