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Latin America: Churches Call for Alternative to Free Market

by Marcela ValenteInter Press Service
May 2nd, 2003

BUENOS AIRES-- Leaders of Protestant churches of Latin America, tired of alleviating social problems that they blame on neo-liberal free market policies, have decided to advance their own alternative proposals to governments and the multilateral lending institutions.

The continent-wide meeting "Globalizing the Fullness of Life", organized by the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, drew several hundred delegates to Buenos Aires between Apr. 28 and May 1.

The aim of the meeting was to share information and analysis of the socio-economic situation in the region, and explore alternatives to "globalization with a neo-liberal face" in order to promote economic justice.

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of 342 churches in more than 100 countries, from virtually all Christian traditions, located on all continents.

Representatives of Protestant churches from around the region as well as delegates from the United States, Africa and Asia discussed a paper, "Protestant Churches Say Enough is Enough!", drafted by sociologists, economists, theologians and pastors and presented as a focus of discussion at the meeting.

The meeting was part of an ecumenical process that got under way in 2001 with regional consultations in eastern Europe and the Pacific rim area. Similar conferences are planned next year in the United States and the Middle East. The results of the process will be collated and summarized in 2005.

The paper, which contains severe criticism of the neo-liberal economic model prevailing today in most countries of Latin America, is a draft document that will continue to be discussed and modified over the next few months.

In the paper, the CLAI member churches, which claim to represent between 15 and 20 percent of the population of Latin America, advocate the creation of global public institutions to oversee the direction taken by the globalization process and to regulate the banking system and capital flows.

They also propose bringing the mission of the United Nations up to date, and call for changes in multilateral lending institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, whose prescriptions play a decisive role in the economic policies of poor and indebted countries.

The lending institutions have failed to live up to their original mandate, and have instead helped to put in place an unjust economic model, according to the document.

The churches say the state should not be paternalistic, bureaucratic or neglectful, but should rather be a social state of law in which civil society plays a part.

In an interview with IPS, Puerto Rican pastor Angel Rivera, the coordinator of CLAI's Faith, Economy and Society programme, said churches work closely with the poor and are constantly mitigating the suffering caused by poverty, through their soup kitchens, homes for children in need and the elderly, and schools.

The churches draw professionals among the faithful, like engineers, sociologists, teachers or psychologists, into community service in benefit of the poor, he added.

But "We cannot continue to be the cheap labor of the system, or continue to put band-aids on a system that foments injustice," said Rivera, adding that "The idea is that we can change the system, that is, become elements of change through our work."

In their efforts to help needy communities, churchworkers often fall into providing superficial welfare solutions, which do not resolve the underlying problems, he pointed out.

"We are now discussing a new theory about what we have been doing, how we have done it, and what errors we have committed," Rivera added.

In recent years, Protestant churches in Latin America have backed the protests and demands of social movements in the region.

The document maintains that while criticism of "globalization with a neo-liberal face" has found a channel of expression in the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, anti-globalization groups must advance well-founded proposals that do not simply repeat initiatives and demands that arose in earlier periods of social activism.

The aim is for "Protestant Churches Say Enough is Enough!" to become a tool of "denunciation and dialogue" vis-a-vis governments in the region and multilateral financial institutions.

When the final draft of the document is ready, a group of church leaders will meet, in the second half of this year, to present it to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrtien, U.S. lawmakers, and multilateral lending institution officials.

Delegates already met with representatives of the Inter-American Development Bank in April 2002.

The draft version of the document states that churchworkers at times feel they are "accomplices" of free market policies that generate poverty, inequality and violence, and that they recognize that their main task should be that of "helping human beings and transforming their existence."

"It is as the well-known proverb states: Don't give them a fish, teach them to fish," Argentine Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Prez Esquivel told IPS, after giving an address at the meeting that was highly critical of the effects that he and other critics believe the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) will have.

The continent-wide free trade area, which the United States is negotiating with 34 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean -- all of them except Cuba -- is to go into effect in 2005.

"We are not against regional integration initiatives in and of themselves, but against integration processes that favour transnational corporations instead of the large majorities," and force countries to compete against each other in unequal conditions, says the paper.

The over 20-page document also states that structural adjustment policies, the ballooning of the foreign debt, privatisations, unfettered capital flows, and free market policies have generated "a profound human crisis."

More than half of the population of Latin America is poor, unemployment is high, employment is precarious, and small companies are constantly going under, the paper adds.

The churches acknowledge the contributions of the liberal economic model, such as respect for individual liberties or opposition to a bureaucracy-ridden, inefficient state.

But they also state that being faithful to the gospel forces them to denounce the current world economic order.

The document says that during periods of economic growth, poverty slightly declines, but inequality does not. "The trickle- down theory has failed. We must call on our governments to commit economic disobedience against the recommendations of the multilateral credit institutions."

With respect to the foreign debt, the Protestant churches took an unyielding stance. "Latin America paid $1.4 trillion in the past 20 years, which is five times the region's original debt. We are calling for forgiveness of that debt, and for the governments of the region to draw together and refuse to pay it, with courage and political will," the document concludes.





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