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“Lula’s government has not changed the fundamentals of Brazil”
Paolo Moiola
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Interview with Frei Betto, Brazilian writer and theologian. Parte I

The famed “Zero Hunger” program launched by Brazil´s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has become a way to gain votes. It should have been a lot more: a liberating program. Aside from that, the structural problems in Brazil are still unresolved: agrarian reform, landless campesinos, corruption, incredible inequalities. Is everything bad then? Catholic priest Carlos Libânio Christo, better known as Frei Betto, a theologian and respected writer says no, that a “Latin America with Lula is better than one without him.” Frei Betto spoke with LATINAMERICA PRESS collaborator Paolo Moiola about Lula´s government.

Why did you stop collaborating with the government of your friend Lula, and above all, has his presidency left you disappointed?
Before I begin, let me clear up this point: both Brazil and Latin America today are better with than without Lula.

That being said, what political options have you not shared with the former metal worker and union leader-turned president?
Lula´s political status was reached through a popular movement. Once he got to power, he made the mistake of standing on one leg – Congress – forgetting the social movements.

He was the only president in the history of Brazil to have the possibility to govern on two legs. Instead of doing that, he has not maintained ties to the movements. Lula preferred direct contact with the poor without the mediation of people´s movements. That, in my opinion, is serious.

Now Lula has the support of the poorest and of the richest. The poor because today they have better living conditions, the rich because they have been even richer today. Everyone else in the middle is … a critic of Lula.

The landless campesino movement put a lot of hope in Lula. But it resulted to be disappointing: the latifundio [large plantation] continues to reign and land reform has not been seen…
It´s true. I´m convinced that the capitalist future of Brazil does not exist without land reform. What’s more, this is a historic proposal of Lula´s party, but there is no sign that they´re going to do it.

Along with Argentina, Brazil is the only American country that has not had a land reform. Nevertheless, Brazil is the country with the most arable land in the three Americas, without counting the Amazon, which is not arable, but rich in resources, and above all, a climate regulator from Florida down to Patagonia.

Lula and Brazil have launched the business of biofuels for the production of sugarcane ethanol. You have been harsh on the subject …
Leaving people to starve to feed cars? Absurd! We shouldn´t talk about biofuels but necrofuels. In Greek “bio” means “life,” while “necro” means “death.” In my opinion, it´s the correct term to use for these products.

You participated in the conception and — from 2003 to 2004 — the first implementation of the Zero Hunger program. After you left, almost slamming the door on your way out…
Fundamentally, the Zero Hunger program was made up of 60 public policies to benefit 11 million families, 44 million very poor people.

In a year and a half these people were supposed to be able to leave the program and go forward on their own. In summary, it was supposed to be a liberating program. In 2003, it went very well and I was very excited. In 2004, Lula fired the minister in charge of the program and named another. The program changed radically: there are families who entered in 2003 who are still there; of the 60 public policies there is only one — the Family Purse — that aims to give a sum of money to each family every month.

Why did they change it? Because they discovered that the program was a fantastic source of votes. Every family that received these subsidies voted for Lula and for his guys, above all in the northeast.

At first, there was a committee of civil society guarantees that decided which families would go in and which would leave. Later they were substituted with mayors and bureaucrats, even knowing the high level of corruption with them. In fact, they began to enter their relatives, nephews, et cetera, into the program.

Summing up, the program changed completely with respect to the beginning, and I wasn´t in agreement. So I left. I told Lula that I didn’t want to continue with the program. It was December 2004 and no one knew about the serious corruption cases yet.

What significant things have Lula and his government done?
Lula´s government has obtained important things. For example, the country´s economic stability, in the first place, with stable inflation of between 3 and 5 percent. Now people can better prepare their family budgets. Second, minimum wage. In the time of [ex-President Fernando Henrique] Cardoso [1995-2002] it was a dream to earn more than US$100 and today it’s more than $300.

There´s “Lights For Everyone.” With this program, electricity reaches every corner and people can buy themselves a refrigerator and a television. There is no repression of the popular movements, notwithstanding rich´s and media´s shouts of protest. For the government, the manifestations of those without land aren´t right, but there´s no repression.

Something else: there is no privatization of public patrimony. Also, Lula has opened Brazil to international relations. He has been the first Brazilian president to visit the Arab world, which before was reserved for the United States.

There are extremely positive things. The problem is that Lula´s government has not changed the fundamentals of Brazil, such as the agrarian structure.

Lula´s term is up in 2010. Being that it is his second consecutive term, he will not be able to run for a third term. Are you optimistic about his successor?
Not really because Lula´s party has shifted in a confusing way. There were two candidates to follow Lula but now there are none. They were suspicious for their lack of ethics, and now they’re out of the running. So, Lula doesn´t know who to pick. Transferring votes to one´s designated successor is not something automatic. He or she must have a minimum level of charisma and sympathy.

He was aiming at Dilma Rousseff, his chief of staff, the second-most important post in the state. But she lacks charisma and was later involved in the scandal of politicians´ credit cards.

The law does not allow candidates to be elected for three consecutive times, but in 2014 Lula could return, and if things continue like this, I´m sure that this will happen. He would be the first Brazilian to be elected president three times.

In January 2009 the city of Belem will host the World Social Forum. What do you think about this?
I think that it will have a great impact because it will be held in Amazonia. Here is a piece of land 22 times the size of Belgium which has been deforested. There are no limits to this disaster: Lula´s government has been unable to defend the Amazon. No one is asking for an ecological sanctuary closed off to the world, but at least sustainable development.

Now the government has a highway plan to construct or pave the ones that already exist. But this will benefit the large landowners, precious metals hunters, or those who exploit clandestinely the riches beneath the soil and in the forests.

In Amazonia, a cubic meter of precious wood is worth 10 euro, while in Genoa its worth is 3,000 euro. Better than the cocaine trade.


Frei Betto
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