The Common Good
July-August 2003

'Dirty Wars,' 21st-Century Style

by Elizabeth Palmberg | July-August 2003

Latin American churches tackle 'free' trade.

In the 1980s, when governments waged dirty wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua that they claimed would make the world safe for democracy, the churches said no. Today, churches in the Americas are organizing once again for justice. This time, their target is the big lie of the new millennium: The contention that "free trade" agreements and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will strengthen democracy and help the poor.

In fact, such agreements benefit the economic elite by dramatically strengthening their hand against democratic governments. "Free trade" makes large corporations free to move jobs at the drop of a hat, playing countries against one another in a race to the bottom in wages, environmental standards, and labor laws. Wall Street investment is free to skittishly stampede in and out of countries, producing crippling financial crises. If environmental or health laws threaten profits, companies are free to sue governments for massive sums in closed-door tribunals. And powerful countries such as the United States are free to negotiate preferential trade terms for themselves—wherein, for example, poor countries must eliminate farm subsidies and open their markets to heavily subsidized U.S. farm goods.

The issue has never been more timely: The proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, modeled on NAFTA, is being rushed through negotiations this year, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is on the table for 2005. In the face of this blatant corporate power grab, a groundswell of church groups in Latin America, like their counterparts to the north, are joining with other parts of civil society to speak out and strategize.

Last fall, the Catholic Church in Brazil helped to organize an informal plebiscite of 10 million Brazilians, 98 percent of whom voted against FTAA. In Mexico, where rural poverty has skyrocketed as subsidized U.S. corn floods the market, a group of Catholic bishops in January condemned NAFTA for creating "poverty, destruction of rural culture, emigration [to the United States], and what is worse, a spiral of violence and death incompatible with the plan of God."

ALTERNATIVES TO neo-liberal globalization were explored in May at a continent-wide consultation in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on "Globalizing the Fullness of Life," organized by the Latin American Council of Churches. Gabriela Rangel, a Mexican activist, pointed out to the gathering that Mexico's NAFTA experience makes it "an important example of what should not happen" in a just society. Mexico's manufacturing exports have mushroomed, but the poor have seen little benefit: Wages are stagnant and the poverty rate has increased.

In fact, the proposed Americas trade agreement would be worse than NAFTA because it would require countries to let foreign for-profit companies bid to provide government services, such as water and health care. Latin America already has instructive experience with privatization, which the IMF pushes on debtor nations. (The IMF shows no signs of changing course, even though the institution admitted in March that there was no evidence that poor countries were helped by privatization.) Recently, the private company that contracted to manage Nicaragua's electric system was found to have overcharged consumers $10 million, or $20 apiece. (By comparison, public schoolteachers earn $60 a month.)

To counter the "profound human crisis" brought on by privatization, foreign debt, and corporation-favoring trade agreements, delegates in Buenos Aires proposed reforming the IMF and World Trade Organization to consider ethics, social concerns, and the environment rather than just corporate finances. They also called for their governments to repudiate their "immoral and unpayable" foreign debt.

The task facing advocates for the poor is not easy. Trade deal negotiators and, to a large extent, institutions such as the IMF have turned a cold shoulder to civil society groups, who differ about whether to try to influence agreements or prevent them. But church and community leaders are committed to countering corporate globalization with their own international alliances and with alternatives that are, in the words from the Buenos Aires conference, "current, concrete, purposeful, and prophetic." —Elizabeth Palmberg

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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