(Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Brazil’s major cities on Wednesday to protest a freeze to the education budget, adding to the headwinds buffeting President Jair Bolsonaro’s legislative agenda.

Students and sympathizers rallied in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere against a decision to suspend about $420 million -- or nearly one quarter of the education ministry’s discretionary spending for federal universities -- from the 2019 budget. Speaking on a trip to Texas, the president described the demonstrators as “imbeciles” and “useful idiots”.

The first major protests of Bolsonaro’s rule follow a sharp decline in his approval ratings, rising opposition in Congress and signs that the economy contracted in the first quarter. Uncertainty over the government’s capacity to approve a much-needed overhaul of Brazil’s overstretched pension system is roiling financial markets, delaying investment decisions and undermining business confidence.

In another setback for the government, on Tuesday Congress voted to summon Education Minister Abraham Weintraub to explain the decision. In combative testimony to lawmakers on Wednesday he defended the freeze, blaming previous governments for failings in the education system and arguing that the country needed to prioritize basic schooling over universities.

Disorder and Chocolates

The freeze applies to universities’ discretionary spending, such as equipment and research projects, rather than compulsory expenditures, such as teachers’ salaries and pensions. According to the education ministry, lower-than-expected tax revenues are the reason for the suspension.

It’s not just the belt-tightening measures that have exacerbated the protests, but also the government’s belligerent defense of the decision which helped to attract widespread support for the demonstrations.

Weintraub initially said the cuts would apply to three universities that promoted “disorder” in their campuses. The minister subsequently announced a budget freeze for all of them and, in a bid to explain the measure, appeared on a video with Bolsonaro and 100 chocolates, saying they were asking universities to refrain from eating just a few of them.

In an emailed note, the education ministry said the freeze is equal to only 3.4% of federal universities’ total budget for the year, including non-discretionary spending, and that Weintraub is open to dialogue with institutions to strengthen the country’s educational system.

Bolsonaro has railed against public universities as bastions of “cultural Marxism”. Weintraub is his second education minister since he took office in January.

--With assistance from Luiza Ferraz and Murilo Fagundes.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Biller in Rio de Janeiro at dbiller1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Juan Pablo Spinetto at jspinetto@bloomberg.net, Walter Brandimarte, Bruce Douglas

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