The NI Interview
Herbert de Souza
Richard Swift talks with a leading feminist who faces the daily danger of
assassination in the midst of Algeria’s brutal civil war.
Illustration by ALAN HUGHES
‘Brazil is Paradise for a minority, Purgatory for most people and Hell for 20 per cent of the population.’ Herbert de Souza has a flair for language. Christian images are interspersed with rhetoric, statistics and an unshakeable moral determination to ram home unpalatable truths. This mixture has made him the leading analyst of Brazil’s tortured history of ‘development’. In 1992 he burst out of the academic ghetto, sparking an extraordinary national campaign against hunger and poverty. The crusade, known officially by the cumbersome title ‘Citizen’s Action Against Poverty and Hunger and for Life’, is known unofficially as ‘Betinho’s Campaign’.
De Souza, affectionately known as ‘Betinho’, has become a kind of conscience for Brazil. Start a conversation with him and you will find it littered with paradoxes. Some are raised provocatively and then left hanging in the air. Others are teased apart playfully by his formidable intellect.
One paradox overshadows them all. Betinho tested HIV-positive in 1985 and AIDS has already killed his two brothers. Yet he speaks of this apparent death sentence as ‘liberating’ – infusing his own struggle for life and his war on social injustice with an intense contagious optimism.
Betinho has a faith in people’s ability to change their minds. ‘When I was a Maoist I believed power grew from the barrel of a gun; later I realized that power really lies in the growth of awareness.’ For him Brazil is still largely trapped in the legacy of a dictatorship which ‘perverted the state, intimidated the spirit of citizenship and destroyed society’s self-confidence’. But he himself has moved on from what he calls the ‘period of collective madness’ – the 1960s and 1970s, when he was forced underground and then into exile.
He rejects the criticism of left-wing traditionalists that his campaign to collect food for 32 million hungry Brazilians is simply ‘papering over the cracks’. Instead he stresses: ‘I’ve learned much more during this campaign than I did as a militant of the Left. Without the practice of change, the rhetoric of change is meaningless.’
The hunger campaign is run out of the offices of IBASE – the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis – which is the non-governmental organization that de Souza helped start up after his return from exile. But decentralization is the key word for the campaign. Local committees are completely independent and they emphasize rapid collection and distribution, not strategic planning and accumulation. For as Betinho points out, ‘accumulation breeds inertia and corruption and hunger is an emergency’.
Results have been impressive. The number of local committees is now over 3,000 and it is estimated that 32 per cent of all Brazilians have donated food, money or clothing to the drive. Donations have come from the most unlikely sources, including the inmates of Rio’s prisons.
Although Betinho’s ideas are responsible for the direction and momentum of the movement he declines the title of Director in favour of National Articulator. Last year he tried to shift the campaign’s emphasis from food to jobs, a difficult move. Hunger is one thing, he says. ‘But how should a committee set about creating jobs? Do jobs depend on government and business only? Or can citizens contribute something too?’ He rejects out of hand the economic argument that job creation requires huge investments.
‘If that’s what economic theory says, then I say to hell with the theory,’ he declares, with a hint of mischief in his eyes. Economic theory is one of his favourite targets. ‘A beetle knows nothing about the laws of aerodynamics, but it manages to fly perfectly well.’ Betinho believes that economic theory has taken over from nuclear war as one of the most dangerous threats to the modern world. ‘It is dragging humanity towards the disaster of social apartheid,’ he declares.
The change in the campaign focus from hunger to unemployment marks a shift to addressing root causes – ‘for hunger: food; for poverty: work’. Next on Betinho’s list is land reform. The hungry in the cities, he notes, are overwhelmingly landless migrants from rural areas. ‘The origin of poverty in Brazil is in the countryside.’
The 58-year-old, with his frail, stooped frame, is a magnetic presence for TV cameras, a must in a TV-addicted country like Brazil. His incisive delivery leaves an indelible imprint on the mind of the listener. Brazil’s history is full of popular resistance expressed in bloody upsurges which met heroic but inevitable defeat. Betinho’s quiet survivor’s heroism and imperturbable ability to talk as ‘Citizen Betinho’ to anyone – from President to slumdweller – differs radically from the model set by generations of dead rebels.
Brazil has a habit of projecting anyone with media presence, from soccer heroes to game-show hosts, into politics. But Betinho swears he won’t join the rush. ‘The really fundamental changes come from below, from society,’ he argues, ‘and I wouldn’t want to be a prisoner of a party line, of a single set of arguments.’ Ever the iconoclast, he grins mischievously and adds: ‘After all, I don’t want to lose the element of surprise, do I?’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995