At 86, Dom Pedro Casaldaliga goes on facing threats, the political system, agribusiness, and empires. In the name of hope, he is a soldier for an invincible cause.
By Sônia Oddi and Celso Maldos (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Revista do Brasil (em português; also available in Spanish on Adital)
No. 96, June 2014
São Félix do Araguaia, Northeast Mato Grosso, May 10, 2014. In a small chapel in the back yard, a prayer opens the day at the house of the bishop emeritus of San Félix, Pedro Casaldáliga. The simplicity of the architecture gains strength through the significance of objects arranged there.
On the altar, a towel with indigenous artwork. On the wall, a relief map of Crucified Africa, a rustic Christ on the crucifix, a ceramic of a mother protecting her son with one arm and carrying a pot in the other. On the cement floor, benches made of logs, which resemble the buriti ones used by the Xavante in a traditional competition where two teams face off in a relay race, carrying logs on their shoulders, a demonstration of endurance and strength, the qualities of a people known for their warrior skills. Surrounded by plants, light enters from all sides of the timid and incomplete walls. In this organic environment, as in Pedro's life, friends nestle to take part in prayer.
José Maria Concepción, a long-time companion of Pedro who has recently come from Spain, begins the reading:
"1795: José Leonardo Chirino, mestizo, led the insurrection in Coro, Venezuela, with native and black people fighting for the freedom of the slaves and the elimination of taxes. 1985: Irne García and Gustavo Chamorro, martyrs for justice. Guanabanal, Colombia.
1986: Josimo Morais Tavares, priest, killed by the latifundistas. Imperatriz, Maranhão, Brasil"
The martyrs being remembered are those of the day, May 10th. Countless others -- hundreds of them -- exist and will be remembered throughout the year, according to the Latin American Agenda. He continues: "2013: Ríos Montt, Guatemala's former dictator, sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. The Truth Commission estimates that he committed 800 murders a month in the 17 months he ruled, after a coup d'etat."
The young priest, Felipe Cruz, an Augustinian and native of Pernambuco, leads a song, the Lord's Prayer, and the reading of a passage from the pastoral edition of the Bible. They close with the Oração da Irmandade dos Mártires da Caminhada Latino-Americana ["Prayer of the Brotherhood of the Martyrs of the Latin American Journey"] written by Pedro, whose last line reads "Amém, Axé, Awere, Aleluia!", out of respect for the diversity of beliefs of the Brazilian people.
Because of this respect, Dom Pedro has never celebrated Mass in Marãiwatsede, the indigenous land of the Xavante, a community that has always counted on his support in their fight to take back the land from which they had been deported in 1968 and to which they began to return in 2004. "If the bishop is here celebrating Mass, it means that we have full rights here. And, under the guidance of CIMI (the Indigenous Missionary Council) and the church of the Prelature, he has personally never celebrated on the reservation," Jose Maria testified.
For supporting the almost fifty year struggle of indigenous peoples of that region of Mato Grosso, Pedro has been threatened with death sometimes. Most recently in late 2012, when the invasion process (a legal measure to achieve possession) by the ranchers and squatters of the Marãiwatsede native lands progressed and went into effect, a result of the ruling of the courts and the federal government, he had to absent himself from São Félix.
Persecution, death threats and deportation procedures have marked the career of Pedro, who came to the distant region of Araguaia as a Claretian missionary in 1968 at age 40. Of Catalonian origin, he was born in 1928 -- and at 8, he had his first experience with martyrdom when his mother's brother, a priest, was killed when Spain was plunged in a bloody civil war.
The São Félix Prelature, a geographical division of the Catholic Church, was created in 1969 and includes 15 municipalities: Santa Cruz do Xingu, São José do Xingu, Vila Rica, Santa Terezinha, Luciara, Novo Santo Antônio, Bom Jesus do Araguaia, Confresa, Porto Alegre do Norte, Canabrava do Norte, Serra Nova Dourada, Alto Boa Vista, Ribeirão Cascalheira, Querência and São Félix do Araguaia. It currently has an estimated population of 135,000 inhabitants, an area of approximately 102,000 square kilometers, and 22 parishes.
Pedro, in that distant area, found a needy people who were suffering and neglected, at the mercy of the threats of the large landowners and cattlemen. The poor of the Gospel, to whom he had chosen to devote his life, were there.
In 1971, at the hands of Dom Tomás Balduíno (who died in May at 91) he was consecrated bishop of the prelature. After 2005, when he resigned, he received the title Bishop Emeritus.
A founder of liberation theology, his involvement in the struggles of the river dwellers, the indigenous and the peasants bothered the latifundistas and the dictatorship. Even today, he bothers the rich and powerful men of Central-Western Brazil.
The policy of tax incentives, carried out by the military, through the Superintendency for Development of Amazonia (Sudam), was the birthplace of agribusiness. And the conflicts arising from the expropriation of land from native populations, from the exploitation of labor, from slave labor and all sorts of violence also made the missionary Pedro angry and made him choose whose side he would be on.
"The rights of indigenous peoples are interests that challenge official policy," says Pedro. "They are cultures contrary to neoliberal capitalism and the requirements of the mining companies, the loggers. The indigenous peoples are demanding respectful ecological activity."
During the dictatorship in the 1970s, he founded, along with Dom Tomás Balduíno, CIMI and the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), in response to the plight of rural workers, indigenous peoples, settlers and peons, especially in the Amazon. Also during this period, in 1976, he witnessed the murder of Father João Bosco Burnier, shot in the neck when both were defending two women who were tortured in a police station in Ribeirão Cascalheira (MT).
Pedro does physical therapy sessions several times a week. At 86, and diagnosed with Parkinson's about 30 years ago, this care is needed to minimize the progression of the illness that causes tremors and muscle atrophy. He follows a disciplined diet that has somewhat slowed but not stopped the disease's progression, according to his doctor.
The discipline is repeated in his daily reading of e-mails, news, articles, accompanied most often by Frei Paulo, an Augustinian, who like Dom Pedro always keeps the door open for inhabitants of the community and travelers. During the visit of Revista do Brasil, for example, there's a pause to welcome Raimundo, a tall, brown, thin man who, afflicted and overwhelmed, knelt and asked for his blessing.
The house is simple, exposed brick, unfinished walls. However, like the chapel in the back yard, it is full of signs and icons that show the commitment to humanitarian causes of those who live under that roof.
Che, Jesus, Milton
In the bedroom, in the lounge, the kitchen, on the back porch, in the office, a daydream for eyes and heart. Images of varied significance: Che Guevara, Jesus Christ, Milton Nascimento, Father João Bosco Burnier, Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop Romero, Pablo Neruda. Texts from Martín Fierro, St. Francis of Assisi, Joan Maragall, Exodus. Posters of the Missa dos Quilombos, the Romaria dos Mártires da Caminhada, the Semana da Terra Padre Josimo. Calendars of the War of Canudos, of workers on May Day. And also photos, small souvenirs and folk art, amid figurines of awards received.
His commitment to populist causes goes beyond the country's borders. In 1994, Dom Pedro supported the revolt in Chiapas, Mexico, stating that when the people take up arms, it must be respected and understood. In 1999, he published the Declaração de Amor à Revolução Total de Cuba ["Declaration of Love for Total Revolution in Cuba"]. He speaks with conviction of the importance of Latin American unity, conceived by Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) and advocated by former President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez (1954-2013).
"I used to say that Brazil wasn't very Latin American. The common language of the Spanish-speaking people makes Brazil feel like a bit separate," says Dom Pedro. "On the other hand, Brazil has had some hegemony conditions which have caused mistrust among other peoples. Hugo Chavez made an optimistic and militant proposition, appealing to the spirit of Bolivar. With that, interesting victories were achieved such as blocking the success of FTAA."
He recalls a meeting with the former Brazilian president. "When Lula was at the CNBB [Brazilian Bishops' Conference] meeting, we were saying goodbye and he approached me and gave me a hug. And I said to him, I want to ask three things of you. First, that you don't let us fall into the FTAA, second, that you don't let us fall into the FTAA, third, that you don't let us fall into the FTAA. That's all I'm asking of you," he said, referring to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, an icon of neoliberalism.
"And we really didn't get into the FTAA. Because Latin America has to save itself as a continent. We have common histories, the same people, the same struggles, the same tormenters. The same empires dominating us, a tradition of oligarchies that have sold out. That's how it's always been. They began with the empire, which submitted to the local oligarchies. Armies and security forces guaranteed a mercenary security. It has improved. Even the United States doesn't have the power today that it had with respect to the control of Latin America. We are less American, becoming more Americans."
Hope and Dialogue
It's necessary to save hope by any means, Dom Pedro argues. "Emphasize the local struggles against globalization. Join in the demands, see them as your own, like the struggles that are happening in various countries in Latin America. El Salvador, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador...Clearly, they are countries that are very close in the social struggles."
There are times Pedro Casaldáliga doesn't grant interviews because he has found it difficult to reconcile the agility of his mind with the time it takes to express words. The help of José Maria, his friend and countryman, was essential to understanding his halting and forced speech, as he conversed on subjects chosen by him.
Optimistic about Pope Francis' performance, he points out that "he has made very significant symbolic gestures." "Liberation theology has felt supported by him. He values the basic ecclesial communities, as well as the goal of a poor Church for the poor. He has encouraged dialogue with other faiths ... His dialogue with the Muslim world and the Jewish world, and now this visit to Israel draw attention... Very significant. He dismantled the whole ecclesiastical bureaucracy; its employees had to adapt."
He recognizes the limitations the political system imposes on the government's activities which, according to Dom Pedro, have "an original sin": alliances. "When there are alliances, there are concessions and failings. To the extent that these governments all submit to neoliberal capitalism, we will have these serious flaws. The policy will always be a conditional policy. Both Lula and Dilma would like to govern at the service of the people, but the alliances made those populist governments always constrained." For him, there should be a "firm, almost revolutionary stance" in regard to issues such as health, education and communications.
Deceased in March last year, the former president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez is remembered resolutely by the priest. "He tried to break, he broke the scheme. So the Right wishes to scorch, even burn, Venezuela. In the newspapers and on the news programs, every day something negative about Venezuela has to appear."
Indigenous vs. ruralists' rights
He points out that the indigenous cause is a current issue, and that the threats haven't stopped. "Never before have they been attacked so much. There have been several proposals to change the policy that's official through the 1988 Constitution, which recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples very explicitly. Proposals are beginning to emerge that it be Congress that sets the demarcation of indigenous lands, so we already know how it will be defined. The ruralist caucus is very big...," Pedro observes.
On the other hand, he continues, the indigenous people have never been as organized as now. And the country has created a "kind of consciousness" in regard to this cause. "If they want to prevent the existence of an official structure with respect to indigenous policies, they try to suppress bodies that are at the service of those causes. This affects indigenous peoples and the rural world. All of this is affected by agribusiness. Agribusiness is king. And it rules globally. It's not only a problem in Mato Grosso, it's a problem of the country and around the world. Multinationals place constraints and impose themselves.
"The retaking of the Marãiwatsédé indigenous land is pretty emblematic. The Xavante constantly defended their rights. When they were driven out, deported -- that's the word, they were deported -- they were still tied to this land. They came every year to gather pati, a palm tree to make ornaments. And they always claimed the land where our elders are buried. And they were always present," he says. "Here, we always remember that this land belongs to the Xavante, that this is the Xavante's land. The young residents, the children were saying the other day, 'our grandparents say this land belongs to the native people; our parents say this is the indigenous people's land.'"
At this point, Don Pedro remembers "tough times" when CIMI was forced to challenge certain government actions. "When they say there's no political will for indigenous causes, I say that there is will against the rights of the indigenous people -- it's systemic. Dilma, I don't know if she felt a little freer, if she would back indigenous causes. Some think that she doesn't personally agree with the indigenous cause. She has been criticized because she has never received indigenous people. The first meeting with a group was a little while ago. All these Belo Monte projects, the hydroelectric dams. If she has a developmentalist policy, it must disregard what the indigenous cause requires -- first would be land, territory, demarcation, removing the invaders. It would also be encouraging indigenous and quilombola culture," he says uncompromisingly. "If you're in favor of the indigenous, you're against the system. No use playing it down there."
Dom Pedro supports the presence of labor unions but criticizes the movement. "They're the voice of all the demands of the indigenous peoples, of the working world. In Latin America, labor unions have been very good, but they've been failing quite a lot lately. They've been coopted. When you see a labor leader become a deputy, a senator, he's gone," he says, seeing Via Campesina as an alternative amid the coalitions of populist groups in various countries.
"Then we go back to the memory of Hugo Chavez, who encouraged such participation," he notes. "Ordinarily, it used to happen that the only voices workers had were the union and the party. In recent years, both the party and the union have lost representation. They've been partially replaced by associations, some movements. But they're still valid. Labor unions and parties are natural instruments for the causes of working people and peasants."
To campaign electorally, all labor candidates for deputy or senator must be somewhat "constrained", Dom Pedro believes. "So it is best that they not run. On the other hand, one can't completely deny the role of parties and unions. It's not realistic. There are still spaces that have to be filled."
Lucidly, Pedro ends the conversation recalling the phrase of a soldier who fought against the Franco dictatorship in the Spanish Civil War: "We are defeated soldiers for an invincible cause."