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Date: Tue, 11 Apr 1995 21:06:02 CDT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu>
Subject: Brazil: Betto on Movements & the Govt
To: Multiple recipients of list ACTIV-L <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu>

Brazil: A Salon Democracy (Betto on Movements & the Govt)
From ALAI (Latin American Information Agency)

Brazil: A Salon Democracy

By Frei Betto, [11 April 1995]

On March 22, the Caravan of Popular Movements, which mobilized more than 15,000 people from across the country to demand the right of civil society to present proposals for public policies, culminated in Brasilia with a meeting with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. This was the first popular demonstration of such proportions since the new administration took office some eighty days ago. It was organized by the Popular Movement Center, the National Movement of Struggle for Housing, the National Movement for Human Rights, the National Movement of Street Children, the Popular Health Movement, the Christian Brotherhood of the Ill and Disabled and the Movement for the Defense of Slum-dwellers. On this occasion, Frei Betto discusses the relation between the government and the popular movements.

Brazil is a curious country. Governed by a sociologist, it does not give priority to the social question. Fascinated with democracy, it fears the organization of civil society and, especially, its right to participate in governmental decisions. And to celebrate ten years of civilian rule, the President of the Republic has no shame in receiving, at the Laranjeiras [orange tree] Palace, one of the generals responsible for the twenty years of dictatorship, that sad stain on our history.

Brazil has freed itself from the dictatorship, but not from the apprentices of the dictators. The garbage from the years of dictatorship has mounted so high across our view of the horizon that it's difficult to glimpse the possibility of a real democracy where the people leave the grandstands and in fact take part in the game. The military still exercises tutelage over civilian authority; politicians that stood out as faithful servants of the dictatorship today occupy the highest strata of power; the television media - a public concession - remain the exclusive monopoly of seven families; the country ranks second in the world in the concentration of income; our minimum wage is less than half of Paraguay's; the Brazilian economy remains overseen by Washington. We have lost our sense of sovereignty to such a degree that we are turning over the Amazon Surveillance System to a foreign government. Can anyone imagine Brazil installing a surveillance system in the Rocky Mountains?

A Web of Movements

For the mass media, the popular movements don't exist; better yet, they merit attention only when they appear on the international scene, like during the recent Copenhagen Conference, where the street children denounced their dramatic situation. Other than that, the media pretend not to know that perhaps only the US has a greater number and variety of popular movements than Brazil. The difference is that the movements there are no more than powerful lobbies tied to the political parties.

Here, they form a web of social relations responsible for the progressive conquest of rights denied by law and ignored by politicians. Such is the case with the struggle of the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers, the best organized in the nation, which today supports a number of squatter communities with a high level of both productivity and school attendance, demarginalizing the agrarian question.

Brazilian social movements are divided between those that are actually popular, autonomous and organized by the affected people themselves - Blacks, women, communities lacking health care or housing, etc. - and those under the tutelage of non-governmental organizations and institutions like Christian churches, which exist more as propositions than as the organization of specific sectors of society. Among the latter, Action for Citizenship and the Long Live Rio Movement stand out: the first centered on the fight against poverty and, now, the land question; the second dedicated to freeing Rio from urban violence, creating alternatives for access to citizenship for the dispossessed.

A chronic problem for the popular movements is their relationship with the authorities, who are almost always preoccupied with neutralizing or co-opting them. The Community Solidarity Program, for example, prefers integrating artists and NGO representatives into its councils, rather than the real leaders of the popular movements. This has facilitated the paternalistic functioning which has historically characterized the actions in the social arena of the federal government, whose plans for a sector are never discussed with and entrusted to the needy, but to the politicians in a game of Franciscan barter - one must give to get - that has insured the exclusion of civil society from governmental decisions.

Brazil would be very different if civil society decided for itself on the public concession of radio and television licenses, the use of resources for health and education, the distribution of the government's food reserves, the campaign against illiteracy, the financing of public housing, the augmentation of community gardens, pharmacies, workshops, day care centers and other communal social resources. Unfortunately, the governments - state and municipal governments included - comport themselves as the Almighty, disregarding civil society, preferring to remain hostage to the oligopolies, the banks, the international creditors, the elite that only cares for its own interests.

Elected by the people, the government fears basing itself on the people. This is a formal democracy, a salon democracy that doesn't like the smell of the people, as General Figueiredo confessed, that keeps only one foot in the kitchen, with the other one, and its body and soul, in the carpeted corridors of those who have not even the slightest sensitivity to the growth of poverty and the abysmal inequality of income that characterizes the Brazilian nation.