Betinho: The conscience of a society

Artists are remembered for their music or paintings, statespeople for laws or government plans, and sportspeople for the cups or medals they have won. But when Herbet de Souza, better known by his affectionate nickname 'Betinho', died, few Brazilian obituaries recorded him as the author of a small literary gem, Ailce's List, and even less for his incisive essays on democracy, transnational corporations and the World Bank. This is because Betinho's legacy (his 'works' or his 'miracle', as the theologists supporting his canonisation would have it) is not like that of other sociologists or politicians, but that of the prophets: Betinho changed the consciousness of Brazil. And with that, the course of history.

by Roberto Bissio

THE merit of intellectuals tends to be judged on how innovatory their ideas are. Betinho's genius lay in his ability to state the obvious. It was obvious the presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello had submerged Brazil in a mire of corruption, but the nation was lacking someone to speak up and lead a citizen's action.

The fact that Brazil has the eighth most successful economy in the world and is also the most unequal society on the planet, are data which can be found in any of the annual statistical reports drawn up by international organisations. But no one spoke up to say that this situation was not only politically unsustain-able in the long term, enough to put an economic brake on any system, but also ethically inadmissible.

Instead of resorting to the traditional search for those responsible and demanding others come up with a solution, Betinho went straight to the citizens with the parable of the hummingbird: The forest was in flames, and while all the other animals fled to save their skins, a hummingbird collected beakful after beakful of water from the river to pour on the fire. 'Do you really think you can put out the fire with your little beak?' asked the lion. 'I know I can't do it alone,' replied the little bird, 'but I'm doing my part.' The Citizen Action Against Poverty and For Life, commonly known as 'the hunger campaign', or also (without the authorisation of its creator) as 'Betinho's campaign', called on each citizen to do his part, identifying the poor people in their neighbourhood and offering them help. Each one of the 32 million hungry people has a face and someone who knows him. There is no need to wait for permission nor instructions from anyone before helping them. In a few months, a country which only appeared to be moved by discussion of how best to bring in the death penalty in order to stop the increasing crime wave, switched to campaigns in an enormous solidarity crusade. Some parish, neighbourhood, union or rotary groups went into the favelas (slum neighbourhoods) with trucks full of donations, and were surprised to find the beneficiaries had organised their own campaign groups to help those even poorer than themselves.

Such an innovatory action model, with no hierarchy nor institutional framework, was impossible to evaluate. The campaign used market research companies and found millions of people declaring they were 'part' of this. Some 60% of the population said they had heard of the initiative, but, more surprisingly, 90% said they supported it! The power of the obvious. Everyone had known something like this had to be done.

The closeness of death

How come Betinho had this capacity to call people together? The political biography and private life of Herbet de Souza are inseparable. His love for life was perhaps an outcome of his lifelong illness and the closeness of death. Betinho was born in Bocaiuva, a town in the interior of Minas Gerais, a stronghold of Brazilian Catholicism and conservative thought. As with all his brothers, he inherited haemophilia, an illness which prevents the clotting of the blood, forcing him into a childhood of seclusion and suffering. He caught tuberculosis as an adolescent and was one of the first patients to have his life saved by penicillin. An experience which, decades later, when he became infected with HIV during the frequent blood transfusions he had to undergo, led him to view AIDS as 'a condition, not a condemnation'.

A Catholic student youth militant, Betinho was a student leader and adviser to the government of Joao Goulart when the 1964 military coup took place. Catholic Action, which then became Peoples Action, was one of the first political expressions of the nascent Liberation Theology. Following a brief exile in Uruguay, the 'coup within a coup' of 1968 (a swing to the Right inspired by the National Security doctrine) found him in hiding in Brazil. Peoples Action became radical and adopted Maoism.

The theory whereby the leaders should 'proletarianise' in order to be revolutionaries was not easy to put into practice for Betinho, who never managed to weigh as much as 50 kilograms and whom no one wanted to contract as a worker. After selling trinkets at factory doors, he found work painting pottery. One day, it occurred to him that there was a better way of carrying out the task. But this presented him with the dilemma: if I make my job easier and increase productivity, won't I be contributing to increasing the capital gains of the bourgeoisie and the exploitation of the working classes?

Perhaps it was this personal experience, more than analysis of the highly unfavourable correlation between the strengths and sterility of the heroic strategies of the left, which pushed Betinho into choosing exile in Chile, taking up his sociological studies again in the great laboratory of social transformation under the Salvador Allende government, and, above all, to decide on publishing a first critique, linking political analysis to his personal experience in the collective work 'Memories from Exile'. The urge to understand the complex forces which form history without falling into dogmatism would never leave him, and his criticisms were always legitimated by his disposition to show his own mistakes.

In 1973, he was in exile once again, this time in Glasgow and Toronto, where he finished his studies and founded discussion groups to analyse the Brazilian and Latin American situation. Betinho was amongst the first to make the transnational companies a target for analysis, overcoming the tendency to attribute all the Latin American ills to conspiracies. In Mexico, where he taught for a year in the Independent National University of Mexico, he founded a magazine with other intellectuals, which, like so many others, never reached a third edition. It didn't matter. The first served to bring the issue of democracy into debate for the Left for the first time. 'Democracy with no adjectives,' as Betinho often said, and which he conceived as an aim, a utopia or target which should guide proposals, and not a mere instrument.

The emblem of amnesty

Without ever meaning to, Betinho became an emblem of the Brazilian campaign for amnesty in Mexico: his brother Henfil, an extremely popular caricaturist, mocked the censorship of this era, writing his weekly 'Letters to my mother' where between-the-lines about day-to-day family business, there was reflected the common experiences of the time, including the eternal question: 'When will my brother be coming home?' The return of Henfil's brother, put into song by the extremely popular Elis Regina, finally took place in 1979. Betinho returned, founding the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) and offering the social movements his capacity for analysis and the power of a new instrument: the personal computer, which allowed small groups access to tools previously only accessible to the State or big companies. All the figures continued to state the problems of the poor in Brazil, which included as before, a problem of land, now compounded by urban poverty, 'savage capitalism' and its toll in environmental contamination and social disintegration. Betinho worked with the 'new player': the street children, the women's movement, the blacks, the grassroots communities and the new unions. And he achieved this without losing his independence and his capacity to criticise them - like when he publicly condemned a 'savage strike' in the health service which let patients die for lack of care.

In 1984, he was diagnosed 'seropositive'. Betinho was the first Brazilian to publicly declare: 'I have AIDS and I'm going to live with it.' He took on the new challenge and responded as he knew how, organising campaigns forcing through changes in discriminatory public policies, and even daring to criticise those of Cuba, in a brave open letter to Fidel Castro. Betinho produced a video on 'The day the cure for AIDS is found', playing the part of a chemist selling an HIV carrier his daily medicines. The idea was not to sow illusions of miracle therapies, but to show that, just as with diabetes or any other chronic illness, AIDS is a condition people live with and not a stigma, not a modern-day leprosy. Horrified by the suffering surrounding the death of his two brothers, Betinho even dared to defy his Catholic friends and allies,by publicly defending euthanasia.

'Land and democracy'

When Brazil was preparing to host the Earth Summit in 1992, Betinho used the slogan 'land and democracy' to sum up the links between the environmental, social and political, inspiring popular singers, artists, and the theatre and film communities into campaigns which produced a surprising impact for a country where 'agrarian reform' was believed to be a flag long forgotten except by a handful of nostalgic old lefties. The movement for land and democracy led to that for ethics in politics and the campaign against hunger. A hurricane of social energies unleashed by one person in an increasingly frail state of health.

President Itamar Franco had proposed him for the Nobel Peace Prize when a bomb was dropped: Betinho's name appeared on a list of politicians and journalists who had received money from the illegal lottery, the 'jogo do bicho' controlled by the Rio mafia. While the politicians kept quiet and waited for the dust to settle, Betinho appeared on television declaring he had received a $50,000 donation for the Brazilian Association of Initiatives Against AIDS which he directed, adding that it would not have survived otherwise. 'I am not above good and evil,' he admitted. 'I realise I should have asked advice on the decision whether or not to receive this money.'

The Nobel Prize went to someone else. The people of Rio paid homage to him through a samba school which sang of the life of a 'modern Don Quixote' and paraded him through the sambadrome surrounded by crowds of dancers.

Betinho had barely rested after the carnival before he started to launch new initiatives. The alleviation of hunger was not enough, jobs had to be created. The companies, public or private, should be accountable not only to their shareholders. As they form part of a society, they should publish a 'social balance'. Gazeta Mercantil, the main business newspaper in the country, and several industrial associations and chambers of trade supported the initiative. When new treatments appeared for AIDS, Betinho had already lived with the condition for 14 years. The hope that these would prolong his life indefinitely was soon quashed: another mistake in the blood banks led to him becoming ill again, this time with hepatitis, forcing him to suspend treatment with the 'triple cocktail'. He died at home, as he wanted, surrounded by his family and the friends who were to carry on his campaign, both in homage to him, and because, deep down, his fight was nothing more than the fight for life. One which is worth living. Nothing less. (Third World Resurgence No. 92, April 1998)

Roberto Bissio is Executive Director of Instituto del Tercer Mundo in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Third World Network's Regional Coordinator for Latin America.