By Anthony Boadle and Pablo Garcia
BRASILIA/SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in cities across Brazil on Wednesday to rally against education spending freezes in the biggest demonstrations to date against the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who called marchers “useful idiots and imbeciles.”
Brazil’s National Student Union called for protests 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 within 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 maneuvering mass of a clever little minority who make up the nucleus of many federal universities in Brazil,” he said.
In the capital Brasilia some 7,000 students and university professors marched to 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 percent,” said marcher Luis Antonio Pasquetti, 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.
“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.”
(Reporting by Eduardo Simões and Pablo Garcia in Sao Paulo; Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Brad Haynes, James Dalgleish and Susan Thomas)