Frei Betto: “The Latin American Left must Think why the Poorest People no Longer Support us so Much”

November 29, 2018

The life of the Brazilian friar and theologian Frei Betto is marked by milestones of all colors and shapes from the day he was born, 74 years ago, in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. He was a member of the Catholic Student Youth, worked as a journalist, joined the Dominican order, was imprisoned and tortured for opposing the military dictatorship, studied theology, philosophy and anthropology, and was an advisor to several progressive governments in Latin America, including the first term of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In the meantime, he wrote more than 50 books of different literary genres – from novels to essays – and became one of the main Brazilian referents of liberation theology, a current of Christian thought that consists in “seeing the world from the eyes and suffering of the poor,” as the friar himself has defined it more than once.

While visiting Uruguay, Frei Betto talked to the Diaria newspaper about the reasons for the arrival in power of the ultra-right Jair Bolsonaro, who on January 1 will take office as president of Brazil. At the same time, he spoke about the “self-criticism” that the Workers’ Party (PT) has to do to rebuild itself in this context and how the influence of the evangelical churches impacts on politics. Regarding liberation theology, he was quite clear: it is still alive in spirit but, in practice, it has lost ground.

What is your reading of Jair Bolsonaro’s triumph a month after the presidential elections in Brazil?

Bolsonaro’s triumph has come about because of four factors. The first is the anti-Workers Party sentiment, which became very strong in Brazil because of the way in which it attempted to cover up the corruption cases that effectively existed in the party. These are exceptional but are never the less serious cases, and the party never made a public self-criticism of them, so the opposition knew how to exploit this and created an anti-Workers Party wave.

It is not that people prefer Bolsonaro, people preferred anyone other than the PT. This took place within a conspiracy to imprison Lula; this is a second factor. There is no evidence against Lula, there is evidence against other leaders of the PT, who were sanctioned and some resigned, like Antonio Palocci, who was minister of the governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff. But not against Lula. Then, since Lula had a lot of prestige and was guaranteed to win in these elections, they tried to put him in jail, and now the judge who did it [Sérgio Moro] has been rewarded by Bolsonaro and appointed Minister of Justice. This is proof that it was a conspiracy.

Another factor is the influence of the evangelical churches; the only ones that do grassroots work with the people. In the 13 years of PT government we have not done this work, we have not tried to do the political literacy of the simple people, while the evangelical churches did. The role of these neo-Pentecostal churches is to ensure that the poor endure poverty. So they are like a flock of lambs, of sheep that accept the word of the shepherd as if it were the word of God. It is a terrible form of oppression, of voluntary servitude, but it has a lot of strength in Brazil, even political strength. The evangelical churches had their influence in Bolsonaro’s election and have a very strong number of parliamentary seats.

The fourth factor is the manipulation of digital networks, which now pose a serious problem for democracy. What does “democracy” mean if the manipulations made by a man like [Steve] Bannon from the United States have already influenced elections in 50 countries of the world? Even in the election of Donald Trump, in the Brexit in the United Kingdom and now in the victory of Bolsonaro in Brazil. It should also be borne in mind that Bolsonaro had 47 million votes and there are 30 million Brazilians who did not vote, between abstentions, blank votes and nullity. But by the law and democracy of Brazil, Bolsonaro is now the future president and is forming a government of a fascist character, connected to the military, and that has an anti-democratic discourse.

The cowardice of the Brazilian judicial system is also responsible for Bolsonaro’s election, because it should have punished him for the absurd things he said during the campaign, such as defending torture or offending homosexuals and women. But everything was endured in Justice, without any sanction. That facilitated his projection.

To what do you attribute the growth of evangelical religions in Brazil, both in the number of faithful and in the spaces of political power?

I attribute it to several factors. First, the two conservative pontificates of the Catholic Church, that of John Paul II and that of Benedict XVI, did not value our work in the popular bases with the basic ecclesial communities. On the contrary, there was much suspicion, much opposition and a change of bishops and priests who supported this work, so many faithful from the base ecclesial communities emigrated to the evangelical churches. In addition, they did not feel comfortable at Catholic Masses, which are generally very good for the middle and upper strata, for example when a faithful owner of a company goes to Mass and she or he will hardly find any employee there, or the doorman of their building, or the driver of their car. Those people go to the evangelical church. The Catholic Church has not been able to give support or value poor people.

Also the clericalism that exists in the Catholic Church – everything is centered on the figure of the priest – has made our work very difficult. The priests do not live in the favelas, but the pastors do, so this approach wins over the people. Another factor has to do with an internal mystique that “a brother votes for a brother. That is, an evangelical, when he goes to vote, has to vote for another evangelical. That is why Bolsonaro, who is of Catholic tradition, was baptized in the Assembly of God, which is a Protestant demonination of Pentecostal character. It was with some intelligence that he converted to the evangelical faith in order to receive their votes.

During the electoral campaign, Bolsonaro presented an agenda that, among other issues, threatens to criminalize social movements. In this context, what perspective of action and mobilization do they have?

The social movements will continue with their struggles. Surely there will be more repression, imprisonment of their leaders and much agitation in Brazil, because Bolsonaro will want to go beyond the constitutional limits. The Constitution guarantees, for example, the right to protest or to form popular organizations, but for him all that is going to be framed in Brazil’s anti-terrorism law, which unfortunately is a law of a government of the PT, Dilma’s government. The social movements are going to be characterized as terrorist movements; at least he put it that way in his speech. We have to wait to see if that happens. In a month we will be able to evaluate where this government is going.

Where does the left stand now in Brazil and, in particular, where does the PT begin to be rebuilt?

The PT has to go through a self-criticism. It has to be able to say “we have advanced in many things, the achievements are more important than the failures, but we have been wrong on this, this and this point”. It also has to sanction its militants who effectively screwed up corruption. If that doesn’t happen, no one is going to believe in this self-criticism. The left has to look for something like what they have achieved in Uruguay with the Frente Amplio. We have to find a way to unite against this coming fascist offensive. That’s why we have to work hard, because we can’t think about the disagreements we have with each other.

How does the figure of Lula look in Brazil today?

His figure is very respected. People remember that Lula’s two terms were very good, so much so that he left the government with 87% approval. People make a distinction between Lula and the PT. The PT is already old, it has screwed up and it has its problems, but Lula is something else. People know how to distinguish him, and that makes him still very much loved by the people.

Do you think Lula’s leadership will survive the Bolsonaro government?

I think so, because my expectation is that the Bolsonaro government is going to be a disaster and many people who voted for it are going to be sorry. That’s going to reinforce Lula’s leadership.

Did you talk to him after the election?

No, I have not. I went to visit him in prison before the elections and now I’m going to go before Christmas. I keep informed from family and friends who visit him, and I know that he is very well, in good spirits. Indignant, because he is imprisoned, because he could not take part in the elections, because of all the injustices and false accusations they made, but he is firm from the mental and spiritual point of view.

What place does liberation theology have in Brazil today?

Liberation theology is still alive in Brazil after a long period of conservative pontificates who did not value this pastoral line. Now it is valued, especially because Pope Francis is very much identified with the theses of liberation theology. There is a new breath, liberation theology is again very important for the Christian faith, for the movements of churches, to understand the relationship between the Bible and the reality we live in. Now we are in a new moment of offensive in that sense. But we have lost a lot of space.

Was that space lost to the detriment of evangelical religions?

Exactly. We lost space at the base, but not from the theoretical point of view, because we kept moving forward and dealing with new topics, such as ecology, technological innovation, astrophysics, a very advanced feminist theology, also an indigenous theology.

In the current political situation, of the advance of the rights in the region, what is the self-criticism that the Latin American left should make?

We must be self-critical as to why the poorest people no longer support us so much. Where have we gone wrong? Could it be that we lacked accessible political clarity? Could it be that we let the economy depend too much on commodity imports? Could it be that we didn’t create enough internal market? Could it be that we have worked too much on the cultural and artistic dimension? These are all questions that we have to assess now.

Last week, at the World Forum of Critical Thinking held in Buenos Aires, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said there will be a “dark night” in the region, but it won’t be long because “neoliberalism is agonizing”.

I don’t share Linera’s optimism so much. I think capitalism has a lot of capacity to survive in different ways. I’m from a generation that thought I attended the end of capitalism about ten times, and it didn’t happen. On the contrary, it continues to be more and more hegemonic, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So I think we have to rethink the way we deal with this system, and we have to deal with it for the grassroots organization. We have to create a new model of society within capitalism itself, based on solidarity economy, struggles for environmental protection, the better lives for all indigenous people. That is to say, to make popular socialist democratic spaces from the base that undermine more and more this capitalist pyramid that has a brutal inequality.

Source: Dominio Cuba, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau