Liberation Theology Intercommunication Network in Brazil and Latin America
"The Cuban experiments were supported by a socialist state. But experiments with anti-capitalist informatics are also possible in the absence of such a state. In fact, another major undertaking took place in countries that were controlled by US-backed right-wing military dictatorships.
In many Latin American countries, including Brazil after the 1964 military coup, authoritarian regimes took violent measures to silence dissidents, such as censorship, imprisonment, torture, and exile. Some of the most vocal critics of these measures were Catholic priests who sought to reorient the Church toward the organizing of the oppressed and the overcoming of domination. A key event in the formation of their movement, which would become known as “liberation theology,” was a 1968 conference of Latin American bishops held in Medellín, Colombia. At the landmark conference, the attendees learned of the dynamics of oppression in different countries, and collectively declared, “A deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else.”
How could this cry be heard? The Medellín experience inspired a group of liberation theologians, largely from Brazil, to try to envision new forms of communication among poor and oppressed peoples across the world. Their objective was conscientização, or “conscientization”: the development of a critical consciousness involving reflection and action to transform social structures—a term associated with their colleague Paulo Freire, who had developed a theory and practice of critical pedagogy. Towards that end, the theologians planned to organize a set of meetings called the “International Journeys for a Society Overcoming Domination.”
But international meetings were prohibitively expensive, which meant many people were excluded. One of the project organizers, the Brazilian Catholic activist Chico Whitaker, explained that “international meetings rarely escape the practice of domination: in general they are reduced to meetings of ‘specialists’ who have available the means to meet.” To address this problem, the liberation theologians and allied activists envisioned a system of information diffusion and circulation that they called an “intercommunication network.” This network would make available “information that was not manipulated and without intermediaries,” break down “sectoral, geographic, and hierarchical barriers,” and make possible “the discovery of situations deliberately not made public by controlled information systems.”
By “controlled information systems,” the organizers referred to the severe state censorship of print and broadcast media that had become prevalent across Latin America. Liberation theologians wanted the liberation of information, which would enable a new phase of Freirean pedagogy: from the era of “‘conscientization’ with the intermediaries” to that of direct “‘inter-conscientization’ between the oppressed,” in Whitaker’s words.
Since the modern internet was not yet available in the 1970s, the operation of the “intercommunication network” relied on print media and the postal service. The organizers set up two offices, called “diffusion centers”: one in Rio de Janeiro, at the headquarters of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil where Brazilian bishop Cândido Padin, an organizer of the Medellín conference, served as project coordinator; and another in Paris, where Whitaker lived in exile with his wife, Stella, another Brazilian activist, because of his role in land reform planning before the 1964 military coup.
The diffusion centers received and distributed, by mail, submissions of short texts (or five-page summaries of longer texts) analyzing situations of “domination” from a worldwide network of participant organizations, connected via regional episcopal conferences in Latin America, North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Whitaker emphasized that the texts should ideally be written by “those who have the greatest interest in the overcoming of domination, namely, those who are subject to it,” and should include “analysis of their own situations and the struggles that they were developing to liberate themselves from domination.” The organizers published every text that matched the basic requirements, without any editorial modification; translated each text into four languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English); and mailed all texts for free to participants in more than ninety countries.
For Whitaker, the concept of intercommunication was rooted not only in “freedom of expression” but also in “liberty of information”: the ability for all participants to have access “to everything that the others wish to communicate to them and which serves the realization of the objectives which they share.” Intercommunication sought to produce radical equality: “All must be able to speak and be listened to regardless of the hierarchical position, level of education or experience, social function or position, moral, intellectual, or political authority of each.” The practice of intercommunication demanded the “acceptance to heterogeneity and of the ‘dynamic’ of conflicts that go with it,” Whitaker wrote.
Finally, intercommunication required an exercise of “mutual respect” and “openness towards the others” that reflected the Christian principle of fraternity: as Whitaker put it, “the respect for what the other thinks or does… the receptiveness to what is new and unexpected, to that which poses questions to us or challenges us, or to perspectives and preoccupations that we would have been able to leave aside because they are difficult to accept.” Despite the importance of Christian values, however, the intercommunication network was open to anyone. Some participants were non-Catholic, non-Christian, and even non-religious. Padin explained that as “children of God, we are in Christ all brothers, without any distinction.”
The Freedom to be Heard
Over the years, the intercommunication network circulated an extraordinary diversity of texts. Chadian participants examined the social consequences of cotton monoculture since its imposition under French colonial rule. Sri Lankan participants reviewed the labor conditions in the fishing industry, the profiteering tactics of seafood exporters, and the limitations of fishing cooperatives set up by the state. Panamanian participants narrated their struggle for housing and their formation of a neighborhood association. From Guinea-Bissau, a group of both local and foreign educators, including Paulo Freire, wrote about the challenges of organizing a literacy program and changing the education system in the aftermath of the war of independence. Between 1977 and 1978 alone, nearly a hundred texts circulated in the network. These were later compiled into a monumental volume, published in four languages and discussed at regional meetings of network participants across the world.
This volume featured an unusually sophisticated system of indexing. Each text had a code composed of a letter and a number; for example, the aforementioned Chadian text had the code “e35.” The letters indicated the type of text—“e” for case studies, “d” for discussion texts, “r” for summaries—and the numbers were assigned chronologically. The volume was divided into sixteen numbered sections, each about a different theme of “domination.” Section III focused on “domination over rural workers,” section IV on “non-rural workers,” section VII on “domination in housing conditions,” section X on “health conditions.”
Each text was printed inside one of the thematic sections, but since the classifications were not mutually exclusive, the index of each section also listed texts that intersected with the theme despite being from different sections. For instance, the index of section IX, on education, listed some main texts—“e4” from Thailand, “e6” from Guinea-Bissau, “e38” from the Philippines—as well as other texts from different sections, like “r3” from section X, which discussed the intersection of health and education in structures of domination. The end of the volume featured an additional index that classified texts according to “some particular categories of victims of domination”: “women,” “youth,” “children,” “elderly people,” and “ethnic groups.”
The astonishing diversity of texts circulated by the intercommunication network soon brought its organizers into conflict with conservative factions of the Catholic Church. In 1977, some readers were especially scandalized by text “e10,” submitted by a small, women-led, self-described “community of Christian love” in rural England. The text bothered conservatives not only for its explicit denunciation of “the Roman Catholic Church as an instrument of domination” engaged in “a kind of efficient and specialized ‘brain washing,’” but also for its feminist proposals, which included the refusal “to call anyone ‘father’ in a clerical context” and the commitment to “calling the Holy Spirit ‘She’ and not ‘He.’”
After a long deliberation at the Rio de Janeiro diffusion center, the project organizers decided to publish the text along with a note restating their commitment to free expression and reminding readers of the minimal requirements for publication. Still, conservative bishops complained to Vatican authorities, who were increasingly concerned by the rise of liberation theology in Latin America and beyond. Pope Paul VI, who did not sympathize with the project, sent emissaries to Brazil to intervene. The Vatican demanded that the bishops stop, claiming that the conference in Rio de Janeiro “could not take an initiative of such breadth, and had surpassed its competence by inviting other episcopal conferences to join the project.” By building a distributed worldwide network via regional conferences, the liberation theologians had bypassed the central authority of the Vatican. Despite the Vatican’s order to stop the project, a group of Brazilian organizers continued in disobedience until 1981.
Later on, former organizers reflected on the relationship between their intercommunication network and the modern internet. They did not know that in the original paper on the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which outlined the technology that serves as the basis of the internet, engineers Vinton G. Cerf and Robert E. Kahn had spoken of a protocol for packet “network intercommunication”—or simply an “internetwork” protocol, leading to the contraction “internet” a few months later. The paper had appeared in 1974, when the liberation theologians were planning their similarly named network." (https://logicmag.io/care/informatics-of-the-oppressed/)