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Christian Frevel {*}

Socialists and Left-wing Christians

How Does the Church Stand to the New Left Governments of Latin America?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2007, P. 294-298
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In Europe there was already talk about a "turn to the left" in Latin America in view of the election results in Ecuador, Brazil and Nicaragua in the "super election year" 2006. But in Colombia, Peru or Mexico right-wing or moderate candidates came out on top. The church's dealings with the new governments are not uniform.


When in January 2007 Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez in the course of a solemn ceremony took his oath of office he used the formula: "Fatherland, Socialism or death - I take the oath of office." "Native country or death" the leader of the "Bolivian revolution" had already several times proclaimed, last at the sickbed of the Cuban revolution leader Fidel Castro.

Also Venezuela's church had attentively observed the country's rapprochement to Cuba. Already before the year 2001 Chávez had with Cuba agreed on exporting oil from Venezuela's production to Cuba, and as counter-move Cuban physicians and teachers should work especially in Venezuela's slums. With the help of those educators, but above all thanks to the body of teachers to a large extent supporting the Chávez government, the Bolivarian revolution made its entry into the classrooms. In 2005 Venezuela's Bishops' Conference warned against an "increasing militarization of the society" and condemned the "martial remarks" of the president, which were particularly directed against the USA.

That he in his inaugural speech on the occasion of his second term declared socialism as the goal of his work was however new. "Socialism and again socialism", so the Secretary of Education of Venezuela, Adan Chávez, is from now on to be taught in the schools of the country. The Catholic Church behaves sceptically. The Archbishop of the Andes city Mérida, Baltazar Porras said, Chávez' socialism looked like a supermarket. The Venezuelan model "socialism in the 21st century" distracts the attention from the actual problems.



For although Venezuela's oil production booms and yields enormous profits (with about 2.8 million barrels crude oil per day (Venezuela by now is the eight-largest oil exporter of the world), the living conditions of the poor social classes stagnate: Still about a third of the Venezuelans lives under the poverty line.

Already before the elections in the year 2004 in Venezuela Archbishop Porras had - like the largest part of the Venezuelan episcopacy - clearly opposed Chávez. He feared electoral fraud, nationalizations, censorship on the media and an increasing repression of the church. The electoral fraud did not happen. Chávez won a smashing victory over the democratic opposition in the election 2004 and the renewed elections in 2006, since there were no serious rival candidates. Nationalizations and medium censorship however came true and the repression against the church became stronger.

But President Chávez, who in former times in his Sunday television broadcast "Hello, President!" had strongly thundered against the Catholic Church, now discovers Christianity as value usable for himself - and therefore took his oath of office "on Jesus Christ, as the greatest socialist of all times". Shortly afterwards Evangelical missionaries of the "New Tribes Mission" were expelled from the country. The organization was an "imperialistic intruder", who deprived the native population of its culture.


Catholic Social Teachings Against Socialism

In January 2007 the plenary assembly of the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference (CEV) analyzed the attempts of the government to orientate the everyday life of people more and more in the sense of the Bolivarian revolution. Its final declaration says, "No matter which political regime is in power, man and its rights must be the focus of its actions, it must further the democratic values, of which a very important value is the protection of private property and of its social function". "There are situations about which we bishops cannot be silent, and truths on which we will still insist; as there are: the central importance of the person, of the human rights; political pluralism as opposed to only one way of thinking and the exclusion out of ideological or other reasons; the pluralistic education open to transcendence and religion; the fight against poverty, unemployment, legal and social insecurity and violence; the freedom of opinion and the right to information; a positive answer to the degrading situation of our imprisoned brothers and to those who feel persecuted."

Chávez uses the Venezuelan oil to make politics - and he has the possibility to do so: In the past year the Venezuelan public revenues almost doubled by the crude oil production. In Bolivia he supports the policy of Evo Morales, who in January 2006 as first member of an Indian people had been elected President of the Andes state. To keep an election promise, Evo Morales, who originates from the people of the Aymara, nationalized parts of Bolivia's gas deposits. "Evo Morales represents the social movements of Bolivia; he stands with his government for a process that grants more rights to the poorest, i.e. to the Campesinos or Mineros. Evo is a strong personality and is respected by a large majority", wrote shortly after the election the Jesuit Francisco Flores, Secretary-General of the Bolivian Bishops' Conference.

To achieve his goals the Bolivian President wants to change the constitution. As first step for the "reestablishment of the state" in July 2006 elections to a constituent assembly took place. In the new constitution the indigene population majority of the country is to get more rights and the redistribution or nationalization of landed property is to be fixed. The Bolivian Bishops' Conference (CEB) had demanded these reforms for years.

Hence the bishops wrote in a message from March 2006: "As church we recognize the constituent assembly as "sign of the times", a great opportunity to look full of hope forward and to build bridges of reconciliation and togetherness, of a sincere dialogue and of the search for the necessary agreements for a true democracy, in which we can exercise all our rights and obligations in freedom. We are sure that the new political constitution of the state, legitimized by the consent of the citizens, will enable a brotherly and sisterly and more peaceable society, even if it will not bring the solution for all problems that beset us today."


Controversy Between Government and Bishops' Conference

The bishops referred to the Catholic social doctrine as "application of Jesus Christ's gospel to the social reality of man", and so gave a rebuff to the socialistically coined statements of some politicians from the Bolivian ruling party MAS. Nevertheless the bishops are not against nationalizations:



"Under consideration of this right it is up to the state to protect the natural resources such as land, water, mineral resources and others, particularly also the natural fuels, on which our country pins so much hope. All these goods are to serve the welfare of the entire population, to contribute to the protection and defence of the environment, to bring the greatest possible advantage for our country, and also to guarantee by a calm and fair handling the future of our children", the message of the CEB says.

Shortly afterwards a violent controversy between government and bishops' conference occurred. It had been triggered by statements of the Bolivian Minister of Education, Félix Patzi, who had supported the cancellation of the religious instruction at public schools and the radical separation of church and state. Patzi had reproached the church with "inquisitorial behaviour" and had called it "an ideological apparatus that always formed an alliance with the oligarchy". At a national educational congress in the old capital Sucre the Minister had denounced the "unfair power monopoly" of the Catholic Church in education and had demanded a "decolonized secular and uniform education". This was also to include the interests of the indigene population.

Thereupon the chairman of the Bolivian Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Julio Terrazas, Archbishop of Santa Cruz, called the Catholics in Bolivia to actively defend their faith and to speak up for the Christian organization of the society. The religious education was "necessary, indispensable and not negotiable". No political measures would be accepted that ignored the parents' right to free choice of education for their children. "We bishops have clarified that we are not interested in clinging to ancient laws. What we want is an understanding of the fact that those who practise a religion must be respected", so Terrazas.

Is the Church Still the Political Advocate of the Indigene Population Majority?

The topic of Bolivia's colonial past was in the background of the tensions between government and church. Patzi and other politicians of the governing party MAS reproached the church with its former connection to the ruling class: it had taken advantage of this position in order to play until today an important role in the education above all of children. The Bolivian Bishops' Conference went - somewhat camouflaged - into counter-position: "The history of our country and social activities of the Catholic Church show - far away from one-sided declarations - its commitment to the development of the country and to the values of justice, solidarity and peace."

But in the end the controversy, which had dragged on for several months, could be settled. After a meeting between President Morales and Cardinal Terrazas in October 2006 was communicated that also further on religious instruction would take place in the public schools of Bolivia. But at the same time "the many and diverse cultural and religious roots of the country are to be considered". The Bolivian media rated this as win on points for the Catholic Church. But the last decision on the future of religious instruction at Bolivia's schools is left to the constituent assembly. Up to then there is from both sides a careful rapprochement to the respective other position.

The Catholic Church, once in Bolivia the only political advocate of the indigene population majority, must realize that the indigene movement has hardly any longer connections to the church. On the contrary: The intellectual leaders of the indigenous people, who are mostly close to the MAS, rather see the church as political opponent. And the omissions of the last ten years in the pastoral care for the indigenous population cannot be denied. President Morales nevertheless accepts the church as a mediator, so for example in the conflict between the (poor) Federal States of the highlands and the (rich ones) of the lowlands, which has split the country deeply. Cardinal Terrazas brought the politicians to one table again.


Christian Left-wing Representatives

Whereas Evo Morales, the former leader of the Coca farmers, has rather a reserved relationship to the church, Rafaél Correa in Ecuador is a professing and active Catholic. Born in 1963 in a middle-class family in Guayaquil, Correa studied economics also in the USA and in Belgium. He sees himself in the line of the Catholic social teachings and worked therefore as voluntary missionary in an indigene parish. This made it possible for him to learn apart from Spanish, English and French the Quechua language of Ecuador's Indigenes who amount to 40 per cent of the population. His religious motivation Correa mixed with his social demand. He assures to be left-wing, but to represent "not a Marxist but a Christian left".

Correa finished a University career. Last professor for economic science, he was in April 2005 after President Lucio Gutiérrez' removal surprisingly appointed Minister for Economic Affairs in the new cabinet under President Alfredo Palacio. The new Minister saw, as already before as professor, in the country's debt service the main cause of Ecuador's economic problems. Besides, he criticized the international credit policy for his country and developed economic as well as political relations with Venezuela's left government under Chávez. With it he did no favour to the government: The international financial markets reacted sensitively, one feared instability and a break with the debt service. After only 106 days in office Correa was dismissed as Minister.



As President Correa immediately took care of the question of the foreign debts and cancelled the co-operation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ecuador had settled its residual debts with the IMF, Correa said and added, "We no longer want to hear anything of this international bureaucracy. We will no longer allow to be blackmailed by anybody." The President threatened the World Bank to expel it if necessary from the country. "I am humanist, Christian and left. Humanist, because for me politics and economics are to serve mankind; Christian, because I come from the Catholic social teachings of the church, and left, because I believe in equality, justice and the priority of work before capital", Correa had declared in the election campaign 2006, when he applied for the presidency.

In the second ballot in November 2006 Correa was successful against Alvaro Nobo, the winner of the first ballot. Correa saw only "corrupt and good-for-nothing politicians" responsible for the calamity in the country. To create a "new fatherland", the new president right at his entry upon office announced the convocation of a constituent assembly with "unrestricted authority". Already in the election campaign Correa had promised to revise the constitution from 1999, in order to limit so the supremacy of the traditional parties in the congress.

Since Correa has no supporters in the Congress, he had after his entry upon office ordered by decree an opinion poll on the constituent assembly. The project of the opinion poll had strong opponents in the Congress. It came to domestic conflicts, in which - as climax - the highest electoral court revoked the mandate of 57 from 100 members of the Congress. Groups of Indigenes and social movements supported President Correa's course with demonstrations. It came to violent quarrels.

The chairman of the Ecuadorian Bishops' Conference and bishop of Machala, Néstor Herrera, in the radio appealed for peace and dialogue and offered the assistance of the church as mediator. "The church sees with great concern and a certain fear what could happen when this confrontation between national powers continues. For when it is not clear who governs us, immediately social tumult breaks out, and when it has once begun, it is very difficult to stop it." Under the heading "Let us not destroy the country" the Bishops' Conference stressed in a declaration from 1 April 2007 that the conflict led the country into dissolution.

"This confrontation is characterized by a language ready for violence, a disregard of the laws, an interpretation of the constitution according to the taste of the parties and the manipulation of persons and institutions", the bishops write. "In these moments we do not know whom we are to respect and support. The statements of the highest leaders of executive, legislation, law and highest electoral court are far from clarifying the situation and lead to confusion." The vote on the convocation of a constituent assembly took place on 15 April and brought the president a clear majority: Four fifth of the voters had voted for the convocation.

The Bishops' Conference had called to peace and respect for the civil rights and had thus taken the attitude of a moderator. But it is under pressure, since in February 2007 the financial administration of the church again became the topic in the media. The Bishops' Conference had parked funds in a cushion company for securing bank assets of the savers from assets of debtors of broken down banks (AGD), and by the favourable purchase of real estate of the AGD and its later sale had made good profits. This was branded as scandal in Ecuador. Rafaél Correa, who still assesses the indebtedness of the country as main evil, will not have approved of this conduct of the church with the money of private debtors.


The Church Mediates and acts as Moderator

There are three countries with new "left" governments, three different realities, three different positions of the church. As a result it can be noted that it has come to a careful process of rapprochement between the new governments and the Catholic Church. In conflicts also the new "left" governments trust in the church as mediator and moderator. Also in the other countries with "left" governments a further rapprochement of state and church can be observed: In Chile there are meanwhile regular contacts between Bishops' Conference and President Michelle Bachelet; at her inauguration several bishops were present.

In Argentina with Néstor Kirchner nothing has really changed in the relationship state - church. In Brazil the church has several times clearly given its view on Lula's policy (see HK, July 2006, 371ff.). In Nicaragua the Catholic Church has reminded the new President Daniel Ortega of his election promises and has demanded safe jobs. In the election campaign the creation of new jobs was the great topic, said the Archbishop of Managua, Leopoldo Brenes. But the unemployed persons were still unemployed, "and those who have a job must fear to lose it". The Bishops' Conference approves that Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo leads the newly-created national council for reconciliation and peace.



A statement of the bishops points out that Obando's role did not imply that the church in any way submits to the executive or sides with one side. Mexico, Peru and Colombia have elected against the "trend": Here conservative parties remained in power. But the relationship between state and church is not uniform in these countries either.


    {*} Christian Frevel leads the department of public work and education of the episcopal action Adveniat. Before that he was editor and reporter for different newspapers, magazines and institutions, from 1999-2002 deputy editor-in-chief of the mission magazine "kontinente" in Cologne.


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