Caetano Veloso & Brasil’s Cultural Wars

On 30th October 2017, there was a new escalation in a cultural conflict which is slowly cauldronizing Brazilian society.

Veteran singer songwriter, Caetano Veloso, legend of the Tropicália movement which emerged in a climate of censorship and moralism during the 1960s Military Dictatorship, was prevented from performing for what he said was “the first time in the democratic period”.

His show, organised by popular front Povo Sem Medo (People Without Fear) was to have taken place at the Social Movement MTST Homeless Worker’s Movement occupation in São Bernardo do Campo, in the greater São Paulo area. The occupation, which has come under attack from authorities and even gunshots from neighbouring buildings, his home to around 6000 homeless families. MTST’s core purpose is the pursuit of dignified housing for all, but has also been a central player in resistance to the 2016 Coup d’état and resulting unelected, neoliberal, and authoritarian Government of Michel Temer.

The MTST Occupation at São Bernardo do Campo

The free concert, which was widely advertised and also featured rappers Criolo and Emicida, was initially prevented from setting up on orders of the Mayor of São Bernardo do Campo, Orlando Morando (PSDB), who had his police block access to sound trucks and equipment. It was later revealed to have been on the original orders of the São Paulo State Government’s Public Ministry.

Offers of donated equipment and volunteer help in order to save the concert were ultimately in vain. The final decision not to proceed came when a legal document was received, authored by Judge Ida Ines Del Cid, threatening a R$500,000 fine and Police action should the concert take place, “We are not here to make war, we are here on a peace mission” announced Veloso, shortly before the final decision was made to pull the event.

Veloso and the other artists scheduled to appear, plus actors such as Sonia Braga (Aquarius), Letícia Sabatella, and Alinne Moraes, as well as the filmmaker and presenter Marina Person – who had earlier travelled to the Mayor’s office to argue for the show to be allowed – all delivered short speeches to the crowd, who continued to chant slogans in support of the occupation and against the Temer Government. Veloso continued, “An urban area cannot be without Social Function” – (the occupation stands on ground which has lay unused for 40 years), “this gives the impression that we are in not a properly democratic environment”, he added. Veloso was one of the first high profile artists to compare the campaign to remove Dilma Rousseff as reminiscent of the demonstrations which gave legitimacy to the Military Coup of 1964, which eventually saw artists imprisoned and even tortured. Exiled in 1969 to London along with friend and collaborator Gilberto Gil, he surely cannot have imagined that he would need to fight this kind of war again in his 70s.

While authorities claim it was a question of security, the organisers and artists call censorship, and this event must be viewed in the context of the current climate. With hysteria, homophobia and censorship of art, attacks on galleries and museums, and more generally on the creative and intellectual classes from a proto-fascist hate mob which although a small minority is gaining strength and visibility. Caetano Veloso himself, after speaking out against such censorship is now coming under attack from Right-Wing groups.

Holy War

One of the first acts of Temer’s supposedly interim, all white, all male Government was to try and close the Ministries for Women, for Racial Equality, and Culture. This provoked an emblematic campaign of resistance and occupations, within which Veloso was a key figure. Brazil’s Cultural sector is estimated to account for 4% of Brazil’s GDP, yet concerts, exhibitions, books, speeches, demonstrations, films, and theatre have all been targeted, by hate mobs, authorities, or both.

Another crucial component to this war is religion: Those practicing popular Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomble and Umbanda have found their places of worship attacked and burned around the country, and find now find little of the protection they once enjoyed from government & authorities. This situation has developed in parallel to the influence that tax-exempt, often extremely corrupt Evangelical churches have developed in Politics, with them even for example controlling City Hall in Rio de Janeiro. In a context in which Rio de Janeiro’s evangelical churches have been accused of laundering money for the drug trafficking gangs, all elements of Afro-brazilian culture including caipoeira, Jango drumming, and participation in carnaval parades, have been banned by the traffickers in many favelas.

Indigenous peoples, and the Government agency FUNAI which was built to protect them, have also been the victims of attacks, often fatal.

Elsewhere, cultural collectives have had their buildings raided by Police, treated as if criminal organisations.

While resistance to the ultra-conservative wave is very strong and becoming more organised, there is also fear that this attack on progressive culture is strategic by the far-right (who in Brazil often masquerade as Liberals or Libertarians) in order to provoke moral panic and drive a wedge between Brazil’s religious majority and the broader politics of the left. The worry is that they are effectively using Brazil’s religious makeup to push their own revanchist political agenda, like an inverse Liberation theology (which the import of Pentecostal churches to Brazil was originally intended to counter).

This strategy also, of course, serves to distract from what an illegitimate Government, that they helped install, is actually doing in office.

Even cursory study of the rise of Fascism in Germany and elsewhere reveals frightening parallels in what is happening now in Brazil, in particular in regard to culture. Elections are (scheduled) next year, and a Fascist candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, is currently polling in a distant second place behind former President Lula, who conservatives are desperate to prevent from running. Lula is near certain of victory if he does. Meanwhile, the same groups promoting the censorship of “Degenerate Art” also promote the “School without Party” campaign, intended, they say to eradicate “ideology” (read: anything reminiscent of Socialism or Feminism) from the classroom.

Comically, the campaign also insists that all Teachers and Professors have a “deep knowledge of Margaret Thatcher” and her (long discredited) ideas.

Brazil’s own 1964-85 Neofascist Dictatorship (called by its supporters a Civil-Military Government, just like they called the Military Coup which installed it a “Democratic Revolution”) had their own similar strategies to control the “moral threats” to order represented by artists like Veloso and his peers. Brazilians living in 2017 may find this abstract, from ‘Securing Sex: Morality & Repression in Cold War Brazil‘ by Benjamin A. Cowan, quite familiar:

“Brazil Counts on Its Sons for Redemption: Moral, Civic, and Countersubversive Education: Chapter Six investigates the impact of moralistic countersubversion in a more public arena: rightists’ push to mandate Moral and Civic Education as a broad counterattack designed to reach each and every Brazilian via the nation’s schools. Intended as a salve for anticommunist moral panic, Moral and Civic Education (EMC) sought to inculcate traditional moral, sexual, and gender precepts. It did so in concert with military service, further linking this program with a moral-hygienicist past in which its goals and methods were deeply rooted. That past also haunted the program’s notable focus on men, with women included only insofar as they affected the anxiety-ridden reproduction and rearing of future, patriotic Brazilians. Translating their anachronistic anxieties not only into education policy but also into practice, moralists managed to influence the curricula of students across Brazil. As my survey of EMC textbooks demonstrates, classroom materials faithfully integrated conservatives’ fusion of moralism and anticommunism. EMC sought to make countersubversion a daily moral imperative-to make students understand the putative link between subversion and immorality.”

São Paulo’s SESC Pompeia which will on November 7 host a lecture by US philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler has come under attack from reactionaries who also threaten to disrupt and prevent it taking place.

A Feminist, Anti-Fascist counter-protest is planned to protect the event and those attending.