There is a longstanding friendship between the Brazilian writer and liberation theologian Frei Betto and the Cuban people. The Dominican friar is well known on the island, particularly for his long interview with Fidel Castro, which was published in 1985 as a famous book, Fidel y la religion (“Fidel and Religion”), turning over a new leaf in the Caribbean island’s relationship with religious faith.
Nonetheless, Frei Betto, who has written over 50 books, is famous throughout Latin America for much more than his frequent visits with the Castro brothers. Jailed by the Brazilian military regime between 1969-1973, the theologian fought in the front line against the dictatorship by strengthening popular organization through the grassroots church communities. A special adviser to Lula and one of the main architects of his “Zero Hunger” Project, he quietly left Lula’s government in late 2004, as he disagreed with the methods used for the anti-poverty program.
He never shied away from criticizing the neo-Developmentalist agenda being pursued by progressive governments—which was basically aimed at turning Latin America into a haven of stability in the context of the crisis of capitalism—pointing instead at the Cuban model as a source of inspiration for the left, both in Latin American and worldwide.
What was the significance of the Cuban Revolution for Latin America?
It was the proof that US imperialism was not invincible. If the barbudos of Sierra Maestra could manage to liberate Cuba, other peoples could also liberate themselves. Cuba is a lodestar, a sign of hope for everyone who dreams of another possible world. Because, despite all the difficulties, it has managed to ensure its inhabitants have access to the three basic rights—food, healthcare and education—which have also raised their self-esteem. For a long time, because of the US pressure on the OAS (the Organization of American States), only Mexico maintained relations with Cuba. Then, with the end of the military dictatorships, things changed. Cuba has expressed its solidarity by sending doctors and teachers to the most remote places on the continent. In turn, it got respect and popular support for the Revolution.
What role did Liberation Theology play in the relations between Cuba and Latin America?
Liberation Theology has shown Cubans that the Soviet perspective on religion was wrongheaded. The meeting between Fidel and the “Christians for Socialism” during his visit in Allende’s Chile and the participation of Christians in the Sandinista Revolution showed how religion could be itself a force for liberation. This was the origin of Fidel’s direct contact with the theologians working within the Liberation Theology movement, my interview with him in 1985, the visits of theologians and bishops to Cuba (the Boff brothers, Giulio Girardi, François Houtart, Pedro Casaldáliga, Mendes Arceo), and Fidel’s reading of the works of Gustavo Gutiérrez. All this has brought the island closer to the Latin American Christians, so that it overcame the atheistic character of the Cuban state.
Why is Cuba still standing, while the progressive governments have mostly been ousted from power?
The progressive governments undoubtedly have the merit of adopting important measures to help the most disadvantaged, but they failed to take advantage of high commodity prices on the international market to undertake the structural reforms that are so necessary for Latin America. Nor did they know how to fight corruption, something Cuba has succeeded in. Another mistake was giving priority to people’s access to personal goods, when they should have followed the example of Cuba, focusing instead primarily on social goods: education, healthcare, food, housing and so on. Without access to these social goods, it is very difficult to achieve a sufficient level of quality of life, particularly in the context of a model that is so strongly consumerist. Finally, in contrast to Cuba, the basic political education of the people was missing. And, in this matter, there can be no neutral position: if I am not educated to have a worldview based on solidarity, altruism, a socialist perspective, my development will inevitably take place with an individualistic, self-centered, consumerist perspective. Political and ideological education were not promoted, because of the illusion that the mere fact of living under a progressive government would make people themselves progressive. That is just like thinking that anyone born in Cuba is, by nature, a socialist. This is not true. Because, as Lenin said, love is a cultural product—it is the outcome of an education.
You wrote in the past that if socialism fails in Cuba, “it would be the end of all the historic hope of humanity.” How real is this danger now, in the context of the current surge of the right in Latin America?
The capitalist hegemony is exerting such an overwhelming power that many are abandoning the goal of building a new model of civilization. Gradually, like an unstoppable virus, capitalism is imposing itself in our personal and social relationships. And we end up holding the idolatrous belief that “there is no salvation outside the Market.” It is important to understand why the socialist experience failed, with the exception of Cuba. In the process of socializing material goods, socialism has made the mistakes of privatizing the symbolic goods, confusing constructive criticism with counter-revolutionary threats, reducing the autonomy of civil society, and allowing the sphere of power holders to turn into a caste of the privileged, distant from the needs of the people. It was a socialism that had no roots, an “artificial” and not an “organic” socialism—it did not grow from the grassroots level upwards. Now, only Cuba is left. Cuban socialism must not fail, as that would mean that the story is over, the utopia is dead, capitalism has won—and its victory would be exclusively for the benefit of those few who are reaping the fruits of its progress, climbing over the mountain of corpses and victims it leaves behind.
What ideas could these changes taking place in Cuba offer for the Latin American left, in the context of the current crisis?
Cuba is going through a phase of change that can be a source of inspiration for the Latin American left. Some wonder whether it will become a mini-China, marrying a capitalist economy with a socialist government. But I don’t think so. There is a transition in progress from a state-run economy to a people’s economy—one in which the state plays an important role, but at the same time leaves space for small entrepreneurs, cooperatives, the solidarity economy and many other forms that are growing from the bottom up. It is a mistake to think that Cuba is leaving behind a socialist economy and moving to a capitalist economy. What we are witnessing is an active role being played by the people, with their creativity, their capacity for initiative, their power of resistance. And when we ourselves become the protagonists, we are called upon to make an ethical decision: will I merely benefit myself, or will I contribute to creating an ethical culture? A people’s economy within the framework of socialism requires a deeply rooted socialist spirit. I always say that socialism is the political term for love. Fidel used to say that a revolutionary might lose their freedom if they are put in prison, their family if they are sent into exile, their health if they become ill, their job if they are denounced and shunned as a revolutionary, and even their life, but there’s one thing they will never lose: their moral compass.
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