Category Archives: The Americas

Catholics Respond to Rising Anti-Globalization in Latin America

By Bristow Richards

Last year saw citizens of the US and Europe respond to globalism with disdain and contempt. 2015, the year of the COP21 climate accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, gave way to 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, and a general loss of faith in institutions. There is reason to believe that the same variety of anti-globalism could have political weight in Latin America as well. In recent decades, the region has experienced the worst side effects of both national isolation and global interconnectedness. In the Eighties, states involved themselves too heavily in their national economies and instituted too many import barriers, which led to an inflation crisis that ruined entire markets in the region. Latin American historians often refer to the era as the “Lost Decade.” Openness to international markets and institutions, on the other hand, can also be dangerous. Argentina had the biggest sovereign debt default in history in 2001 after relying almost solely on foreign capital and the IMF.

 

What can assuage the looming anxiety Latin Americans feel towards globalism? Populism and protectionism have been one cathartic political response in other regions of the globe. But politics is not the only solution.

 

One group of Catholics claims to have the answer. In February, Spanish-speaking Catholic theologians met in Boston to discuss the church’s approach to globalization and structures of exclusion. At the inaugural Ibero-American Conference of Theology, Catholic thinkers discussed issues from ranging from populism and acculturation, to the environment. Among those present was Juan Carlos Scannone, a previous teacher of the current pope, and Carlos María Gallí, one of the pope’s close friends and advisors. These Catholic thinkers argued that their particular reading of Christianity could address contemporary problems faced by all people, across political spectrums and throughout the globe. Their approach to Catholicism is called Liberation Theology – made renowned by Gustavo Gutiérrez in his 1973 book, A Theology of Liberation. Gutiérrez himself attended the conference, a gesture that seemed to give credence to the contemporary supporters of his theology. Although liberation theology once enjoyed considerable sway in Latin America, its influence has waned in the past few decades. In this political moment, however, liberation theologians are gaining momentum, hoping to return to mainstream political and cultural conversations in the Americas.

 

Liberation theology, according to its proponents, is a reading of Christian teaching that focuses on helping the poor and excluded to overcome exclusionary institutions like governments and multinational corporations. It has often been characterized as a leftist sociopolitical movement. Some strands of liberation theology take on a deterministic, Marxist interpretation of material well-being, encouraging the working class to struggle against these exploitative or extractive institutions, and to struggle violently, when necessary. The summary declaration from the Ibero-American Conference of Theology, however, takes on a gentler tone. The declaration calls for a reinvigorated approach to theology that pays special attention to “the reality of social conflicts,” aspiring to overcome vast inequalities of wealth, resources, and opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region could use it, too: inequality plagues Latin America from Buenos Aires to Bogotá, although it has been modestly improving in the past few years. To impoverished rural parishioners, a materialistic understanding of religion is more descriptive of their reality than the messages of vacuous Vatican elites, who are more concerned with debating abortion and gay marriage.

 

The “preference for the poor” espoused by liberation theologians is not unique to their movement. Pope Francis, though he does not specifically endorse Liberation Theology, has gone to great lengths to bring the church’s attention more to its people, especially its poorest. When he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pontiff-to-be made it a priority to improve the church’s relations with the villas miserias – “miserable neighborhoods”– where poverty and crime were often deadly. He condemned international institutions and unchecked capitalism for exacerbating the suffering of Argentines after the 2001 default. As pope, he has sought to improve Vatican relations with liberation theologians. In 2015, Francis invited Gustavo Gutiérrez to speak at the Vatican as a welcome guest. Perhaps more notable was when the pope ordered the beatification of Archbishop Óscar Romero, a divisive liberation theologian who was shot at the altar during the reign of El Salvador’s oppressive military dictatorship in 1980. The pope’s latent support for liberation theology has given the movement the nearly official legitimacy it has lacked since its founding.

 

Although Pope Francis has conditioned the church to consider the tamer calls of liberation theology, Gutiérrez and his entourage may still not be fully capitalizing on their chance to influence political events in Latin America. Elections in the Americas are seeing center-right administrations rise up under the likes of Argentina’s Mauricio Macri and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. While the source of this retreat from the Left may be based as much on disdain for the corruption of current leftist governments as it is on a rejection of leftism itself, the political landscape is becoming less amenable to some of the basic ideological premises of liberation theology. To make matters worse, Latin America is becoming decidedly less Catholic, with studies indicating that Catholic identity has decreased by more than 20% since the 20th century.

 

Despite these challenges, liberation theologians continue to have an immense asset at their disposal: Catholicism itself. Issues like globalization, migration, and poverty are transnational by nature. Transnational issues are also notoriously difficult to approach by any sort of international political effort. They aren’t necessarily the product of sovereign states, and it is nearly impossible for loose coalitions of independent countries to agree on how to solve them. The church, on the other hand, has the characteristics of a transnational movement. It relies on more than a billion individuals, who regularly choosing to reaffirm it. The Church does not need borders or laws to maintain influence. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has extensive bureaucratic capacity and ideological authority in the Vatican. The pope can influence Catholics with inspiration and religiosity, without imposing laws or inciting partisanship. Pope Francis has the power to open the minds of nearly 1.2 billion people, to ideas of social and political activism, to urge them to resist oppressive institutions. At the very least, he can make Catholics more receptive to religious leftism.

 

Catholicism (from the greek word katholikismos, or “universal doctrine”) can be a powerful solution to the fears that transcend national boundaries. Emboldened by a friendly Vatican and renewed organizational capacity, it seems that liberation theologians will attempt to strengthen their base in Latin America, and perhaps enter the cultural mainstream within the next few years. It will be a slow process. Gutierrez and his colleagues will likely take advantage of Pope Francis’ frequent visits to the region in the next decade, using his liberal Catholicism to further legitimize their endeavors. Time will tell if their message really takes root.

 

 

In Defense of Democracy: Implications of the Recent Political Turmoil for Brazil’s Workers’ Party

By Samantha Gowing

Samantha Gowing’17 is a guest writer double majoring in Community Studies and English

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is currently undergoing impeachment proceedings surrounding her alleged budgetary deceit back in her 2014 election campaign. Rousseff, the leader of Brazil’s socialist-leaning Workers’ Party, borrowed billions of dollars from state budgets for social reform programs—the debt of which she hid from public eye during the campaign in order to still win the election. Most experts, whether for or against Rousseff, tend to agree that these claims are valid. If this was only case working against her, then we might ask: is it enough to warrant her removal?

Of course, that isn’t the only case currently being used against her. Since her election, Brazil’s economy has continued to plummet, while political corruption—highlighted by the recent Petrobras oil scandal—has reached all-new heights. Although Rousseff herself has not been directly implicated in the scandal, many politicians in her party have, including her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. No side in this battle, however, has gotten off scot-free. Over one hundred politicians from all parties were indicted with pocketing money from the scandal and several have been jailed. In more recent news, the Supreme Court suspended Eduardo Cunha, the man leading the impeachment drive against Rousseff, from his position as Speaker of the Lower House for his own involvement in the scandal. The scale of this corruption far surpasses what the world witnessed when Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup last year, and it doesn’t even end with Petrobras. An estimated 60% of Brazil’s Congress members are involved in all sorts of scandals, ranging anywhere from money laundering to (in an extreme case from the 90s) homicide.

Corruption is neither new nor uncommon, and Rousseff’s case is nowhere close to the worst the country has seen from a leading politician. In fact, New York Times writer Simon Romero even calls Rousseff “something of a rarity” in the current political climate because “she has not been accused of stealing for herself.” Although her budget deceit during the election may have been manipulative, the only valid claim being used against her is that she tried too hard to put money into social welfare programs benefitting the country’s poor. Rouseff and her party, however, have been at the center of the country’s frustrations—frustrations which have led to massive outbreaks, protests, and enough political pressure placed on the congress to lead to her impeachment proceedings.

A few months ago, I studied for several weeks in São Paulo, Brazil while staying with a family who lived just around the corner from Paulista Avenue, the city’s financial center in the downtown area. During my last weekend in the city, my host-family invited me to go to a protest with them on Paulista. The street was completely crowded with people wearing their country’s colors, shouting Fora Dilma!, and blowing into vuvuzelas every time a media-coverage helicopter flew overhead. We passed stages set up every few blocks with people talking passionately into microphones or bands playing upbeat music, and there were a plethora of food vendors and people to pass out balloons and flyers. Later, I found out that there were millions of people out on Paulista Avenue with me that afternoon.

The protest was fun—it was practically a party. The music was upbeat, and the police maintained safety in the streets by keeping a watchful eye on the events. And bear in mind, the people who came to that protest were the same people who can afford to live in the economically-flourishing downtown area of the city—that is, mostly white, upper-class residents who oppose the Workers’ Party agenda and believe that both Rousseff and Lula are to blame for the economic recession.

In the meantime, a different protest was stirring just beneath the surface. Earlier that week, we’d spoken with an eviction lawyer who worked with poor, displaced people in the city, and it was he who gave us a flyer about a protest occurring in support of Rousseff. I had planned to go, but countless warnings about the violence that would likely ensue held me back. Even before the actual protest began, police were already manning the area and waiting to disperse any crowds that might gather for the pro-Rousseff protest. The distinction was striking: Sunday’s protest, in all its magnitude and excitement, could only happen because it was state-sanctioned.

It is no coincidence that most people I met in support of Rousseff are the people I met working for human rights organizations or occupying abandoned buildings downtown to protest affordable housing shortages. When I spoke with them about the politics going on in their country, I learned that they were not even necessarily pro-Rousseff—but they still took her side because they felt strongly against the impeachment. The impeachment, backed primarily by state-sanctioned events of the wealthy elite classes, would undermine the previous election in which supporters of the Workers’ Party rightfully voted in Dilma Rousseff. Albeit, the vote passed with a 51% majority—but they were able to garner enough votes for Rousseff to enter office. The poor people of Brazil do not have the massive, state-sanctioned protests of the elite classes; they aren’t granted political platforms strong enough to catch their congress’s attention. If the impeachment proceedings continue, they might undermine even the most basic right to citizenship that under-resourced communities have in a democracy: the right to vote.

Around the time of the protest on Paulista Avenue, I noticed a particular narrative weaving its way through the US media’s coverage of events—a narrative that praised the demonstration of democracy that the anti-Rousseff protests seemingly represented. The impeachment proceedings have been lauded as a way to “defend democracy” and to empower the people; The Wall Street Journal described it as a “Middle-Class Revolt” in which “the effort to impeach President Dilma Rousseff is a sign of a maturing democracy.” The political action shown by the elite classes may seem impressive, but keep in mind: the state-sanctioning of the anti-Rousseff protest demonstrates the ability and access of the wealthy, elite class to use state institutions to influence Brazilian politics in their favor, while the lack of any meaningful voice from the poorer classes, who are repeatedly silenced by the same governmental institutions that benefit those in the upper-classes, continually puts them on the losing end of many of the political decisions made by those at the top.

In a country with a strong history of military dictatorships, with the most recent ending in 1988, the threat of a political coup is not far-fetched. Rousseff herself has begun to use the language of a coup in her fight against the impeachment, but continues to be written off as hyperbolic or over-passionate. Even if this is not the beginning of a coup, the implications of this impeachment could prove tremendously harmful for the country’s poor and politically-powerless populations.

The final vote for Rousseff’s impeachment has been projected for late August. On May 12th, 55 senators voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment—54 votes will be required in August to remove Rouseff from office. In the meantime, the interim president Michel Temer continues to hold office with a staff consisting entirely of white men; this cabinet is the first since the 1970s in which no women hold a position. Political leaders across Latin America have expressed their disapproval of this new shift in power. Temer has already begun pushing pension and labor reform policies as members of his cabinet recover from facing their own charges related to the Petrobras oil scandal.

Featured image from The New York Times