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 Global Perspective

February 22, 2005 Vol. 2, No. 38

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Michael J. Gillgannon
Michael Gillgannon, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is director of campus ministry for the Archdiocese of La Paz, Bolivia. He has been a missionary serving in Bolivia since 1974.



Times have changed. Because of non-governmental organizations like the World Social Forum and the changing political and economic currents in Latin America, dry, detailed, dusty trade agreements are the topic of national dialogues and extreme social conflicts in Latin America.

Another world is possible

By Michael J. Gillgannon

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Another world is possible.

This is the slogan and the dream of the World Social Forum, which held its fifth anniversary meeting, Jan. 26-31, in the city of its founding, Puerto Alegre, Brazil. More than 150,000 people from 135 countries -- theologians of the world religions, union leaders, workers, campesinos, ethnic peoples, women, intellectuals and professionals -- participated. Also in the mix, 35,000 youth from 39 countries camped out, sang songs, and discussed world social, economic and cultural themes until the morning hours called them to workshops on dozens of world development problems such as trade, climate and the Kyoto accords, poverty, ethnicity, gender, and race.

At the same time in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum convened for the 30th time, bringing together 2,250 business, economic and political leaders of the world (500 CEOs of the world's biggest businesses, 23 heads of State, 26 religious leaders and 172 academics, among others). Bill Gates, the world's richest man (and most generous philanthropist) was there. Bill Clinton was there, as were such luminaries as Tony Blair, Al Gore, and the ubiquitous voice of the poor, Bono of U2 fame. President Luis Lula Da Silva of Brazil was the only dignitary present at both forums. The two forums discussed similar themes but from quite different perspectives and with quite different methods of organization.

American media, including the religious segment, gave little if any coverage to the World Economic Forum. Surely, these superstars were not in Davos under super-security to go snowboarding. The forum, an independent non-governmental institution, decided, among other conclusions, to organize 60 business leaders into an international committee to curb corruption and business bribery by recommending new national and international laws for business and finance. Given the Enrons of the go-go '90s, cynics might think the new commission comes not out of ethical concerns but because business is bleeding over the mounting public abhorrence of the shady dealings of global business around the world

In Davos, they decided on six priorities for their work of economic change on these critical world issues: poverty, equitable globalization, climate change, education, the Middle East and global governance.

The Puerto Alegre forum had particular relevance for the poor, the unemployed, the landless, women, campesinos, in short, the dispossessed of Latin America. Since 1994 and the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States government -- under both parties -- has been seeking to widen that model of trade to all of Central and South America. The new United States Congress will be asked to vote on the now agreed upon text of the Central American Free Trade Agreement as a high priority item. At the same time the last round of negotiations of the Andean Pact Free Trade agreement will end soon and will then go rapidly to the U.S. Congress.

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But times have changed. Because of non-governmental organizations like the World Social Forum and the changing political and economic currents in Latin America, dry, detailed, dusty trade agreements are the topic of national dialogues and extreme social conflicts in Latin America. Political alignments and attitudes have changed drastically in the nations of South America. Columbia is beholden (Bought? See the new study of the Washington Office For Latin America, Drugs and Democracy in Latin America) to the United States for a billion dollars in annual military and police aid to fight an unending civil war dubiously related to a war on drugs. Venezuela is, by U.S. choice and self-determined decision, out of all the negotiations on trade. Ecuador and Peru are in but their presidents are fighting for their political lives and could be ousted before any agreements are signed. Bolivia is in a huge national dialogue opposed to the agreements but the government is pressured, and threatened, by the U. S. government to sign on.

The Southern Cone nations, except for Chile, are all opposed to the United States trade models. Their previous debts and terms of trade with the United States all but sank their national sovereignty in bankruptcy in the late 1990s and early years of this century. Protests threw out presidents and old political parties in a constant wave of organized national dissent. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have new, socially progressive governments opposed to paying unjust international debts and unjust terms of trade with the blood and poverty of their people. They want to organize their own regional terms of trade without the United States.

Many in the Catholic church have been in the forefront of these movements. The Labor Day statement on international trade by the U.S. Catholic Bishops is one example. The joint document of the United States Bishops responding to the ethical pleas of the Central American Bishops places both conferences in opposition, not to fair trade, but to the falsely named free trade of the presently proposed agreements.

A ray of hope is that both the World Social Forum and the World Economic Forum are beginning for the first time to converge on defining priorities and in offering solutions. They are not on the same page yet by far, but one sees a thematic convergence on priorities and solutions, such as equitable globalization, for a global human development never deemed possible before.

The Catholic community in the United States, despite their debates about Latin and Asian immigration and the human rights of peoples, has not done its ethical homework on sinful social structures. Our North American churches still think that donations and prayers for the "missions" are the best Catholic faithful practice. In these days of global business and global cultural and religious wars our faithful must know more and do more. The connections between trade, jobs, land, and immigration will determine the future of the Americas and the world. Our southern brothers and sisters in the faith need an awakening informed conscience in the North to influence American policies in the American Congress before profoundly unwise decisions are made into international law.

Another world is possible.

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