Brazil’s Anti-Technology Minister of Technology

Brazil has 39 cabinet-level positions — at least for now — and president Rousseff has been picking a new cabinet for her second term. Among the luminaries chosen for this group, as star-studded as a direct-to-DVD sequel to a Lifetime Movie of the Week, is Aldo Rebelo, the new Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, a climate change denier. But one thing has been missing from the stories on Mr. Rebelo: A sense of how awful the man truly is.

Rebelo is described as a hard-line communist, and he is indeed a member of the Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B),¹ but he is more properly understood as a powerful party hack with a strong old-school lefty nationalist streak. He was a Congressman for many years, even becoming the equivalent of Speaker of the House for some time, and then Minister of Sports during the run-up to the World Cup.

Yes, yes, a whole cabinet-level position for sports. We’ll get back to it.

President Dilma Rousseff and shakes the hand of her new Minister of Sports, on October 31st, 2011. Source: Flickr

How did Rebelo fare before his newest position? Let’s start with the climate denialism. The smoking gun here is an open letter Rebelo wrote to a former Congressman. In it, after quoting a paragraph from Engels’s Dialetics of Nature, he claims that global warming is a religious doctrine, disputes that it is happening at all and could be caused by human action, jokes about Global Cooling, and claims the whole thing is the work of First World countries, which finance climate research. He also says their goal is “to control the consumption patterns of poor countries” and improve agricultural prices for farmers in wealthier ones. He closes out the paragraph claiming the international environmental movement, in italics, is simply the bridgehead of imperialism. Later, he claims the whole thing is a “neoliberal swindle.”

The letter was directed to Márcio Santilli, an environmentalist who works against deforestation and with groups linked to indigenous peoples —and it’s no accident that the two are in opposite sides. Rebelo wrote it as a defense of the new Brazilian Forest Code, on which he worked as an ally of another luminary of Rousseff’s second cabinet, the new Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply, Kátia “Chainsaw Queen” Abreu, formerly the leader of a farm lobby group.

I’ll abstain from commenting on the new Forest Code—as far as I know, I may be the first Brazilian to do so—but suffice it to say Rebelo’s contributions did not win him any fans among environmentalists. Another of his bills, PL 4791/2009, would have crippled the demarcation process for Indigenous Lands.

As far as I know, Rebelo genuinely believes in all these things. He is widely despised and ridiculed for these positions, but I don’t think he has been accused of being bought and paid for by anyone. In the traditional Bootleggers and Baptists framework, Rebelo is a Baptist through and through.

Lest we forget, his ministry also includes Technology and Innovation. How is Rebelo on that front? In 1994, Congressman Rebelo introduced a bill forbidding public service from adopting labor-saving technological innovations. The bill, PL 4502/1994, is actually pretty simple. Here is its main article:

It is hereby forbidden that any public institution of direct or indirect administration, be it municipal, state or federal, adopt any labor-saving technological innovation without previously proving, in a report to be submitted to the corresponding legislative entity, that the social benefits generated by its implementation outweigh the social cost of the unemployment they generate.

In the same vein, Rebelo has also worked against self-service gas stations and automatic fare collection in buses.

But Rebelo isn’t only opposed to technical innovations: he’s against social ones as well. He famously introduced a bill forbidding the use of foreign words and demanding that only Portuguese be used by natural-born and naturalized Brazilians, as well as foreign residents living in the country for more than one year. Needless to say, linguists rolled their eyes, journalists had a field day, and the bill went nowhere. To cap it all off, he sued a famous writer who mocked him for it.

In an even more buffoonish instance, he proposed that October 31st become National Saci-Pererê Day as a way to fight the insidious Halloweenization of Brazil. I wish I had the time, patience and wherewithal to translate bits of that particular bill, PL 2762/2003, which rallies Brazilians against the X-Men and Pokemon. It should be read aloud every time he speaks in public.

But, really, enough about his brilliant legislative career. Remember that Ministry of Sports thing? His predecessor, Orlando Silva, also came from PC do B. His successor, George Hilton, is a backbencher from a minor right-wing party and a major evangelical church. To keep her coalition in check, Rousseff has to hand out ministries like so much candy on Dia do Saci-Pererê, and Hilton or his party wanted Sports. Since an important member of the “allied base” such as PC do B couldn’t be left without a ministry, Rebelo was shifted to Science.

And if this sounds like so much logrolling and horsetrading, that’s because it is. Positions are distributed to political parties and seen as bargaining chips. The media discusses this openly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. When a new minister is chosen for their actual expertise in a subject, they are called “technical appointments,” rather than their brazenly political brethren. It almost makes me wish for long, drawn-out, American-style confirmation hearings. Almost.

¹ Not to be confused with the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), still a hard-line communist party. PC do B was the Maoist faction after the Sino-Soviet Split, and later followed, with a straight face, the Albanian line. The party has since mellowed out, though it is still particularly fond of Communist dictatorships both past and present.