Original can be read here.
The life of the Brazilian friar and theologian Frei Betto is marked by milestones of all colors and forms from the day he was born, 74 years ago, in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. He militated in 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 served as advisor to several progressive governments in Latin America, including the first term of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In the middle, he wrote more than 50 books of different literary genres – from novels to essays – and became one of the main Brazilian references of liberation theology, a current of Christian thought that consists of “seeing the world from the eyes and the suffering of the poor “, as the friar himself has defined it more than once.
Visiting Uruguay, Frei Betto spoke with the daily about the reasons for the arrival to power of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, who will take office on January 1 as president of Brazil. At the same time, he spoke about the “self-criticism” that the Workers’ Party (PT) has to do to reconstruct itself in this context and how the influence of the evangelical churches impacts on politics. About the theology of liberation, it was quite clear: it is still alive in spirit but, in practice, it lost ground.
What is your reading of the triumph of Jair Bolsonaro, a month after the presidential elections were held in Brazil?
The triumph of Bolsonaro has been given by four factors. The first is anti-patismo, which has been very strong in Brazil because of the way in which it tried to exploit the cases of corruption that actually occurred in the party. They are exceptional but serious cases, and the party never made a public self-criticism, then the opposition knew how to exploit this and created an anti -petista wave. It is not that people prefer Bolsonaro, people prefer anyone outside 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 PT leaders, who were sanctioned and some resigned, such as Antonio Palocci, who was minister of the Lula and Dilma Rousseff governments. But against Lula no. So, as Lula had a lot of prestige and was guaranteed to win in these elections, he tried to put him in jail, and now the judge who did [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 evangelical churches, the only ones that do basic work with the people. In the 13 years of PT government we have not done this work, we have not tried to make 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. Then 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 which has great strength in Brazil, including political force. The evangelical churches had their weight in the election of Bolsonaro and they have a very strong parliamentary caucus. 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 the elections of 50 countries in the world? Even in the election of Donald Trump, in the What does “democracy” mean if the manipulations made by a man like [Steve] Bannon from the United States have already influenced the elections of 50 countries in the world? Even in the election of Donald Trump, in the What does “democracy” mean if the manipulations made by a man like [Steve] Bannon from the United States have already influenced the elections of 50 countries in the world? Even in the election of Donald Trump, in thebrexit in the United Kingdom and now in the Bolsonaro victory in Brazil. We must also bear in mind that Bolsonaro had 47 million votes and there are 30 million Brazilians who did not vote, including abstentions, blank votes and nullity. But by the law and democracy of Brazil Bolsonaro is now the future president and forms a government of fascist character, of the military, and that has an anti-democratic discourse. Bolsonaro’s election is also responsible for the cowardice of the Brazilian judicial system, because he should have sanctioned 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 the 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 on grassroots 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 of the faithful of the ecclesial base communities emigrated to the evangelical churches. Also, they did not feel good at Catholic Masses, which are generally very good for the middle and upper classes. But you, faithful, owner of a company, go to the mass and you will hardly find an employee of yours there, or the doorman of your building, or the driver of your car. These people go to the evangelical church. The Catholic Church has not been able to give support or value. 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 that approach conquers the people. Another factor has to do with an internal mystique that “a brother votes a brother”. That is, an evangelical, when he is going to vote, has to vote for another evangelical. That is why Bolsonaro, who is from the Catholic tradition, was baptized in the Assembly of God, which is a Protestant confession of Pentecostal character. With great intelligence, he went to try to become an evangelical to also deserve that vote. Another factor has to do with an internal mystique that “a brother votes a brother”. That is, an evangelical, when he is going to vote, has to vote for another evangelical. That is why Bolsonaro, who is from the Catholic tradition, was baptized in the Assembly of God, which is a Protestant confession of Pentecostal character. With great intelligence, he went to try to become an evangelical to also deserve that vote. Another factor has to do with an internal mystique that “a brother votes a brother”. That is, an evangelical, when he is going to vote, has to vote for another evangelical. That is why Bolsonaro, who is from the Catholic tradition, was baptized in the Assembly of God, which is a Protestant confession of Pentecostal character. With great intelligence, he went to try to become an evangelical to also deserve that vote.
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 are going to continue with their struggles. Surely there will be more repression, imprisonment of its 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 popular organization, but for him all this will be framed in the anti-terrorism law of Brazil, which unfortunately is a law of a PT government, that of Dilma. The social movements are going to be characterized as terrorist movements, at least he in his speech put it that way. We have to wait to see if that happens. From here to a month we will be able to evaluate where this government is going.
In what position is the left now in Brazil and, particularly, from where does the PT begin to be reconstructed?
The PT has to go through a self-criticism. He must be able to say “we have advanced in many things, the achievements are more important than the failures, but we have made a mistake in this, this and this point”. It also has to punish its militants who effectively screwed up corruption. If that does not happen, nobody will 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 fascist offensive that is coming. For that we have to work hard, because we can not think about the disagreements we have with the other.
How is the figure of Lula currently seen in Brazil?
It is very respected. People have a memory that Lula’s two mandates 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, he screwed up – or his hands – and has his problems, but Lula is something else. People know how to distinguish it, and that makes him still very dear to the people.
Do you think your leadership will survive the Bolsonaro government?
I think so, because my expectation is that the government of Bolsonaro is going to be a disaster and many people who voted for it will be repentant. That will reinforce Lula’s leadership.
Have you talked to him after the elections?
No, not after. I went to visit him in jail before the elections and now I’m going to go before Christmas. I have news, for the family and for friends who visit it, and I know that it is very good, in good spirits. Outraged, because he is imprisoned, because he could not participate in the elections, because of all the injustices and false accusations that are made against him, but he is firm from a mental and spiritual point of view.
What is the place of liberation theology in today’s Brazil?
The theology of liberation is still alive in Brazil, after a long period of conservative pontificates that have not valued this pastoral line. Now it is valued, especially because Pope Francis is very identified with the thesis of liberation theology. There is a new breath, the theology of liberation 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, then 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 the evangelical religions?
Exactly. We lost space in the base, but not from the theoretical point of view, because we keep moving forward and trying new topics, such as ecology, technological innovation, astrophysics, a very advanced feminist theology, and also an indigenous theology.
In the current political conjuncture, of the advance of the rights in the region, what is the self-criticism that the Latin American left should do?
We must make a self-criticism in the sense of why the poorest people no longer support us so much. Where have we been wrong? Could it be that we lacked political literacy? Could it be that we let the economy depend too much on commodity imports ? Do not we create enough domestic market? Could it be that we have worked too much in the cultural and artistic dimension? These are all issues that we have to assess now.
Last week, at the World Forum of Critical Thinking held in Buenos Aires, Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera said there will be a “dark night” in the region, but that it will not be long because “neoliberalism is dying”.
I do not share this optimism of Linera so much. I believe that capitalism has a great capacity to survive in different ways. I am of a generation that has believed that I attended the wake of capitalism about ten times, and it did not happen. On the contrary, it continues to be increasingly hegemonic, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So I think we have to rethink our way of dealing with this system, and we have to face it with the grassroots organization. We have to create a new model of society within capitalism itself based on the solidarity economy, the environmental protection struggles, the good living of the indigenous people. That is to say, to make socialist popular democratic spaces from the base that are increasingly undermining this capitalist pyramid that has a brutal inequality.