By Eric M. B. Becker
The dismantling of the Ministry of Culture. The gutting of federal funding for the arts. Proposals to tax books as luxury items. For many writers, publishers and other literary professionals across Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro’s conservative government felt like a yearslong assault on cultural production.
So when former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in a once-unthinkable political revival, defeated Bolsonaro, promising to deliver “more books in place of guns,” many in the literary world celebrated. The victory came with “a huge sense of relief,” said Eliana Alves Cruz, a Rio de Janeiro-based writer who won Brazil’s most prestigious literary award, the Jabuti Prize, last year.
Many of Lula’s supporters hoped his return would mean a renewal of policies he had supported during his first two terms in office, when he created and grew programs that invigorated the country’s cultural sector. The investments, over years, helped expand the scope of who could get published in Brazil and who could access books; they supported the publishing industry and writers, but also fostered reading and literacy and helped reduce Brazil’s entrenched inequalities, writers and publishing professionals said.
In the years since these federal policies were created, Brazilians were reading more, said Luiz Schwarcz, a co-founder of the prestigious publishing house Companhia das Letras and a writer himself.
Lula’s third term will start amid significant challenges: The economy is sluggish and the nation remains deeply divided, as evidenced by the Jan. 8 attack by Bolsonaro supporters on the three branches of government in Brasília, the capital, to protest what they falsely believed was a stolen election.
Still, in the month since his swearing in on Jan. 1, Lula has reinstated the Ministry of Culture, created a new secretariat dedicated to books and literacy and unblocked nearly $200 million in funds allocated for cultural projects through a federal program that supports the arts.
“I harbor no illusions that there will be some magical change,” Alves Cruz said of Lula’s tenure, but “we’ll be dealing with an administration that listens to us, instead of treating us like thugs.”
Bolsonaro fomented such antagonism early. “The gravy train has to end,” he declared in a Facebook Live transmission a month before taking office in 2019. He was referring to one of the country’s most significant cultural initiatives, the Lei Rouanet program, which facilitates funding for projects from books to literary festivals via tax incentives for donors.
As president, Bolsonaro followed through on his promise. In the final year of his administration, the federal government disbursed less than one-third of the support provided to cultural production in the final year of Lula’s second term, according to data from the Ministry of Culture and Siga Brasil, the Brazilian Senate’s budget transparency tool. The reduction hit hard, artists said.
Among the programs suffering cutbacks was Brazil’s premier literary event, the Festa Internacional de Literatura de Paraty. In 2022, Flip — as the literary festival is popularly known — saw its tax-free funding limit slashed by 50% over preceding years, to the equivalent of about $780,000. This left businesses that wanted to support the festival in exchange for a tax break through the Lei Rouanet program unable to do so, said Mauro Munhoz, the festival’s co-founder and artistic director.
“The cut was really deep,” Munhoz continued. Long-term funding had allowed the festival to also offer the kinds of programs that grow readers over time: workshops for local teachers, literacy programs and partnerships with local communities, governments and businesses, Munhoz said.
A Ministry of Culture study also found that the festival’s 2018 activities generated 13 dollars for every dollar of investment it received from the government.
Debut writers such as Caio Zerbini know the impact of government support on authors. It was through a state-level program that supports artists and writers that he found the means to finish his first children’s book and find a publisher. In late 2022, he published his first novel, and two more books are in the works. Even with such mechanisms, Zerbini said, it is challenging to survive as a writer.
“Many times, it is other things that come along with having published a book that allow a writer to make a living,” Zerbini said.
Federal programs that supported reading, such as the National Plan for Literature and Literacy, which was launched during the first Lula government, also supported publishers, as the government bought books directly from them to stock schools and libraries. Budget cuts to such programs dealt them a significant blow: Revenues generated by government purchases could account for between 15% of annual income for a larger publishing house in Brazil to 80% for smaller operations, according to Fernanda Emediato, a publishing-sector consultant.
The program has shrunk over the past decade, first because of an economic downturn during the government of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, then continuing through the Bolsonaro administration. Deep budget cuts and a purchase freeze under the Bolsonaro administration mean that books approved for purchase under the program for 2021 are now expected to reach students only in 2024.
Still, there is reason to believe the book world has weathered the Bolsonaro years. Paulo Roberto Pires, a magazine editor, credits policies developed by Lula and Rousseff, which bolstered the literary landscape and helped bring new voices to the fore through educational programs. Rousseff, in particular, signed a significant affirmative action law that many believe helped foster a new, more vocal generation of Black intellectuals in Brazil.
Alves Cruz, who credits Lula-era programs with supporting the research for her first book, agrees. She said there are more prominent writers of color now, and growing reader engagement with them: “People began paying more attention to us.”
But there is still considerable progress to be made, she said. And organizations such as the literary festival, Flip, have a role to play.
“Flip has the power to herald new voices,” said Pedro Meira Monteiro, who curated the festival in 2022 alongside Fernanda Bastos and Milena Britto and worked to showcase perspectives from beyond the cultural megacities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. That year, the festival honored Maria Firmina dos Reis, considered Brazil’s first Black female novelist. The goal, he said, is to “hold a mirror to a different Brazil.”
Now, with a supportive government, Brazil’s literary community is expressing hope for the future, and that Lula’s promise to reinsert Brazil in the international arena will extend to its literature.
But there is much work ahead. Referring to the shift between Bolsonaro’s focus on increasing gun ownership and Lula’s renewed push on reading and literacy, Cruz said, “We are going to have double the work to get it out of young people’s head that they must defend life with force and instead do so with the force of words.”