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LATIN AMERICA
“I am still convinced that capitalism is incompatible with human rights”
Paolo Moiola
11/7/2008
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Interview with Frei Betto, theologian and writer, Part II

In the first part of this interview Brazilian theologian Carlos Livanio Christo, a priest better known as Frei Betto, spoke about his long experience with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his government. Here, Frei Betto talks to Latinamerica Press collaborator Paolo Moiola about Colombia, Venezuela and Latin America as a whole, and about the situation facing Liberation Theology and the Catholic Church in the region. 

How do you see the situation in Latin America?
I´m very optimistic. We are seeing our best moment for Latin American integration. We have Mercosur [the Southern Common Market] and ALBA [the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, created as a response to the failed US proposal, Free Trade Agreement of the Americas]. No one gives any importance to the Organization of American States.

For a few years, people have been talking about Latin America´s “democratic Spring.” What do you think about it?
Over the last 40 years, we have seen three periods: military dictatorships, neo-liberal governments and, now, popular democratic governments.

The military dictatorships had a seriously high human cost, aside from an economic one. All of these countries were bankrupt from these dictatorships. After that, the oligarchies embraced the neo-liberal solution of the Washington Consensus [free market reforms based on privatizations and limited public spending].

There were privatizations of public patrimony, brutal repression of popular and labor movements, tremendous corruption and economic disaster [high external debt, dependency, deindustrialization].

In that moment, Latin American populations rejected the oligarchies that had first supported the dictatorships and later, the neo-liberal model. They started to look for candidates that had “a face of the people” and did not belong to these social classes.

From there, there was the political rise of [Hugo] Chávez, [Luiz Inácio da Silva] Lula, [Evo] Morales, [Rafael] Correa, and [Daniel] Ortega [the current presidents of Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, respectively]. One thing to underline: all of them became presidents through impeccable democratic processes.

But it doesn´t seem to be enough. Many of the presidents that you name enjoy awful press in the United States, Spain, in Italy, Evo Morales for example, and above all, Hugo Chávez. How do you explain that?
Chávez could be a not-so-friendly person, but there is no doubt that he has won eight democratic elections. And he respected the decision of the people when he lost — by one percentage point — in the constitutional reform referendum [in December 2007].

In May 2007, Chávez decided not to renew the operating concession for Radio Caracas Televisión.
The president had all the legitimacy to not renew a state concession to Radio Caracas Televisión, which is private! All over Latin America, television is state property, not private. Let me explain: the state gives the concession, but it can take it away at any moment, because there are situations that fall under national security. People forget about that.

When I see these media talk about Chávez as if he were a monster, it makes me furious. But these people don´t realize that Latin America could have the last chance to subscribe to a change peacefully and democratically. If — once again — Europe and the United States create instability in the Americas, I don´t know what could happen.

Colombia´s situation is very different from the other Latin American countries. What do you think about this?
There is a consensus between the Latin American left that Colombia´s armed struggle has no future. We, and I include myself, have the responsibility to pacify Colombia.

In 40 years, the Colombian government and the United States with the army have not been able to destroy the guerrillas. As a result, there is a need to look for a political solution like in El Salvador, like Guatemala, like Brazil itself.

The plan was to free the hostages and in turn, the prisoners, and later introduce the guerrillas as a political party like in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Who could talk to the [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] FARC? No one better than Fidel Castro, but he´s ill. After Fidel, the best person with credibility is Chávez. [US President George W.] Bush, not wanting to give merit to the Venezuelan president, has ordered [Colombian President Álvaro] Uribe to launch the attacks [the hostage rescue] that have compromised throughout this delicate political scheme. We will see if things change with the new US president.

Capitalism is experiencing a serious credibility crisis. But there doesn’t seem to be much clarity for alternatives …
Many of us from the left or close to the left think that socialism is now a thing of the past. I am of the thinking that we must build a society in which everyone has a politic democracy, but also an economic democracy. That last part will only happen when goods are equally divided among the people, something that is not happening today. That means that there isn´t economic democracy.

In any case, I am still convinced that capitalism is incompatible with human rights and the Gospel.

Where is Latin America going? What do you dream for Latin America?
No one wants an armed struggle. And the socialist horizon seems very far away. Today we demand the construction of a participatory democratic process inside a structure that continues to be capitalist.

Let´s talk about Liberation Theology in Latin America. Could you say that it´s loosing contact with its bases?
Liberation theology is not a science that comes out of seminars or academies. It is not Leonardo Boff or Gustavo Gutiérrez [its intellectual creators]. Liberation theology is the grass root communities and not the reverse.

The golden years of Liberation Theology were the 1960s to 80s. It was born out of Christians´ practice in their struggle for liberation and in Latin America it drew a lot of its strength from the fight against US imperialism.

Nelson Rockefeller [secretary for Inter-American Affairs under US President Richard Nixon (1969-74) and author of the controversial Rockefeller Report on Latin America] considered Liberation Theology as more threatening than Marxism itself. In effect, Liberation Theology had a lot of influence in the Sandinista revolution [in Nicaragua] and in El Salvador.

After the Sandinista revolution and the guerrilla movements of Latin America were defeated, Liberation Theology stopped worrying imperialism. Another factor that has contributed to lower the pulse of Liberation Theology has been an end to the military dictatorships.

What has been the position of the Vatican with respect to Liberation Theology?
Pope John Paul II launched a “Vaticanization” process of the bishops, with a particular attention in naming those who were not tied to Liberation Theology.

Many bishops have gone from grass-root communities to Pentecostal and Catechumenal movements and other ones like Communion and Liberation, Charismatic Renewal. But the grass-root ecclesiastic communities have not disappeared. Today they are not so concentrated on theology but on the Bible, and the study of the Bible in circles has produced an incredible amount of material. However, they are viewed with prejudice by the bishops.

There is no longer the hunger for theological knowledge of the 1970s, when the books of Gustavo and Boff sold like hotcakes and there was a line around bookstores when they showed up.

We are in a moment of transition, not so because of theology, but because of the reflections of politics on theology.

As a member of the clergy, how do you see the current situation of the Catholic Church in Latin America?
The Church´s organizational model has failed. It´s a parochial, pre-modern, pre-urban model that assumes that people join for geographic proximity. It´s not like that. Today people communicate electronically.

My best friend could live in Turin while I live in São Paulo. I could talk to him three or four times a day on the Internet.

The Catholic Church in Latin America and especially in Brazil loses 1 percent of its faithful every year. In 20 years, it has gone from covering 91 percent of the Brazilian population to 71 percent. It is also because we don´t know how to use communication media. We are artisans, amateurs. We talk on Catholic television about ourselves and for ourselves. But we don´t know how to talk to the non-Catholic population.
 —Latinamerica Press.


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