A fifty year foreign battle to combat Catholic Liberation Theology in Brazil promises rich rewards for the vested interests which initiated it, at great human cost.
“Brazil is at the vanguard of the global trend of the Pentecostalization of Christianity,” as well as “the epicenter of world Christianity, with the largest Pentecostal population” says Andrew Chesnut, author of Born Again in Brazil.
From 9% in 1991 to 30% of the population in 2017, the rapid expansion of Neopentecostalism in Brazil since its arrival in the 1970s has caused unease amongst socially liberal sectors of society. Rarely spoken about is how the story began fifty years ago, and how the country is increasingly living with the repercussions of decisions made far away, all those years ago.
In 1969, then New York Governor, and soon to be Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, was dispatched to Latin America in the capacity as special envoy for President Nixon. The visit was to assess what was seen as the failure of Kennedy’s so called “Alliance for Progress” initiative in the region.
In ‘United States Penetration of Brazil’, Jan K. Black writes “It is interesting to note that in 1969, the year when U.S. economic assistance was suspended for a few months in “cosmetic” protest against the dramatic tightening of the dictatorial noose signified by the dissolution of the Congress in December 1968 and the promulgation of the Fifth Institutional Act (AI-5), the number of Brazilian policemen brought to the United States for training almost tripled that of the previous year. The number of Brazilian military trainees in the United States also increased that year and was, in fact, higher than at any other time in the post war period. The marked expansion of the training program also coincided with an increase in documented reports of the systematic torture of political prisoners and of the murders of petty criminals, as well as alleged subversives, carried out by the “Death Squads,” reportedly composed of off-duty policemen. (New York) Governor Nelson Rockefeller, as President Nixon’s special envoy in Brazil and other Latin American countries in 1969, was uninformed, unconvinced, or unconcerned about these reports. Rockefeller recommended that “the training program which brings military and police personnel from the other hemispheric nations to the United States and to training centers in Panama be continued and strengthened.”. The training program to which he referred was that of the notorious School of the Americas, which is now both re-branded and re-tooled as WHINSEC. This agency has been central to the re-configuration of Latin American militaries as glorified police forces, equipped for internal rather than hemispheric defence, since the 1960s.
Despite official US rhetoric against the Brazilian dictatorship’s increasingly egregious human rights abuses, Rockefeller’s tour of Latin America signified an intensification of US support for anti-communist dictatorial regimes who were friendly to US economic investment. On his tour, under robust military security, Rockefeller had been met with violent anti-imperialist protests in almost every city he visited, which were often subject to media blackout.
Following his southern trip, Nelson prepared the “Rockefeller Report on Latin America,” which, among its other recommendations, identified Catholic liberation theology as a threat to the national security of the United States.
Under the heading ‘The Church’, the report states that “Modern communications and increasing education have brought about a stirring among the people that has had a tremendous impact on the Church, making it a force dedicated to change – revolutionary change if necessary. Actually, the Church may be somewhat in the same situation as the young – with a profound idealism, but as a result, in some cases, vulnerable to subversive penetration; ready to undertake a revolution if necessary to end injustice but not clear either as to the ultimate nature of the revolution itself or as to the governmental system by which the justice it seeks can be realized.”
In a section ‘Changes in the Decade Ahead’ the report warns “Clearly, the opinion in the United States that Communism is no longer a serious factor in the Western Hemisphere is thoroughly wrong. We found almost universally that the other American republics are deeply concerned about the threat that it poses to them – and the United States must be alert to and concerned about the ultimate threat it poses to the United States and the hemisphere as a whole.”
It goes on to predict that “Growing nationalism, across the spectrum of political groupings, which will often find expression in terms of independence from U.S. domination and influence…”
To counter that threat to US interests, a recommendation was the export of a socially conservative counterpoint to left leaning Liberation Theology. At its core, the problem that liberation theology represented for the US centered on its endorsement of collective action to challenge structural inequality, something, which as Rockefeller implied, smacked of communism. The US found its antidote for liberation theology in Protestantism, exported to Latin America by North American missionaries as early as the late 19th century. However, the Protestantism that took root in Brazil was not the progressive social gospel of mainline denominations like Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Methodists. This new variety of Protestantism was evangelical, in that it emphasized a deeply personal relationship with God and aggressive proselytization. In many cases, it was Pentecostal or, by the 1970s, Neopentecostal, meaning that it promised a transformative experience of the Holy Spirit, which would manifest itself in believers’ lives through “signs” like speaking in tongues and faith healing. Some Neopentecostals were also adherents of an emerging “prosperity theology,” promoted in the US by televangelists like Oral Roberts, which preaches that faithful Christians can expect not only spiritual salvation but material prosperity.
In contrast to liberation theology, evangelicals, Neopentecostals, and adherents of prosperity theology preach an intensely individualistic faith. Rather than challenging its adherents to fight against entrenched power structures and challenge injustice, Latin American evangelical Protestants teach that spiritual, physical, and financial salvation are accomplished individually. Liberation theology seeks to transform unjust structures; evangelical Protestantism promises to equip believers to succeed within those structures. God blesses the righteous; the poor simply haven’t believed/worked hard enough.
It isn’t difficult to see how this meritocratic theology squares with the interests of the imperialist power where it originated. What could possibly be less threatening for US hegemony in Latin America, in religious terms, than a theology that is, for all intents and purposes, a product of the American dream? Work/pray hard, be a good citizen/churchgoer, and America/God will take care of the rest. If things don’t work, well, you should have worked/prayed harder. The problem could not possibly be with the system itself. Above all, American evangelicalism is a denial of structural inequality in favor of individual responsibility – just like liberal and neoliberal economics.
Igreja Universal, Rio de Janeiro 1977
Eight years after Rockefeller’s visit, in 1977, the pioneering prosperity theology-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) was founded in Brazil by Edir Macedo, who had recently had a Neopentecostal conversion experience. In addition to preaching a particularly blatant version of prosperity theology that tied financial blessings from God to donations made to the church, Macedo also lauded the philosophies of Nelson’s grandfather John D. Rockefeller. The church’s first service was held on July 9 that year, in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro to a congregation of 200. Forty years later its membership in Brazil stands at at least 2 million (and perhaps as high as 7 million), and the church has founded congregations around the world, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and North America. And the UCKG is only one of dozens, if not hundreds, of similar groups that have sprung up in Brazil since the 1970s, usually in poorer regions and neighborhoods, and preaching, nearly without fail, an extremely conservative social message that focuses on respecting church and state authority, glorifies the individual over the collective, and emphasizes the accumulation of wealth as a sign of God’s favour.
Meanwhile in 1979, the first Committee of Sante Fe document convinced the incoming Reagan administration that it had to do something decisive about the threat posed by Liberation Theology. They responded both militarily and ideologically. Reagan’s military strategy against liberation theology ushered in what Noam Chomsky describes as the first religious war of the 21st century. It was the war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America whose bishops, as noted earlier, had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position.
It was at this time, with the return to a multi-party system in Brazil, that the Workers Party, or PT was formed by a coalition of trade unionists such as future President Lula da Silva, Marxist intellectuals, and key figures from Brazilian liberation theology like Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto. The PT initiated the Diretas Já movement which brought about the end of military rule in 1985.
Brazilian Liberation Theologist Frei Betto with Cuba’s Fidel Castro
By 1987, the Latin American Military Chiefs of Staff meeting in conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, devoted several pages of their final report to liberation theology and the threat it posed to regional stability. The targeting of adherents of liberation theology contributed to thousands upon thousands of deaths across the continent. By the 1990s, with the Southern Cone re-democratised, and given a neoliberal fever by the Bush Senior administration and IMF, these new Evangelical Churches and missionaries had spread rapidly across the region. At this time some of the earliest allegations of CIA connivance in evangelicalism’s expansion appeared.
Thy will be done
The book by Gerard Colby & Charlotte Dennett ‘Thy will be done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil.’ is an exhaustive investigation of the growth of Neopentacostalism in Brazil, and its relationship to Nelson Rockefeller, US Corporate interests, and their exploitation of the Amazon. It was triggered by the authors’ trip to Brazil in 1976 to investigate a missionary organization called the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), also known as the Wycliffe Bible Translators, which with funding from Rockefeller & USAID had been translating the Bible into hundreds of indigenous languages the world over.
Wycliffe was founded by William Cameron Townsend who the authors accuse of destroying indigenous peoples’ cultural values to abet penetration by U.S. businesses, employing a “virulent brand of Christian fundamentalism that used linguistics to undermine the social cohesion of indigenous communities and accelerate their assimilation into Western culture”. The authors argued that SIL was effectively a scouting party that surveyed the Amazonian hinterlands for potential sources of opposition to natural resource exploitation such as cattle ranching, clear cutting and strip mining, among native populations. SIL had actively whitewashed massacres of Indigenous groups by Brazil’s Military Regime and even allowed its Jungle Aviation & Radio Service (JAARS) base in the Ecuadoran Amazon to be used by Green Berets who were combing the forest for signs of armed insurgency.
The book became a target for criticism from none other than Lincoln Gordon, a personal friend of the Rockefellers and US ambassador to Brazil in 1964, when he conspired with the coup plotters. In response, co-author Gerard Colby, interviewed by the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper in 1996 said “After the coup, not only was Brazil’s destiny undergoing immense change, but the Amazon and The Indians were opened up to even greater genocide. And Nelson Rockefeller knew what was happening inside the country. What does he do? He travels to Brazil in 1969, meets directly with the military leadership, receives the National Intelligence Service report … and next you see Nelson asking for support for what he calls the “new military” to be the vanguard of development. A Military that would promote things like the Transamazonica Highway. Not surprisingly, in 1972, you read in the New York Times Nelson’s cousin, Richard Aldrich, who was then the president of the Brazil-United States Chamber of Commerce, enthusiastically stating “This road is terribly important for the development of the interior. It is already bringing people and will make raw materials much more accessible to the outside world. “
Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR-230) 1970s
In Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s ‘The Open Veins of Latin America’, he talks about a US-Brazil agreement in 1964 which permitted US Air Force planes to fly over and photograph the Amazon rainforest: “They had used cintilometers to detect radioactive mineral deposits by the emission of light wavelengths of variable intensity, electromagnetometers to radiograph the topsoil rich in non-ferrous minerals, and magnetometers to discover and measure the iron. The reports and photographs acquired in the reconnaissance of the extension and depth of the secret riches of Amazonia were put in the hands of private firms interested in the matter, thanks to the good services of the United States Geological Survey. In the immense region was proven the existence of gold, silver, diamonds, gipsite, hematite, magnetite, tantalium, titanium, thorium, uranium, quartz, copper, manganese, lead, sulfates, potassium, bauxite, zinc, zirconium, chrome and mercury.”
War of the Saints
Some compare the expansion of Neopentecostalism in Brazil to other implanted religions elsewhere, such as the Saudi-sponsored spread of Wahabbism in the Middle East, and with it has grown a radical militancy. Those practicing popular Afro-Brazilian religions such as candomblé and umbanda have found their places of worship attacked and burned around the country, and find now find little of the protection they once enjoyed from government & authorities. This situation has developed in parallel to the influence that tax-exempt, often extremely corrupt evangelical churches have developed in politics, as they now control the mayorship of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-largest city, and are on the brink of winning the state’s governorship. In a context in which Rio de Janeiro’s evangelical churches have been accused of laundering money for the drug trafficking gangs, all elements of Afro-Brazilian culture including caipoeira, Jango drumming, and participation in Carnaval parades, have been banned by the traffickers in many favelas.
During preparations for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Rockefeller Foundation created LEAD (Leadership in the Environment and Development). One of the Brazilian politicians most closely associated with LEAD/ABDL would be Marina Silva. A former Workers’ Party member and Minister of the Environment minister in Lula’s first administration, Silva had been an adherent of Catholic liberation theology for almost two decades, converting to evangelicalism in the mid 1990s after a period of illness.
According to their website LEAD have since then “been recruiting talented individuals from key sectors and professions all over the world to be part of a growing network now standing at over 2400 leaders, who are committed to changing the world. Every one of our leaders is a graduate of LEAD’s Fellows Training Program, an intensive and demanding program designed to enhance leadership ability, strengthen sustainable development knowledge and foster the relationships that will continue to support our Fellows in their work. This cross-sectoral, cross-cultural program has been at the heart of LEAD activities across the globe.” “Since 1992, more than 500 professionals have been trained in Brazil, Canada, China, Former Soviet Union, Europe, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa.” The Brazilian branch of LEAD (ABDL) was one of the first, founded in mid-1991 and according to Gazeta Mercantil (06/11/91), “The Rockefeller Foundation intends to invest US $5 million in the next five years in training environmental leaders, with The purpose of preparing opinion makers capable of having a broad view of environmental problems and their economic implications. ” All Binger, LEAD’s international director, said with surprising frankness: “We hope that in ten years many of the fellows will be acting as ministers of environment and development, university rectors and CEOs.”.
The growing Evangelical power base traded support for policy concessions throughout the 1990s and 2000s, supporting Lula and Dilma Governments but it was not until 2010 that they had a potential Presidential candidate of their own – Marina Silva, her platform a marketable synthesis of evangelical christianity, environmental campaigning and Wall Street friendly liberalism. Initially, she accepted the vice presidential candidacy for the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), a party that is socialist in name only.
Heiress to COA Member Itaú Bank, brother of Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission member Roberto, Neca Setubal, was responsible for 84% of funds to Marina Silva’s institute in 2013. Former president of Citibank Alvaro de Souza ran the fundraising for Silva’s 2010 election campaign. Ex-US Chamber of Commerce, Souza had previously served on the boards of such companies as Gol and AmBev, and was chairman of WWF Brazil. In 2008, the WWF, and its President Emeritus, Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, awarded Silva with a medal, championing her work on Amazon conservation.
In the lead up to the 2014 election, David Rockefeller’s corporate lobby for the Americas, AS/COA, which specialises in both propaganda and grooming future leaders in the region, hosted an event featuring PSB presidential candidate Eduardo Campos and Silva. Campos would die in an air crash soon after, after which Silva was promoted to the top of the ticket. The subsequent focus of AS/COA on the candidacy of Silva reflected a belief that she was Wall Street and the Obama administration’s favoured candidate,. Marina received an international campaign of media beatification to match, in which she was marketed as the “genuinely progressive” alternative to Rousseff, despite the social conservatism inherent in her evangelical faith that led her to vacillate on issues like LGBT and women’s rights.
In 2018, Marina’s support has evaporated (she received less than 1% of the vote in the first round of presidential voting). Most of her evangelical base has transferred its support to the neofascist, Jair Bolsonaro, with the overt endorsement of some of the largest and most influential Neopentecostal churches.
And the same northern Neoliberals who once backed Marina Silva have joined Neopentecostals in their support for Bolsonaro. The candidate has been holding off-the-record meetings with AS/COA since 2017 (at the latest), along with his “Chicago boy” economic advisor and potential Finance Minister, BTG Pactual/Millenium Institute’s Paulo Guedes. These meetings coincided with Bolsonaro’s Damascus-road conversion to the rhetoric of free market and minimal state, to follow his tilt to the evangelicals in 2016, with a show baptism in Israel’s River Jordan.
The supposed “nationalist” Bolsonaro has promised the US Government their “wish list” of demands for his Presidency, sacrificing sovereignty for power in age-old colonial tradition. His ”green and yellow” nationalism masks support for mass privatisation of Brazilian assets, and opening up of the Amazon to exploitation in cooperation with foreign corporations. It is no coincidence that the Wall Street Journal has endorsed the neofascist candidate, as they did Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He has also publicly supported death squads that charge as little as $15 for a killing in the impoverished peripheries of major cities and wants to give the police carte blanche to kill suspects.
During the first decade of the millennium, the so called “Pink Tide” of left and centre-left governments which swept to power across Latin America had liberation theology at its core. A high water mark of this unprecedented regional independence came at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata in 2005, when Brazilian President Lula, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner combined to reject David Rockefeller’s proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, to the chagrin of the Bush administration. At this time, efforts to re-assert US-influence in its “backyard” intensified and since the 2009 coup in Honduras, the Pink Tide’s reversal has to a significant extent been powered by the support of evangelicals, who represent a fast-growing percentage of the population in most of the region.
Lula da Silva, Nestor Kirchner and Hugo Chavez at the 2005 Summit of the Americas, Mar Del Plata.
In 1956, newly elected president Juscelino Kubitschek promised Brasil “50 years progress in 5″. In contrast, Jair Bolsonaro has said he wants to take Brazil back 50 years, to the time of the Rockefeller report, to that of his adolescence, when wages fell steadily, and both economic growth and human development outside what the US Government called “islands of sanity”, such as São Paulo, was close to zero.
Since Bolsonaro’s evangelical tilt, he has built an alliance with UCKG’s Edir Macedo, now a billionaire with twenty-three TV stations, forty radio stations, two major daily newspapers, a real estate agency, a health insurance company, and an airline. In 2008 Macedo published a manifesto for transforming his church and empire into genuine political power. His main TV Network, Record, and its online portal R7 have been transformed into propaganda platforms for Bolsonaro – effectively his own “Fox News” during the election, and reminder of his threat to arch commercial and cultural rival’s Globo’s public concession, thus keeping them too in line. Even as Bolsonaro refused to participate in debates following his September stabbing, citing ill health, during the last presidential debate before the first found, he appeared in a simultaneous sympathetic interview on TV Record.
Edir Macedo, leader of Igreja Universal
Now he proposes militarised schooling and the creationism in the curriculum. Many find baffling how an open enthusiast of torture can be readily supported by Christian organisations, and some Catholic organisations have joined progressive evangelicals in protests against Bolsonaro, with his support of torture as a rallying point.
The churches’ own massive money laundering schemes, in particular the involvement of national saboteur and architect of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Eduardo Cunha, makes further mockery of the candidate’s anti-corruption rhetoric, and the hegemonic media must take responsibility for a 15 year campaign to make the Workers Party synonymous with corruption, a popular perception which the extreme right now exploits. They were the only political organisation with a national structure capable of beating what Brazil now faces.
Neoliberal pundits talk inevitability of a Bolsonaro presidency without mentioning the surreal distortion and collective hysteria feeding his support, nor the imported nature of his Neopentecostal base. They do not indicate that a US-backed war on corruption wiping out candidates and clearing the way has enabled the ascent of a neofascist. Instead they blithely characterize Bolsonaro’s rise as a specious frustration with PT corruption and concern about crime.
Whatever the election result, there is growing, compelling evidence that Brazil is being prepared for a military takeover. Regardless, if the electoral support of Neopentecostalism is decisive, it will bring with it authoritarian rule, an extreme regressive cultural conservatism, and a revival of those 1970s new military development projects in the Amazon, opening it to unprecedented exploitation.
Of course, there is not a straight line from Rockefeller to SIL/WBT to Macedo to Silva to Bolsonaro. Yet it is clear that over and over during the last half century, the interests of evangelical Protestantism and US imperialism have converged, while liberation theology and efforts to secure Brazilian sovereignty over its resources have been pushed to the margins. Yet it is undeniable that the US saw liberation theology as a threat and that it desire for resource extraction in the Amazon found a willing partner in Townsend’s Bible translators. It is no coincidence that the individualistic, prosperity-driven faith of Macedo’s UKCG and other Brazilian Neopentecostal churches has so much in common with neoliberalism’s rejection of the state and society in favor of the individual, for they are both imported from the US – the former from the tent revivals of the Midwest, the latter from Washington’s economic and political powerbrokers. In the Amazon, the marriage between evangelicalism and imperialism sought to stifle indigenous opposition to resource extraction. In Brazil’s cities today, the marriage between Neopentecostalism and neoliberalism has produced candidates and an electorate that believe that prosperity is the product of meritocratic individual effort. Believers conditioned to unquestioningly accept the voice of their pastor as the voice of God seldom hesitate to accept as equally authoritative the voice of a would-be dictator like Bolonsaro. The same vengeful God who in church promises damnation to the disobedient now promises to smite in this life LGBT people, petty criminals, and indigenous people, and anyone else who crosses Bolsonaro.
This outcome would represent the fruit of a fifty year project to distort and dominate Brazilian social, political, economic and cultural life through an implanted religion, with the reward of unfettered access to its natural riches for foreign capital and not God, but the interests of the United States, above all.
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