Chico Vivencia

An interview with Francisco ‘Chico’ Whitaker, co-founder and ‘architect’ of the World Social forum

Chico Whitaker, one of the main organisers of the World Social Forum

By Stefan Gigacz

Best known for his role as co-founder of the World Social Forum, Chico Whitaker, visited Thailand, Australia and New Zealand 10-25 May 2005 as part of the first New Pentecost program initiated by ACMICA and the Cardijn Lay Community.

Recalling Pope John XXIII’s call for the Second Vatican Council to launch a new Pentecost in the Church, this program aims to find ways of inspiring and mobilising a new generation of young Christians with a vision of their role as agents of social transformation in the modern world.

Chico’s personal journey with his wife Stella from his days as a University YCS leader in the 1950s, to his work with social action pioneers, Joseph Lebret and Helder Camara, his role in the struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil and in the process of democratisation provides a powerful example of lay commitment to building a new world, « another world » .

In this interview, Chico traces the story of this involvement which led eventually to his role, together with Brazilian businessman, Oded Grajew and Bernard Cassen of ATTAC, a movement promoting a global tax to finance development, in the emergence of the WSF.

Q. Can you tell us something about how you first became involved in social action.

In 1950, when I was 18, I left my home town to come to the city of Sao Paulo, the capital of Sao Paulo state, to study architecture and urban planning. While at university I joined the JUC – the University Young Catholic Students – which was based on the notion of getting involved in your own milieu – bringing the Gospel into your own environment.

To be one of the people, not someone from outside, involved in all the issues, including politics… the policies of the university, student associations, etc. There’s a word in Portuguese that describes it: “vivencia” – you can’t translate that word – it means something like living life to the full. In fact, I even had a nickname “Chico Vivencia”!

So in a country like ours with all its inequalities and suffering, this idea of addressing social problems was really powerful. It marked us for life and gave us a spirituality strongly oriented to social action and the opening up of the university to society and its problems.

For Easter 1954 we distributed a text by the French Dominican, Fr Louis-Joseph Lebret, from book entitled (in English) “An Examination of Conscience for Modern Catholics” which addressed social issues. In this book he identified the problem primarily as a sin of omission – the failure to act against the suffering of so many people. This approach helped very much to launch us into action on social issues.

Q. Later you also worked with Fr Lebret, who became known for his role in the drafting of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio…

In 1957, I began to work directly with the Fr Lebret as his draughtsman in a survey that he was doing on the city of Sao Paulo and on urban planning. His perspective complemented and added to the social orientation of the JUC.

In Brazil he had set up a centre named SAGMACS – which can be translated literally as Company for graphical and mechano-graphic analysis applied to social complexes – which carried out in depth surveys of life in various regions. We learnt how to study reality, how to analyse, how to work in teams – Lebret introduced us to a whole scientific approach.

Q. I believe that you also worked closely with Dom Helder Camara. How were you involved with him?

In 1963, I began to work on agrarian reform for the Brazilian federal government but about a year later I was forced to abandon the post following the coup d’état.

Even before the coup d’état I was already involved with Dom Helder in the the preparation of the Council – 1962-63. He had a number of working groups involved in discussions on the famous Schema XIII – which eventually became the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

So after being unemployed for a while I began to work with Dom Helder Camara and the Brazilian Catholic Bishops Conference on the preparation of their first national pastoral plan. This plan for the period 1965 to 1970 was designed as an initiative to assist the church in Brazil to assimilate the new orientations of Vatican II.

Whereas Lebret introduced us to social analysis, Dom Helder taught us more about the role of the Church. Indeed, Lebret and Dom Helder were good friends and collaborated closely. In fact, Dom Helder invited Lebret to be his adviser or expert at the Second Vatican Council. After the Council, Lebret was also heavily involved in the drafting of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio.

Dom Helder had a lot of social initiatives in Rio de Janeiro including a loan scheme that he had invented to provide finance for the poor – similar to what we know today as micro-credit. He had a whole team of people working with him and I also became involved in that work as well as the pastoral planning.

Q. Where did all this fit in with the development of the basic ecclesial communities and the rise of liberation theology?

This was also the time that people began to identify the need to go beyond the existing church structures. In fact, this hypothesis of reaching to smaller communities was already canvassed in the first pastoral plan which spoke of a “pastoral option for the community”. But it was not until ten years later that the basic church communities really began in the city of Vitoria, capital of Espirito Santo state, around 1974 with a bishop by the name of Dom Luis Fernandes. There were already things existing in the North East but the real explosion happened around 1978.

So the basic ecclesial communities really took off during the period of the dictatorship. One of the reasons was because at that time these communities represented virtually the only opportunity to be involved in any form of social action.

Liberation theology also really started to develop after the coup d’état. Fr Gustavo Gutierrez3 came to Brazil at that time and he began to interview some of my former colleagues from the JUC who by that time were spread out all over the country.

Q. You also ended up living overseas for a number of years. How did that happen?

After the coup d’état in 1964, it became increasingly difficult to continue to work. Eventually, my wife Stella and I were forced to leave and we ended up coming to France.

When we arrived in Paris, I was already in contact with the institute IRFED – the Institute for Research, Education and Training in Development – founded by Lebret and the plan was that I would give some courses there. My wife and I also both wanted to continue our studies and I wanted to do my Ph.D. In fact, we got scholarships from the French government but six months later the Brazilian government intervened so that the scholarships were canceled.

Eventually, in 1968, I was employed by CCFD4 – the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development – to organise its projects department and I stayed there until 1970.

I also had a couple of opportunities to work with UNESCO in Paris and in Spain, and I was invited to work in the UNESCO office in Santiago de Chile. However, working at UNESCO requires approval from your own government which of course was not forthcoming. In 1970, another opportunity arose to go to Chile to work with the United Nations in the Economic Commission for Latin America, a post which did not depend on government approval.

I accepted and so we moved there with our four children. It was an enormous experience to be there in the time of the Allende Popular government and to live through the 1973 coup d’état. To see how the system of domination functioned from close up and to see all the efforts of the Chileans to overcome the situation which all finished in the violence with which we are familiar.

For both Stella and me, this was a heavy blow from the point of view of our perspective on life. We decided that we would no longer work in our professions – she is psychologist – but that we would devote ourselves directly to the political work.

Q. Where did that commitment lead you?

After the coup d’état in Chile, and following a short time in Argentina, we decided to return to France as it was not possible to return to Brazil. It happened that our arrival in Paris in 1974 coincided with a decision by the Brazilian bishops to launch an international project on human rights. At that time the repression in Brazil was very strong and the bishops wanted to condemn it.

The bishop responsible for this project – Dom Candido Padim – contacted me and also some of my former colleagues from CCFD and the project that emerged became known as the “International Days for a Society Overcoming Domination”.

The Brazilian bishops conference obtained support for this project from the French bishops, the Canadian bishops, the American bishops and the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC). The International Commission of Jurists also supported the project.

In some ways, the organisation of these International Study Days was very similar to that of the World Social Forum. Five of us worked in the secretariat for this project which lasted from 1976 to 1980.

Around 1979-80, we also made a world trip including several countries in Asia – Singapore, Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia. The contacts that we made led to setting up a decentralised network with secretariats in the USA, in India as well as in France and Brazil. In the end, however, it was too complicated and only worked a little – there was no email or even fax at that time! Plus, we were overwhelmed by the Brazilian reality and our work ended up focusing on Brazil.

Nevertheless, this project was fundamental in enabling us to work out some ideas on how to address the issue of overcoming domination and addressing power struggles. It also provided excellent experience in learning how to work together in horizontal networks. This experience really led us towards the same theory that underlies the World Social Forum today – which rests on the idea of organising a completely different approach to politics – against hegemony, getting all the people involved, the co-responsibility of everyone, etc.

Q. What happened when you eventually returned to Brazil?

When we returned to Brazil in 1982, Cardinal Evaristo Arns of Sao Paulo, who is an exceptional man who was heavily involved in the struggle against torture, employed Stella and myself to work with the basic communities which were very widespread by then.

We tried to start putting some of our ideas into practice, particularly the creation of networks – a network of solidarity IN unemployment (not with the unemployed) as well as an ecumenical network.

In order to bring people together, you need to have a project. So we tried to set up small solidarity groups addressing on the unemployment issue – working with unemployed and employed in the whole neighbourhood.

We endeavoured to mobilise the people to raise money for this project – in this way, we were able to involve a large number of people in the project. The project enabled us to bring the people together and also to involve community groups as well as other organisations such as trade unions. People come together because there is a common project, something to do.

From 1985, we were involved with the Justice and Peace commission of the diocese in a national broad popular network campaigning for popular participation in the drafting of the new national Constitution which was adopted in 1988. We also used the network approach in our work on the constitution.

Today, this is still what we are trying to do with the Forum – we invite people to come together to create spaces where there is respect where it is possible to discuss how to change the world.

Paris, 4 April 2005