Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo, better known as Frei Betto, is a recognized Latin American progressive reference and one of the main figures of the Theology of Liberation. A writer, journalist and Dominican friar, he was imprisoned for four years during the military dictatorship in Brazil, which he opposed with body and soul. During his work as a friar he met, in the favelas of Sao Paulo, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of whom he was an advisor, and in whose government he participated in the Zero Hunger program. He has written more than 60 books, including Fidel and Religion. Conversations with Frei Betto (1985); Mysticism and Spirituality (1997); The Artist’s Work. A Holistic Vision of the Universe (1999); and The Lost Gold of the Arienim (2016).
What thoughts does this pandemic world open up for you?
I believe that the pandemic is nature’s revenge, resulting from years of human domination and devastation. Absolutely everything that we have been doing for the last 200 years, the search for profit and the maximum exploitation of nature’s resources without any care for environmental preservation, results in a lack of control of the chain of nature, which is completely disrupted by human intervention. Many speak of the “anthropocene”, that is, the era of total human intervention in nature; but I prefer to call this situation “capitalocene”. In other words, the total hegemony of capital, of the search for profit, for gain; all of which causes a total imbalance in the natural environment.
This whole process of environmental devastation is the fruit of private capital gain. The problem is not the human being; the problem is neoliberal capitalism. And we must remember that nature can live without our uncomfortable presence; we cannot, we do need nature.
How do you analyze the situation in Brazil?
In my country, the situation is catastrophic because we have a neo-fascist government. I call President Jair Bolsonaro, the “Bagman”, I even gave him this nickname before the Economist Magazine did. Brazil is in a total fire, in the Amazon, and in other areas, and the president has no interest in improving the situation or changing the course of what we are experiencing. Everything that means death suits him. We are living under a genocidal and lying government.
He is so brazen that in his last speech at the UN he said that the culprits for the fires in the Amazon are the peasants, the small farmers of the area and the indigenous people. For this reason there is no doubt that here in Brazil we are living a catastrophic situation managed by a neo-fascist government, which is using more and more religious fundamentalism to legitimize itself. Health matters as little as education. Bolsonaro knows very well that an educated people is a people that has a minimum of critical consciousness. And so it is better for him that the people have no education at all so that they can continue as guides to an ignorant mass. Of course not because of the masses themselves, but because of the conditions of education that are not properly offered to the people. As if all this were not enough, we are now back on a map of hunger, with a tremendous number of people who do not have the minimum necessary of the nutrients provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In short, we are in a tremendous situation. We’ll see what happens in the municipal elections in November.
What scenario do you envision?
I think the elections will be an interesting thermometer to evaluate how our people look at it. But the truth is that, in this, I am not very optimistic. The pandemic has helped a lot so that Bolsonaro has the hegemony of the narrative, because public demonstrations do not exist, they are prohibited, or they are not convenient, so only the voice of the government is heard.
By voting in favor of the political trial against former President Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to the memory of the Army torturer, Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra. His behavior should not be surprising. But what explains that he still maintains a considerable level of popular support?
I have two explanations for this situation. First, the right wing has mastered the electronic system of digital networks, which I prefer not to call “social” because they do not necessarily create sociability. I believe that many people on the left, progressive, have not yet mastered this mechanism. And also, since the owners of these platforms are favorable to sectors close to the government, many use algorithms and other devices to disseminate fake news and all kinds of lies. This has a lot of force because today people find out much more about the news and facts through the digital networks than through the traditional press. This is the first factor. The second factor is related to the mobilization of the poorest people by conservative evangelical churches. And then there are people who have abdicated their freedom to seek safety. That is the proposal of the global right: that each person should abdicate his freedom in exchange for his security.
In the face of the latter, and the hegemonic narrative it describes, what about the voices of the left?
On this we, these who feel part of the left, have a certain responsibility because we have abandoned the work of the base. We have abandoned work with the poorest people in this country. In the thirteen years that we have been in government we have not increased that base work, and this space has been occupied by those evangelical churches and some conservative fundamentalist Catholic sectors. These churches have made a lot of progress. And this also has to do with a project of the United States intelligence since the 1970s. In two conferences that took place in Mexico, the CIA and the State Department already said that the Liberation Theology was more dangerous than Marxism in Latin America and that a counteroffensive had to be made. This counteroffensive comes from the appearance of these electronic churches that were exported to Latin America, Africa, Asia, and other places.
Religion is the first system of meaning invented by the human being. There is no other sense more powerful and globalizing than religion. That is why so many people today are seeking to master this system. And we, who are progressives of the Theology of Liberation, have done here in Brazil an intense and very positive work at the base between the 70’s during the military dictatorship and also during the 90’s, but after that have come two very conservative pontificates, those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. These were 34 years of demobilization of the basic church, of that church of the basic ecclesial communities; they were 34 years of prejudice against the Theology of Liberation. All of this opened space for this counteroffensive by the evangelical right.
Do you argue that “there is no future for humanity outside of socialism? How do you build socialism at this juncture?
We must not wait for the end of capitalism to build socialism. We have to build socialism within the capitalist system, that is, to begin popular initiatives of economic solidarity, of sharing goods, of strengthening popular bases. That is where we are starting, there is no other way. We cannot return to the Leninist concept of an assault on the Winter Palace. We have to denounce the capitalist system but create effective alternatives to this system, as far as possible from the popular bases. In that way I believe that we can manage to break this system in the long term, but we have to have initiative and pressure and political forces. This is a long-term, essential task, and I don’t see any other way out at this juncture.
What examples of these initiatives do you claim?
There are many initiatives from popular sectors in different places. In Brazil, the Landless Movement has initiatives that are typically socialist. Recently, with the tremendous rise in the price of rice in Brazil, the MST, which is a big rice producer, has not raised its prices and had a terrible sale. Many people were able to discover the advantages of their family farming, where services and profits are shared among the families that are settled or camped. They are small initiatives that we have to strengthen, and look for spaces in the governments again, because it is very important and immense to work from the government, as we have done during the presidencies of Lula and Dilma.
Unfortunately, we have not taken advantage of all the possibilities, and above all, we have not done work, which for me is fundamental, that has to do with the political literacy of the people. We should have invested much more in that. If we have another opportunity to return to the government we will have to face that work, which is fundamental. If on the one hand the thirteen years of the Workers’ Party government promoted many social advances in Brazil – and they are the best in our republican history – but on the other hand, we have not worked on the political literacy of the people, the strengthening of the popular movements, and the democratization of the media.
There are those who argue that capitalism must be humanized. Is that possible?
It’s a totally contradictory idea. Humanizing capitalism is the same as taking the teeth out of the tiger, thinking that this will take away its aggressiveness; it is totally naive to want to humanize capitalism. There is no possibility of that; capitalism is intrinsically evil. Its own endogenous mechanism is a necrophiliac mechanism. It is a system that feeds on those who work, on those who consume, on the poor. It is a question of arithmetic: if there is not so much wealth there is not so much poverty; if there is not so much poverty there is not so much wealth. It is impossible to humanize capitalism; it is a very naive postulation and unfortunately there are still people who believe in this myth.
How do you generate democratic awareness? How do you work on the democratization of society in times like these?
By means of communication systems -digital, printed, audiovisual, etc.-, translating into popular language many of the concepts disseminated in the mass media. Simple people often do not understand concepts such as public debt, foreign investment, exchange rate fluctuations, and market mechanisms. This requires methodology – which Paulo Freire teaches – and popular education teams.
Can you imagine Lula being the president of Brazil again?
Maybe he will have the opportunity because they are reviewing his judgments and convictions, filled with so many prejudices. Hopefully, he will have the possibility to be a candidate again; it is our hope here.
Can you imagine a less conservative Catholic Church, attentive in fact to the proclamations it defends?
As I said, the Catholic Church has spent 34 years of conservative pontificates that have demobilized much of that popular work of the ecclesial base communities, the raw material of Liberation Theology. This does not come from the heads of theologians, it comes from the bases. All of this has been demobilized. It may be different times since the changes proposed by Pope Francis, but still the intermediate hierarchy between the bases and the people who have power in the church has not been totally changed. We still have a large number of bishops and priests who are very conservative and who do not want to get involved in the popular struggles, are afraid or in search of their comfort, their convenience, and do not want to put themselves at risk. There is a lot of work to be done, but there are sectors of the Catholic Church and of Latin America that are very committed to these struggles for the defense of the rights of the poorest, of human rights; this is very strong in many sectors.
How do you think about the immediate future?
I believe that in the immediate future there is going to be an exacerbation of individualism. The pandemic has required cutting off face-to-face relationships, so people are going to be increasingly isolated, with fewer opportunities to connect with each other and to come together in the streets, in the unions, in the social movements, at least until a vaccine comes to take us out of this situation. And here again the importance of knowing how to manage the digital networks appears. We, the progressive left, have to learn more and more to manage these networks and to change them, because we know that many of them are there only to favor consumption or even linked to services of espionage, intelligence, control of the people. There is a lot of struggle to be done around this because it is a factor that came to stay. Many people are informed through these digital networks. We have to create groups with the ability to dominate these networks, to disprove the fake news and disseminate the truth, the real facts. This is the only way we can do a virtual job of political education.
Is there a Liberation Theology today?
Yes, of course. Liberation Theology ha> opened its range to other topics that are not only social struggles, but also addresses the issue of ecology, questions of nanotechnology, astrophysics, cosmology, and bioethics. The problem is that we have rather lost the popular foundations, which were the basis of the Theory of Liberation. These foundations have been lost during these 34 years of conservative pontificates. Our main task is to return to the bases, to return to the slums, to return to the peripheries, to return to the poor people, to the oppressed, to the excluded, like black people, the indigenous, the LGBT. We all have to be in this struggle; that’s where we have to walk.
Are you optimistic?
I have a principle and that is we have to save pessimism for better days. We can’t play into the hands of a system that wants us to be quiet, depressed, discouraged; we have to keep fighting. History has many twists and turns. I have been through a lot of things, some very tremendous, others positive. The prison under the Vargas dictatorship, the strength of the popular movements, the election of Lula, the election of Dilma… I am optimistic, yes. We cannot consider any historical moment as definitive.