Obituary: Herbert de Souza

The emaciated figure on top of the carnival float looked the very opposite of a beauty queen. But as the processon entered the Rio de Janeiro stadium during last year's festival, there was especially loud applause for Herbert de Souza - or "Betinho" as he was popularly known. Betinho was already suffering badly from Aids, which has now led to his death at the age of 61.

Betinho contracted the virus from contaminated blood supplies he had to take regularly because of his haemophiliac condition. That same condition also meant that he almost died at birth in Minais Gerais in 1935, but he survived to go on to study at the local federal university and to embark on an academic career as a sociologist.

Although not a Christian, he was influenced by the radical theology being practised in Brazil in the early 1960s, and himself believed that sociologists should be involved not simply in the study of society but should attempt to change it. It was in this spirit that he set up the radical left wing Acao Popular, and pressed for revolutionary change in Brazil, one of the most unequal societies in the world.

This kind of activism was highly suspect for the military governments which came to power in Brazil in 1964, and by the end of the decade de Souza, like the current Brazilian president Henrique Cardoso, found himself forced into exile. De Souza went first to Chile, to participate in Salvador Allende's Popular Unity experiment with socialism, but in 1973 once again found the military on his doorstep pressuring him to leave. He took refuge in the Panamanian embassy, and after living in that country, went on to work in Canada, Sweden and France.

He still wanted above all to do "useful" work back in Brazil, and returned as soon as possible after an amnesty was announced for political exiles at the end of the 1970s. Betinho soon set up Brazil's first independent social research centre, the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis, which he always adamantly kept free from political and government control. His own position was similarly independent, and, although he helped in the creation of new left-wing political parties that sprang up after the return of civilian government in the mid-Eighties, he never committed himself to any of them.

By this time, both Betinho and his two brothers, one a famous cartoonist who had lampooned the military government, the other a talented musician, had all been infected with contaminated blood. Betinho's brothers died in 1988 of Aids-related illnesses, but Betinho seemed to gain new energy. He set up the Brazilian Interdisciplinary Aids Association to control the health service's blood banks, and started educational campaigns about Aids. At a period when very few public figures were willing to speak about the disease, his courage and lucidity were vitally important in forcing the government to adopt measures to combat the growing problem.

Betinho used the public position these campaigns gave him in a more directly political struggle for ethics in public life when President Fernando Collor de Mello was accused of corruption in 1992. He followed this up by establishing what became known as his "Campaign Against Hunger". Horrified by surveys showing that 32 million Brazilians - almost a quarter of the population - suffered acute hunger, Betinho mobilised the middle classes, workers and others to collect food and money for the dispossessed.

He said: "I have never found any scientific reason why we can't feed our starving millions . . . the problem is that the Brazilian elites don't see the poor. It's a problem of the negation of other people."

The crusade against hunger led to his being proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. His position was undermined by revelations that, in order to secure finance for the Aids association, he had knowingly taken money from the racketeers running an illegal lottery syndicate in Rio de Janeiro. Betinho himself was philosophical about his fall from grace: "The good side was that it demystified my image. Saints don't exist. People take actions that are either right or not, and that's what matters."

Nick Caistor

Herbert Jose de Souza, sociologist: born Bocaivu, Minais Gerais, Brazil 13 November 1935; married Maria Nakano (two sons); died Rio de Janeiro 9 August 1997.

Suggested Topics
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam