Tens of thousands of students and teachers held street protests across Brazil in “defense of education” on Wednesday in response to a raft of budget cuts announced by President Jair Bolsonaro’s government.
Classes were suspended in federal universities and secondary schools in the first nationwide protests against the far-right president since he took office on January 1.
Protesters flocked onto the streets in Brazil’s biggest cities, including Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, in marches that grew steadily larger as the day wore on.
The budget cuts feature a 30 percent reduction in subsidies paid to state-owned universities.
Bolsonaro blasted the protesters as being “useful idiots manipulated by an expert minority that makes up the heart of federal universities in Brazil.”
He accused leftist militants of stoking the protests.
Speaking from Texas — where he was to receive an award from the US-Brazil Chamber of Commerce — Bolsonaro defended his education policy, saying he had inherited “a Brazil that was destroyed economically.”
He added that necessary budget cuts had been “lower than forecast.”
Some 15,000 protesters marched in the capital Brasilia, while 20,000 took part in demonstrations in the northern city of Belem, according to police.
Organizers said 70,000 people marched in the leftist stronghold of Salvador in the northeast.
Isolated incidents were reported. Police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
“I have a master’s degree and a post-doctorate in energy. If someone is an idiot in this story, it’s not me,” said Mariana Moura, a 38-year-old protester in Sao Paulo, angered at Bolsonaro’s slur.
“Without science there is no health, or work. We are here fighting for Brazil to continue producing knowledge. Without money, there is no knowledge,” said Moura, a researcher.
“Unfortunately, education is not a priority. That’s why I’m here today to fight for public education,” said Alessandra Roscoe, a writer, as she took part in the protest in Brasilia.
“Class today is in the street,” read one banner in Rio. Demonstrators chanted: “Either stop the cuts or we stop Brazil.”
In Sao Paulo, authorities closed Paulista Avenue, one of the economic capital’s main arteries, which was crowded by mostly young protesters singing along to a band, and chanting the slogan “Books Yes, Weapons No.”