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The biggest accomplishment of the current Ministry of Culture is its efforts to establish policies that are based on UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which recognizes cultural diversity as one of humanity’s landmarks[1]. This means that the State has the obligation to support cultural activities that are usually hidden, or expressed only as “folklore” or exotic art.

The Right to Culture: Progress and dilemmas facing Lula’s Government in regards to cultural policies

By Antonio Eleilson Leite

For the first time since the creation of the Depatment of Culture (Minc – Ministerio da Cultura)[1] – 21 years ago, and at the end of the current administration, the results of an effective cultural policy can be felt in Brazil. Despite criticism, the Minc, which is headed by the singer and composer Gilberto Gil, has as one of its most undeniable achievements the restructuring of the agency itself.

Minc – Re-inventing an agency

The Minc had ten ministers in its first ten years (1985 to 1994).  In its history, there were three great intellectuals who were Ministers of Culture: Celso Furtado, Antonio Houaiss, and Sergio Paulo Rouanet. The latter, whose mandate took place in the middle of Collor de Mello’s brief government, enacted the Incentive to Culture Act in 1991, which takes his name. Until Lula’s Government took office, this Act exemplified the Brazilian cultural landscape, in that it acted against its own interests by offering tax exemptions to large national and international corporations that supported cultural projects, so as to market and promote themselves.

Minc’s revolving door of ministers took place in the first ten years of the re-democratization period, and was followed by the contrasting stability of the last 11 years.  Only two ministers have overseen the agency between 1995 and now: Francisco Weffort and Gilberto Gil. Weffort, a professor at USP (São Paulo University), was one of the founders of the PT (Workers’ Party). He eventually joined the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), and was the Minister of Culture during the entire administration of president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Weffort did not accomplish anything significant despite his eight years in the agency. Even the so-called retaking of the national film industry, which was marked by Carla Camuratti’s 1994 film Carlota Joaquina, took place largely due to the big investments of large corporations that took advantage of the Rouanet Act.

According to some media outlets, Gilberto Gil took office by nominating himself to the post. Some members of the PT uncomfortable since Gil was a member of the Green Party. Long-standing PT cultural activists, such as the actors Sergio Mambert and Paulo Betti, among others linked to the PT, felt slighted. Gil declared he would be minister even before Lula announced it, making his nomination a fait accompli. Following the announcement of his nomination, Gil declared that he would have to continue with his artistic activities, since his salary as a minister would be very low. There were calls for a campaign against his nomination in messages circulating on the Internet. The months before his swearing in, and all of Gil’s first year in the post, were marked by protests and doubts as to what his administration could achieve.

As the only artist among the 12 Minc ministers in the agency’s 21 years, Gil surprised everyone, and ended his first term in office with ample recognition for his efforts and vision. His competence was tested, and he proved that his managerial talent is alive and well, even 40 years after receiving his Business Administration degree. Gil built political unity within the agency, bringing on board people from different political parties, artists and intellectuals. He organized the first National Conference on Culture, and under his leadership, secured UNESCO’s recognition of the Samba de Roda do Recôncavo Baiano (a special samba stile) as a landmark of humanity3. True to his personal style and artistic soul, Gil took the stage wherever he went. He sang at the United Nations General Assembly, and even got the diplomats to dance. Some say that was pure opportunism on his part. But the reality is that Gil ends his term having accomplished a very important mission. He reinvented the Minc.

Side A of Cultural Policies

The biggest accomplishment of the current Minc administration is its effort to establish a policy that is based on UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity[2]. This declaration recognizes cultural diversity as a heritage of humanity. This means that the State has the obligation to support cultural activities that are usually hidden, or only expressed as “folklore” or exotic art. This is the case of the art created by Quilombola (rural afro-Brazilian) communities, as well as the dance, the myths, and the language of more than 200 indigenous nations in Brazil. This is also the case of cultural activities of rural people, as well as the Hip Hop movement in urban centers.

The UNESCO document recognizes “cultural diversity as an ethical necessity, inseparable from the respect for the dignity of human beings.”  It also endorses pluralism, stressing the need for interaction and co-existence between cultures to broaden the possibilities for choice, and thus contributing to the “intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual” development of human beings. The declaration affirms that “Creativity can only reach its full potential when it makes contact with others”, stressing that it is necessary to ensure that all cultures can be expressed and acknowledged. This also means having access to all media and all processes for disseminating ideas. The document further asserts “cultural goods and services that relate to identity, values and meaning should not be considered as products like other goods.”

The Minc created its policies based on three strategies, and in accordance with UNESCO’s declaration: symbolic production, with events that stimulate cultural production; law and citizenship, emphasizing culture’s social dimension in projects of inclusion, and the economy, with the understanding that there is a cultural industry that economically moves society. The success of these strategies depends in large part on the launching of a National Cultural System (SNC in Portuguese), an ambitious proposition that has as its goals the integration of states and cities in the planning and execution of these policies.

It will be up to the SNC to implement the National Cultural Program. Equally ambitious is the creation of Cultural Panels that discuss specific questions according to each discipline (theater, dance, film, social circus, etc.). Citywide, state and national conferences were held in order to give substance to the plan and stimulate the creation of the SNC. According to the government, 60,000 people participated nationwide.

Many of these policies, which are innovative and overturn the rigid priorities that up until then were the norm in the Minc, are still in development and results will need to be rigorously evaluated later on. However, the Cultura Viva Program, which is based directly on the three aspects of the strategy adopted by Gilberto Gil, especially in regards to the first and second aspects, has shown important results and has served as a symbol of the work of the Minc administration.

Cultura Viva is Minc’s program responsible for the Pontos de Cultura, “a network that links, receives and disseminates initiatives that nourish the creative spirit.” The Pontos de Cultura were conceived in partnership with the Ministries of Communication and Labor, and their goal is to energize culture in a particular area, which could be a poor neighborhood in a big city, an MST encampment, an Indian village or a Quilombola community. The government awards R$ 150,000 to each Ponto, and they in turn give the money to the organizations chosen to work with the youth registered in the outreach job programs of the Ministry of Labor; these organizations then distribute the scholarships to the youth. The Ministry of Communication is responsible for creating and maintaining the multimedia centers, creating a virtual connection between the Pontos all over Brazil.

There were 100 projects being considered at the time of the first official announcement from the Pontos de Cultura, published in July of 2004. There were $R 15 million set aside for the Pontos.  The initiative was received with great enthusiasm and mobilized cultural entities all over Brazil, revealing just how great need for such resources was. By the 2005 announcement, the Pontos could serve a larger pool of applicants, and in 2006, the Minc nominated the work of many Pontos to the Cultura Viva Awards. In April of 2006, the Minc organized Teia da Cultura (Culture Network), a large Brazilian culture exhibit showcasing the work of the Pontos de Cultura. This event highlighted just how much the economic solidarity movement is a part of the work of these groups, allowing for a closer relationship between the Ministry of Labor and SENAES – National Office of Economic Solidarity, an agency overseen by the economist Paul Singer. 

The Pontos de Cultura represent a great effort in bringing to life UNESCO’s recommended criteria and are one of the biggest accomplishments of Lula’s government in the cultural arena. They are proof that it is possible to carry out public policies on culture that are far-reaching and have a strong social impact. This initiative can and should be expanded. But it should also be connected to other similar initiatives that exist in cities and states, as is the case with VAI[3] and the Support for Theater Act in the city of São Paulo. In this context, the idea of a National Cultural Program will be decisive. The partnership between the Ministries of Labor and Communication should be strengthened, and the inclusion of the Ministry of Education would be most welcome.

Side B of Cultural Policies

To adopt cultural policies that are based on UNESCO’s principals challenges the powers that be. The Minc will never be successful if it acts alone. The agency was unwavering when it came to what it needed to defend. It had to face groups connected to the national film and theater industry (if one can say that there is such a thing in Brazil), groups which traditionally take the lion’s share of the resources from the tax exemptions and sponsorships from State companies. It is true that little has changed up until now, but challenging the contradictions alone helps expose them.  

The Incentive to Culture Act is definitely not public policy. In addition to promoting mass culture with public money, it has created strongly organized interest groups. Experts estimate that in the 15 years since its passing, 70% of the funding went to projects from a small group of producers based in Rio and São Paulo.

The Rouanet Act needs to be amended or maybe even changed. The Minc should have taken care of that. We cannot simply be content with the fine initiative that created the Pontos de Cultura and do nothing to change the Rouanet Act. Here’s an example. CIE Brazil received R$ 9.4 million to finance the Brazilian season of Cirque du Soleil. This amount is enough to fund around 60 Pontos de Cultura. And worse, the cheapest tickets for the show in São Paulo were R$ 150. Where are the benefits?

Another dilemma for Lula’s administration is the Minc’s weak political position. Much of what the Minc has been able to accomplish was due to Gilberto Gil’s leadership and vision. His popularity contributed to the success of projects. Even if he did not get involved in much, at least those running the government listened to Gil, including President Lula. But his prestige was not enough to ensure his participation in the discussion regarding content and broadcast norms of Brazilian TV. All discussion regarding Digital TV took place without the Minc’s active participation as is required in the resolution of the National Conference on Culture, which in one of its main proposals stipulates that the public should participate in the elaboration of laws and regulations regarding mass media.       

Budgeting completes Side B of the Minc. It is very complicated to carry out policies with a budget of R$ 560 million. This amount corresponds to 0.5% of the total national budget as compared to the 4.5% the State sets aside for the primary economic surplus. São Paulo’s Sesc alone has a R$ 300 million budget. It isn’t surprising that there are some who say that the Sesc is the real Ministry of Culture in Brazil. Minc’s budget is expected to rise to 0.6% of the national budget in 2007, but that is still meaningless. UNESCO recommends that it be 1% and the National Conference on Culture recommended 2% as ideal. I want to take the opportunity to state the need for a thoughtful discussion on public funding. If the goal of integrating local, state and national cultural policies is achieved, it is possible to think of a shared administration and a common effort between its representatives and the Minc to put political pressure on the government.

We should remain vigilant so that we can move forward in building cultural policies that reflect cultural diversity, freedom of expression and integration, or better said, culture as a human right.


Antonio Eleilson Leite is a historian, a cultural events planner, Coordinator of Espaço de Cultura e Mobilização Social of the NGO Ação Educativa, Director of the regional ABONG – Brazilian Association of NGOs of the State of São Paulo, and a member of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights Advisory Board

[1] Created by Decree 91144 on March 15, 1985 by then interim president José Sarney. Until that time, cultural affairs were under the Ministry of Education

[2] Adopted by the 31st UNESCO General Assembly which took place in Paris on November 2, 2001

* Tucano refers to a toucan, the bird that symbolizes the PSDB

** Tropicalista refers to a member of the Tropicalia cultural movement in 1960’s Brazil, of which Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were the biggest representatives

*** Samba de Roda do Recôncavo Baiano is a mixture of music, dance, poetry and celebration of samba, the musical genre that developed as a way to preserve the culture of Africans taken to Brazil

[3] VAI – Valorização de Iniciativas Culturais –Support for Cultural Initiatives, a program that supports individual and group projects from low income neighborhoods. With investments of $R 15,000 the program considers 70 projects each year. The Support for Theater Act benefits theater companies, not performances, and stimulates the revitalization of theaters and their integration in communities. The budget is around R$ 120,000 for each project

[1] Adopted by UNESCO’s 31st General Assembly, which took place on November 2, 2001 in Paris