Brazil's champion of democracy, fighter against poverty

Brazil's popular and most ardent champion of human rights - Herbert Jose de Souza or Betinho as he is commonly known - has spent his life tackling issues of inequity affecting street children, senior citizens and landless peasants. He has now shifted his creative initiatives to addressing the structural roots of Brazilian poverty.

HERBERT Jose de Souza is a small, fragile-looking man. But his large deep-set eyes betray the strength and fire that has galvanised his life-long fight for political democracy and against social ills and injustice.

De Souza, or Betinho as he is commonly known, has emerged as Brazil's popular and most ardent champion of human rights, especially the right not to be poor.

The latest of his long list of creative initiatives is the Champion Against Hunger that after three years is mobilising all sectors of Brazilian society to act against poverty and unemployment. In the early 1990s, he had launched another campaign, 'Earth and Democracy', combining the fight against environmental problems with the struggle for human rights and democracy. A million Brazilians gathered in Rio de Janeiro's huge Flamingo Park overlooking Sugar Loaf Mountain, to celebrate the Earth and Democracy carnival organised by Betinho and the organisation he founded and leads, IBASE.

The expressions of this kind of creative activism would have been remarkable coming from any normal person. It is even more incredible coming from the 59-year-old Betinho, who besides being a human rights fighter, is Brazil's leading political scientists and sociologist. Betinho, a haemophiliac tested HIV positive in 1985 and two of his brothers (who also suffered from haemophilia) have since died of AIDS. Characteristically this did not deter Betinho, but spurred him on to greater intensity in his social mission.

For so many years a thorn in the flesh of the Brazilian government and establishment (including during his 17 years in exile when his country was under military dictatorship), Betinho has now found national and international fame for his struggles. He has been prominently profiled in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the New York Times.

This public acclaim is the result of a vibrant and wide-ranging 'Campaign Against Hunger' that he and IBASE launched in 1992.

A broad national action front

This national movement currently includes several thousand local organisations, and 30 million Brazilians, united around the message that democracy is intrinsically incompatible with hunger and extreme poverty. 'Where there is hunger and poverty there is no true democracy,' says Betinho. Involving unions, churches, grassroots groups, professional associations, local governments, business organisations, universities and many other groups and individuals in a broad national action front, its goal is to catalyse actions by all groups in society in solidarity with the poor.

The campaign went to the streets in April 1993 on the theme of decentralisation, initiative and participation of every citizen. In fact an opinion poll had shown that 90% of the population considered the movement as being necessary and 30 million Brazilians have associated themselves with the movement. Committees were created, food was donated, jobs were generated, public lands were cultivated and children were assisted. 'We discovered that lack of ethics isn't just assaulting the public coffers, but also being complacent about thousands of people who are hungry,' says one of Betinho's hunger campaign coordinators.

Under Betinho's leadership, IBASE has been deeply involved as a national operations centre for the campaign. This involved production and dissemination of information materials providing advice to groups and individuals interested in participating in the campaign and publishing a newspaper of national circulation with news and information on the campaign. Up to 5,000 citizens' committees are reported to have sprung up all over Brazil to collect and redistribute donations of food, money and clothing. Due to the nature of the voluntary system, there is very little bureaucracy.

Even the military has got involved. Referring to a recent appointment with officers at the military command school, he quips, 'A car comes to pick me up and I'm not going to jail.' The hunger and poverty that still pervades in Brazil are caused by structural factors such as social inequality. The richest 20% of Brazilian society earns 27 times more than the poorest fifth - one of the worst income gaps in the world. A total of 15 million people earn only about $150, (which is only enough to buy the most basic staples but not clothing or medicine) and another 5 million earn nothing at all, bartering their labour for food.

Tackling the structural roots of poverty will be an important part of the Campaign. The campaign's focus is now changing from hunger to unemployment, marking a shift to 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 social activist, works 12 hours a day with the compassion and intensity of a man living on borrowed time. In a recent speech, Betinho advocates real change to materialise in Brazilian society. 'It is necessary to change. It is possible to change. And the change starts by not accepting what is considered inevitable. Misery is not inevitable, poverty is not inevitable, social exclusion is not inevitable. This is where Action Against Misery and for Life came in. The energy of change is being revealed in this movement of citizens. This movement is based on the awareness that it is not acceptable, it is not ethical, it is not good to live in a society which banalises misery and accepts poverty as a natural fact, practically of its own nature.'

A time bomb

But real change, as Betinho notes in an interview with the news magazine Newsweek, will take more than handouts and noblesse oblige. He dreams of a grassroots movement in which hundreds of citizens' committees will battle on beyond charity to tackle the larger obstacles - recession, homelessness - that keep so many Brazilians hungry. Empty stomachs, in a country that in the 1980s became the world's third largest food exporter, are not just a problem for only the poor and hungry but a time bomb for all Brazilians, says Betinho.

Early in his colourful career, Betinho had worked as a consultant in agrarian reform and basic education issues at the federal government just before the military dictatorship, whereupon he was forced into exile in Chile from 1964. It was in Canada, during his second exile from Chile's General Pinochet's regime, that he founded in 1974, the first research group composed entirely of Latin Americans in Canada - the Latin American Research Unit - whose main objective was to disseminate in North America studies prepared by Latin Americans on the social and political situation of their countries but always from a democratic and human rights perspective.

He was also the Director of the Latin American Peace Research Council and Professor of the graduate program in Economics at the National University of Mexico.

After returning to Brazil in 1979, Betinho founded IBASE - the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis - which was to become one of the leading non-governmental organisations in Brazil which aims at developing alternative proposals to government policies and to develop alternative means of information dissemination. It is now playing a crucial role in the campaign against hunger.

Since then, Betinho's activism in the defence of street children, among other things, has led to significant legal advances in strengthening children's rights, to include a new Children's Statute and the Pact for Children which aims at the betterment of the quality of life of millions of Brazilian children and adolescents.

In his work in improving the conditions of senior citizens, the Brazilian activist proposed legal action against the Brazilian government for subjecting them to psychological and physical 'torture' when they collect their retirement benefits each month. This triggered concrete actions to improve on the government's bureaucratic procedures.

His initiatives in the struggle against discrimination of HIV positive people, led him to set up the first independent organisation in Brazil aiming at dissemination and exchange of information on AIDS - the Brazilian interdisciplinary AIDS Association (ABIA). As a result of public campaigns under his leadership, legislation which tightly controlled the marketing of blood and blood products was included in the new Brazilian constitution of 1988.

He also played a pivotal role in raising public awareness about the situation of landless peasants and poor people in the urban areas of Brazil as leader of the National Campaign for Agrarian Reform.

Betinho's activities are a response to the unequal and undemocratic conditions which have characterised Brazilian society and politics, especially during the military dictatorship of 1964-1984. Although a formal democracy has been established, the basic situation of extreme income and wealth concentration, disregard for basic human rights, and immense poverty has not changed. This translated into millions of peoples living in unbearable conditions in cities, thousands of abandoned street children, unacceptable levels of public health and basic education and violence against millions of landless peasants.

This is the social context within which Betinho has launched his many projects. Will they succeed in making Brazil a better society? Time will tell, but Betinho is not waiting for an answer. He keeps on striving.

- Pratap Parameswaran, with assistance from IBASE and magazine articles.