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Latin Bishops Launch Broadside against Free Trade Area

Latin Bishops Launch Broadside against Free Trade Area
Raul Pierri, Inter Press Service (IPS)
Sept. 5, 2003
MONTEVIDEO, Sep 4 (IPS) -- The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) looks less like a true regional integration project than a ''neo-colonialist'' plan that will make poor communities even poorer and will not respect national sovereignty, said the Catholic bishops of the members of South America's largest trade bloc.

''What we condemn is that the only aim of the project is to increase trade flows, regardless of whether or not it devastates everything and everyone in its path,'' the secretary-general of the bishops' conference of Uruguay, Bishop Pablo Galimberti of the southern Uruguayan city of San Jos, told IPS on Thursday.

The Catholic bishops of the countries of South America's Mercosur trade bloc--Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay--and the bloc's associate members Bolivia and Chile met this week in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, to discuss the challenges of integration in Latin America and the ''ethical and moral'' aspects of the creation of the FTAA.

The initiative promoted by the United States will create a free trade zone made up of 34 countries--all of the nations in the Americas with the exception of Cuba--with a total population of 800 million people and a combined Gross National Product (GNP) of over $11 billion by 2005.

The main objections to the FTAA raised by the bishops were that it will benefit the richest countries--like the United States and Canada--at the expense of the less competitive members, and that it will consolidate the hold of ''unfettered neo-liberalism'' on the entire region.

''Christian ethics and the Christian vision encompass everything, not just the moral aspects,'' said Galimberti. ''They encompass the spiritual as well as the economic. We do not separate out religious and social aspects.''

In a statement, the bishops said the creation of the FTAA would have ''grave consequences'' due to ''the excessive disproportion of the competitive capacities of the countries, some of which have very strong, developed economies while others are weak."

''This initiative will foment the concentration of economic power in a few hands, favouring the formation of monopolies and oligopolies, which will end up imposing their hegemony over governments, especially in the weakest countries in the Americas.

''Rather than integration, this could involve neo-colonialism, with a negative impact on local communities...The chief aim of an initiative like the FTAA should be to promote the common good and solidarity between nations, and not merely to search for the greatest advantage for just a few,'' they said.

The bishops also expressed concern over the future of indigenous and rural communities, ''which in this system would run the risk of being displaced,'' from land rich in natural resources, for example.

In addition, they said the strategic natural resources of poor nations ''should not be susceptible to appropriation by private interests.

''A true process of integration in the Americas should be based on a continent-wide policy that takes into account human rights and the principles of sovereignty, justice, solidarity and respect for the cultural identities of nations,'' said the statement.

The secretary-general of Brazil's bishops' conference, Bishop Odilo Scherer of Sao Paulo, told IPS that the Brazilian Catholic Church is working with non-governmental organizations on a campaign aimed at raising awareness about the FTAA, which will include another ''people's referendum'' in which Brazilians will be asked what they think about the future free trade area.

''We will hold an unofficial popular referendum this month to allow Brazilians to express their opinions about the FTAA. Our big concern is human beings, who should always take top priority,'' he said.

In a similar ''referendum'' held in September 2002, 10 million Brazilians said they were opposed to the free trade area, according to the organizers.

The president of Argentina's bishops' conference, Eduardo Mirs, stressed the negative impact that the prescriptions of the multilateral lending institutions have had on his crisis-stricken nation.

''Our countries need help, without a doubt, but they don't need an invasion of our sovereignty, which also implies a loss of our identity. By meddling in our educational programmes, for example, they are undermining the free determination of nations,'' Mirs, the archbishop of the eastern Argentine city of Rosario, told IPS.

The bishops meeting in Montevideo did not agree on any concrete common strategy, nor did they decide to discuss their point of view with their respective governments.

''We are making closer contact with political leaders, but we are not a political party. This statement simply has the objective of helping to form the faith of Christians, with a social dimension,'' said Galimberti.

The declaration signed Thursday by the bishops of the Mercosur nations and their associates Bolivia and Chile concurs with the pastoral letter Ecclesia in America that Pope John Paul II made public in Mexico in 1999.

Ecclesia in America stated that ''more and more, in many countries of the Americas, a system known as 'neo-liberalism' prevails; based on a purely economic conception of man, this system considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and the respect due to individuals and peoples.

''At times this system has become the ideological justification for certain attitudes and behaviour in the social and political spheres leading to the neglect of the weaker members of society. Indeed, the poor are becoming ever more numerous, victims of specific policies and structures which are often unjust.''

The views of the Roman Catholic Church are of great significance in the Americas, which is home to 528 million Catholic faithful, nearly half of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, according to Vatican statistics.