Thursday, October 8, 2009

"They can take everything from us but hope": An interview with Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga

We are happy to share with you our English translation of this important interview with Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga.

Pedro Ramiro, María González Reyes y Luis González Reyes
September 2009

At 81, the retired bishop of the diocese of São Felix do Araguaia is one of the most prominent representatives of liberation theology and has become a reference point for the Latin American left. Since he came to Brazil to stay four decades ago, his work in defending the rights of indigenous peoples and oppressed social groups and his support of the movements of landless peasants in Brazil and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in the eighties make Pedro Casaldaliga an essential part of the living memory of the struggle for dignity and liberation of the people of Latin America.

In the middle of last August, Pedro Casaldaliga welcomed a group of social activists from Spain to his humble house in São Felix in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, to reflect that "globalization has given us the opportunity to recognize that we are one human race. We are all equal — we must be — in dignity and opportunity." This was the beginning of a conversation which ranged from the political situation in Brazil to the current prospects for liberation theology, through the consumption pattern and the challenges of the Latin American left.

From the perspective that being committed to the poorest people on the planet for many years gives one, what does solidarity mean for you today?

The question the First World asks is: What can we do? Well, in the end, renounce the privilege of being First World, which is already a lot to ask. Give up this exceptional condition of a tiny fraction of the human race, when compared with the vast majority of the entire Third World. We try to always stress that solidarity is no longer that paternalistic solidarity — sending clothing, medicines, certain resources ... It must be a solidarity that goes both ways, much more specific and more demanding: we give and receive, so that solidarity itself also, in addition to feeding people and curing diseases, facilitates and stimulates the experience of their own culture. Because we help people who have a culture, who are not just a stomach and some veins, but who are people. Therefore, we must ensure that solidarity is constant, aware, self-critical, local and global: going out and returning.

When you met Fidel Castro twenty years ago, he said that "liberation theology helps the transformation of Latin America much more than a million books on Marxism". What is liberation theology currently based on?
Today, there are different liberation theologies. What has been done is to add more explicit themes, sectors of society, of life, that before were not thought about as much. There have been emerging issues associated with indigenous people, women, ecology, street children... Now it is a theology that is enriched by the demands of these emerging groups and, therefore, liberation theology is now very pluralistic in its objectives, albeit within the demand for liberation. When we call for the liberation of black people, we are asking that they be able to feel proud to be black, that they not be excluded from professorships, public office, government, that there not be the segregation that still exists. And it's that when I came to Latin America 41 years ago, blacks, the vast majority, did not see themselves as such. They even straightened their hair so that it would not look like black people's hair. Now they are regaining their pride, their identity. Something similar has happened with the indigenous population. When I arrived in Brazil, it was said that there were 150,000 Indians, while today there are a million. In this region, for example, the Tapirape have regained their territory, the Karaja have also reconquered some of their lands, the Xavante too ... and all this has the liberation theology spirit.

One criticism that is made of liberation theology by conservatives is that it is a very materialistic theology, one that is very concerned with material interests, physical needs and forgets the spirit, prayer. Given that, I would claim that three or four traits would be indispensable in the Church of Christ: first, the option for the poor, second to combine faith and life, third, the Bible in the hands of the people, and fourth, genuinely fraternal solidarity.

What has allowed it to coalesce in Latin America?
In Latin America, liberation theology developed at a very timely moment: the Second Vatican Council had just happened in 1968 when I came here, the winds of change were blowing, there were military dictatorships, so the context was conducive to plant one's feet in the ground and throw oneself into liberation. Moreover, in Latin America there is a certain unity of the continent. It is the only continent that can be called the great nation: Our America, as the liberators said. This made it easier for a distinctively Latin American theology to emerge.

I always remember how persecution, exile, torture, martyrs, brought together better the whole Latin American reality. Here in Brazil sometimes it felt like we were a little distant from Spanish-speaking Latin America — a country that was too big, with another language ... But after all those military dictatorships, where the songs and blood were mixed and mingled, Latin America is more itself, it and the Caribbean. So that yes, I prefer the expression "Our America", because the liberators used this term more often — Bolívar, Martí, Sandino, Fidel ...

On the Latin American agenda that you set out each year, which underlies the work of many activists on the continent, in 2009 you put the title "Towards a new socialism." What does this new socialism mean?
Who knows? (laughs) We could also say left or socialism, but in any case there are some essential requirements: first, you can not aim for profit, and second, there must be a certain equality, sufficiently egalitarian wage levels, for example, between a minister and a peasant; one has to demand an equal to equal exchange between countries and, finally, one can not accept that capital becomes the master of labor, the economy and of democracy itself.

As we are seeing in the case of Honduras, could the days of coups d'état come back in Latin America?

Who knows? At least in Nicaragua and El Salvador, what was can never be again -- there will be injustice, there will be complicated situations, but a very popular revolution will not be completely lost.

That yes, the fact that a country can be constantly massacred and there is no one who can intervene, proves that mankind is in bad shape. Socialism can not accept the idea of colonialism, of imperialism. In this regard, we owe gratitude to Cuba, because, with all their sins and excesses, the fact of stubbornly answering the empire is a great service for Latin America and the world. In that sense, a global policy could be a global opportunity.

You've been putting a lot of emphasis on the problem of consumerism.

So far consumerism has been seen as an excess of vanity, that if you have forty pairs of shoes, two televisions, etc... But this is much more serious: rights are being consumed, needs are being consumed. If 20 percent of people and families are well-off, living in the civilization of comfort, there are 80 percent who do not have the basics. Consumerism is capitalist, and all the evil that is in capitalism is in consumerism. If you compare what happens when there is an earthquake in Japan and when it happens in Honduras, you see that three people are killed in one place and in the other, two thousand. The First World countries are allowed to continue, and after us, they say, the deluge. Because the first thing they look out for is not the world, it's their own house.

For next year's agenda, you have proposed the theme "Let's save ourselves with the planet" ("Salvémonos con el planeta").

Within this global vision, I finally discovered that the planet is our only home. And there is no way to save ourselves unless we save the planet. Better still, we should remember that the whole human race can end and the planet will continue. Even selfishly, we would say, now we can only save ourselves if it's with the planet.

Awareness has been created where none existed before: the Amazon has been virtually discovered, so to speak, in recent times. For the Church, there was no Amazon. There were attitudes of some "advanced" people -- with bucolic rather than political ideas -- who were defined as nice "Quijotes" but nothing more. Recently, with globalization, various technicians and scientists have pointed out that it's getting serious. And a more political stance has come.

What can be done in the face of all this?

There should be a major process of conversion, a change of mentality. As long as we believe we can have everything we want, there is no solution. Precisely because the situation is global, the proposal to have a critical awareness of the real situation must reach all bases. Every family has the right and duty to curtail it to a degree: if on the one hand the father is in a solidarity NGO and on the other hand the child is consuming in cold blood, with that behavior we are causing what we are building to crumble.

It is good that so much news comes out in alternative bulletins so that we are aware of what is happening. As many experts say, there will not be problems [in the future] -- they are here, and we're late, things should have been solved yesterday. Others, who are more hopeful, say there is still time, that the problems can still be solved. Except that for that, we need policies. It's a gesture that a family has one car instead of having three, but that does not solve the oil problem.

So what should the policy be then?

You can only solve the problem if there are, simultaneously, government policies and domestic policies, groups, parties, associations, NGOs. As is being said a lot now, you have to work locally and globally. We must give more value to politics. We must get involved in politics, we must take on the political vocation. If not, we will just go on singing protest songs. Politics has been demoralized, it has continued to remain in the hands of people without social conscience or responsibility. Both the parties and the labor unions have led to many disappointments, but they are still valid, although not as hegemonic because there are also many social movements and NGOs that are very valuable.

The best NGOs are highly political: they take care of helping to stimulate, helping by promoting action and training. The NGOs should be asked to make a political examination of conscience. Because they are helping, yes, but structurally? The Catholic Church has always done charity, but if we're not involved with structures, we will continue with some that are harmful.

A year after the general elections in Brazil, what is your opinion of the Lula government?

Lula, even if he wanted to, could not make Brazil socialist. Now he could encourage a lot of acts that would lead to socialism: lower the wages of the wealthiest and raise those of the most disadvantaged, provide opportunities to groups who did not have them, put labor over capital, not surrender body and soul to agribusiness, but to the family farm. Can you export? Sure, but not giving priority to what is not a priority. The theme of his mandate has been that all Brazilians eat once a day. That is a step towards protosocialism, right? But, even so, there are millions who do not eat every day. And which head of state has had the 80 percent popularity rating that Lula has now?

How do you assess the role of the anti-globalization movements, the World Social Forum meetings and the organizations who argue that "another world is possible"?
This global awareness helps us understand that we must transform the world. It's not enough to just look after one's own house and one's own country. Utopia is thus more possible, because now it is a utopia with political vision, solidarity, with specific positions. Years ago, who could ask for a world government? Today, talking about it is not as utopian. Utopia is the daughter of hope. And hope is the DNA of the human race. You can take everything away from us except faithful hope, as I say in a poem. But it must be a credible, active and justifiable hope and one that acts. That is why liberation theology has emphasized praxis so much: if we say that God is love, we have to put it into practice; if He is life, life should be enhanced. Religion is not praxis, we were told, it is faith. But faith without practice is a chimera, and sarcasm. Theoretically, this is clear: now, in practice, we'll see ...

Pedro Ramiro is a researcher for the Observatorio de Multinacionales en América Latina (OMAL) - Paz con Dignidad; María González Reyes y Luis González Reyes are members of Ecologistas en Acción. This interview was published in Revista Pueblos, No. 39, September 2009.

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