Interview. We talked with Marcelo Barros, a leading liberation theologist, about Brazil’s social and political crisis and about his meeting with Lula da Silva in prison. “He told me that he needed to keep his immense indignation separate from any feelings of hatred.”

Lula is more dangerous to the right in prison than in the square

Brazil is in a chaotic situation, with a president, Michel Temer, that nobody wants any more. The right is looking for a leader, the left is fragile and de-ideologized, and Lula, the most beloved political leader, is in prison, but more present on the political scene than if he was speaking in the squares. The country is sinking into economic crisis and social instability, mired in post-coup confusion.

We spoke about this with Marcelo Barros during a debate on the situation in Brazil, as part of the series of seminars on Latin America promoted by the Basso Foundation. Barros is a benedictine monk and one of the most famous liberation theologians in the country

You were among the first to visit Lula in prison. How did you feel about it?

When Lula was elected president in 2002, I was happy to take part in his inauguration. For his second term, however, I dropped the invitation. Too many things had disappointed me, from the failure to implement land reform to a questionable environmental policy. I am not an unconditional fan of him. However, in the face of his unjust and illegal detention, I did not hesitate to ask to meet him. I found him firm and serene. The heaviest thing for him is the isolation he is experiencing, and which he had never experienced before. He told me that he needed to keep his immense indignation separate from any feelings of hatred. And that he does not want a pardon. “I want them to either present evidence of my guilt or recognize me as innocent.” I offered to come back to see him this month, but he said: “I will not be here in June.”

Is there a possibility to see Lula participating in the presidential elections of October?

Logic would require his release, because Lula is even more dangerous in prison than in freedom. Even for many of his opponents his arrest was a mistake. But right now [Judge Sergio] Moro has the power. [He is] a first instance judge who can commit any arbitrariness, including the disclosure of a conversation, intercepted illegally, between Lula and the president Dilma: something that would affect his career in any normal country. I do not believe that they will allow Lula to stand as a candidate. However, of course, his power to transfer votes to another candidate will be crucial.

And how will the right-wing organize itself? It is still without a candidate able to aspire to the second round, apart from the unpresentable Jair Bolsonaro.

Nobody wants Bolsonaro. He said to a member of the parliament: “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” He proposed bombing as a solution to the problems in the favelas. In the end, the right will gather around a social democrat candidate, whether it will be Geraldo Alckmin or someone else. And at the ballot the clash will be between him and the progressive candidate indicated by Lula. What I would like is a change in the balance of power in Congress, today dominated by three powerful lobbies: the so-called Bancada BBB (Boi, Bala and Bíblia), linked to agribusiness interests; public security; and Pentecostalism. A more representative Congress could carry out the long-awaited political reform and wipe out the illegal measures adopted by Temer, starting with the one that freezes social spending for 20 years.

There is often talk of postponing elections, which the right would not be able to deal with at this time. What do you think about this?

It is difficult to postpone the elections. Because one of the characteristics of this low-intensity war unleashed by the right is the attention to save the appearances of legality. This government is beating all records of unpopularity. How will they get rid of Temer? With a military coup? Not a day goes by when we do not talk about it, but I do not think that is possible.

Since Dilma’s impeachment, the Brazilian people have shown deep apathy. How do you explain this?

Lula’s and Dilma’s governments failed to carry out popular education work. And at the same time the basic work done by the Church of Liberation was also lost, terribly repressed under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The influence of Pope Francis is still very limited. Moreover, what effect can his repeated accusations to clericalism have if clericalism is not just abuse but the system itself? Two years ago in the parish where I lived, the Sunday before the municipal elections, the priest said in his homily that voting for the PT [Workers’ Party] was a sin. However, the situation is slowly changing because liberation is an anthropological need, which gathers more force the deeper the oppression.

Pré-sal [the enormous oil fields off the Brazilian coast] seems to have brought more problems than advantages. But above all, in times of climate emergency, why is the struggle of the movements concentrated only against the privatization of Petrobras, rather than in favor of a new energy model?

Last May, the truck driver’s strike showed that the society is totally dependent on oil. Transport, schools, universities, hospitals: everything was blocked. The price of exploiting the Pre-sal is enormous, yet, on this point, right and left are equal. We are still far from being aware that Mother Earth, water and the resources of nature are an absolute priority: because they are life and life is a priority. This is a civilizational problem. However, something is moving. For example, in the semi-arid northeastern area, there are many experiences with renewable energy. Little anticipations of the new within an old civilization. Passing through the semi-arid, after all, everything seems burnt and lifeless, but it only rains once or twice and you witness a wonderful rebirth. Life always finds its way.

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