World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

1. Statement on Latin America

23 February 2006

The following report was presented to and received by the Assembly.
Its resolutions were proposed by the Public Issues Committee and approved by the Assembly through consensus.
Dissent expressed by Assembly delegates is recorded as endnotes.

1. The WCC Assembly meets for the first time in Latin America and would first like to express its deep thanks to the Latin American Churches for having hosted the Assembly, to the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) for its work in the construction of unity among the Christian Churches and to the National Council of Christian Churches in Brazil (CONIC) who generously invited the WCC to hold the Assembly in this country. The present statement reflects issues and concerns received from Latin American Churches.

2. The Assembly theme "God, in your grace, transform the world" recalls the different transformations the region has experienced throughout its history; a history where hope, life and joy prevail through the centuries as characteristics of the region and signs of God's grace; a history of transformations which continue to take place even now. Recent elections in Latin American countries have resulted in the first Indigenous person to be elected as President of Bolivia and the first woman to be elected as President of Chile. These new political signs in the region follow other changes, which need to be interpreted in the context of Latin American history if the presence of God who renews the whole creation (Rev 21: 5) is to be discerned. 

Recalling Latin America's history

3. After millennia of different indigenous cultures, with outstanding developments by, for instance, the Inca, Mayan and Tiwanacota civilisations, the "conquista" by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in the XVI century gave a common recent history to this continent. This history, with a special recognition of the massacres of various indigenous populations and the introduction of slavery by the colonisers, was especially recalled in 1992, during the commemoration of the five hundred years of the colonisation by the Europeans. In the XVIIIth century, wars against the Spanish and Portuguese paved the way to freedom for most Latin American states. Hence, during the first half of the XIXth century, most of the countries achieved independence. However this political independence left different nations still economically dependent.

4. Since the wars of independence, many political leaders have called for the unity of the different Latin American states and in the last two hundred years many attempts to develop a Latin American unity have been made. Today, in the framework of the global political trends, which support regional integration, such unity is vital. Churches in the region have clearly stated that current efforts to build bridges between states should be based not only on economic trade agreements but should also respond to the needs and rights of the people, especially the weak and vulnerable. In this way, the path towards unity may be a sign of the brotherhood and sisterhood to which God calls all human beings.

5. Several voices in the Assembly pointed to the struggle for life and dignity, which has been a constant experience of Latin American people. Throughout history they have faced wars within and between states, confrontations, authoritative regimes and dictatorships, as well as irresponsible policies by governments and multinational corporations which have irreparably damaged their environment. Tribute should be paid to the testimony of thousands of Christians and other people of good will who gave their lives for human rights, dignity and care for the creation. Monsignor Romero from El Salvador, Mauricio López from Argentina, Chico Mendes from Brazil and Yolanda Céron from Colombia, are a few names among thousands, most of them unknown. The blood of these martyrs has helped to fertilise the seeds of God's kingdom, which have borne the fruits of solidarity, life and democracy. 

Overcoming poverty and injustice

6. Unjust distribution of wealth, natural resources and opportunities has generated poverty, which dramatically affects the region. According to UN statistics, now as for decades, more than 40% of the population still live in poverty, while 20% live in extreme poverty. This cannot be considered separately from the implementation of structural adjustment programmes developed by the governments as a requisite from the International Financial Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The privatisation of state companies brought in short-term relief and economic welfare in a few cases, but in the medium and lon-term perspective, many judge that the implementation of these kinds of policies have worsened the situation of the region, with huge economic crises in the late 90s and early 2000s occurring in several countries. Though in the last years, at the macroeconomic level the region seems to have recovered from these crises, poverty continues to be a challenge for governments and societies and a scandal for the churches. Even in those countries where poverty is relatively less, the gap between the rich and the poor is enormous and the distribution of wealth continues to be unjust.

7. The external debt has been a heavy burden for decades. Churches in the region have clearly stated the debt is unjust, illegitimate and immoral because it had been contracted during dictatorships with the complicity of International Financial Institutions and has already been paid. However, the need to continue to pay the service of the debt has prevented the implementation of effective social policies in most of the countries, seriously affecting education, health and work conditions. Furthermore, as a consequence of the economic crises, migration has increased and millions of Latin Americans are now living in other countries in the region, the United States or in Europe, their remittances to family members back home becoming one of the most important incomes in some Latin American countries.

8. This economic situation further increases the exclusion of vulnerable groups such as Indigenous Peoples, African descendants and rural populations. Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle for the recognition of indigenous rights. African descendants in Brazil, as well as in other countries in the region, still carry the consequences of slavery, which has prevented them from fully exercising their rights as they continue to suffer racism, violence and discrimination. In a region where poverty has often been related to issues of land ownership, landless movements in different countries, particularly in Brazil, have been claiming access to land. Churches and the ecumenical movement cannot be deaf to the cries of the poor and excluded in the region. Poverty is unacceptable in a region which is extremely rich in natural resources. The tragedy is that these have often been exploited in a way that has destroyed the environment through, for example, the contamination of rivers in large areas. Indeed the whole planet is threatened through the deforestation of the Amazonian region.

Healing the wounds of violence

9. Violence continues to be a major problem of the region. Some countries continue to face the consequences of political violence. In Colombia, for example, the armed conflict between political actors has largely affected the civil society. Because of this confrontation, thousands, mostly innocent people, have died and more than three million people have been internally displaced. The conflict has gone beyond national borders, having a serious impact on neighbouring countries. Colombian churches have strengthened their work with victims and have clearly asked the government of Colombia and armed groups to look for a negotiated solution of the conflict which could bring peace with justice.

10. Close to the region and to the Latin American Churches concern, Haiti is another country which has experienced extreme violence during the last years and experienced a political crisis, because of internal and external factors. Despite of the presence of a UN stabilisation force, violence continues, especially in Port-au-Prince. The recently held elections, after many postponements, although important in the need to re-establish democracy in the country, have not brought peace. There is still an urgent need for a broad national dialogue and a process of reconciliation to heal the wounds of the country. The international community should strengthen its support to the Haitian people in their struggle against poverty, for the reconstruction of democratic institutions and care for the environment. 

11. The dramatic situations in which these countries live cannot be considered in an isolated way. They reflect a larger phenomenon, which affects the whole region. The new dynamics of militarism that have developed in the last years in the region threaten to become even more apparent with the establishment of new US military bases in different countries, such as Ecuador and Paraguay. However, the influence of the United States in the region is not new. For decades the US has influenced decision-making processes in politics, economics and culture, has supported dictatorships and authoritative regimes, and under the concern for hemispheric security the US has trained the Latin American military.

12. A particular focus of the US agenda for the region has been Cuba. A blockade imposed in the sixties by the US government has continued to seriously affect the Cuban population. This blockade, condemned several times by the WCC, has been hardened during the current US administration. Nevertheless, Cuba has managed to develop effective policies regarding health, education and culture. Civil and political rights need to be further improved if the country is to respond to the process of economic transformation which is occurring. Spaces for dialogue between the different sectors of the society and the government are urgently necessary.

13. Urban, domestic, ethnic, gender or youth violence is also experienced in Latin America on a daily basis. Youth gangs ("maras") are spreading in most Central American countries. The churches have especially addressed the major problem of the proliferation of small arms. The Decade to Overcome Violence during 2006 will be the opportunity in the region to tackle some of the faces of violence and bring the efforts of the churches together to build a culture of peace. 

Struggling for life and dignity

14. The peoples of Latin America have struggled hard to build peace with justice and achieve democratic regimes. Victims and Human Rights organisations, together with churches in many countries, have been at the forefront of this struggle. The Inter-American System should be strengthened to contribute to implement the rule of law and to deal more effectively with Human Rights violations and impunity in several countries.

15. Moreover, in recent years many countries have made significant changes through presidential elections, as an expression of participatory democracy of the peoples. Candidates and parties who have shown more sensitivity to the needs and rights of the peoples have often been elected. New governments have stood up in a stronger way in confronting International Financial Institutions, Trade Agreements and subsidised agriculture in northern countries. Internal policies, more respectful of Human Rights and addressing poverty, hunger and other social needs have been developed. These governments have raised hope in the region and beyond, though the strong limitations they are facing, and the contradictions and corruption which threaten some of them, should not be overlooked. 

Churches accompanying the peoples of Latin America

16. Christianity was brought to the region with the colonisers during the XVIth and following centuries and has not been without controversies. Many times the persecution of those who didn't accept the Christian faith caused thousands of casualties. But through their history, the faith experience of the indigenous, African, mestizo and European descendants, has developed a Latin American face of Christianity.

17. For a long time, Latin America has been known as the Roman Catholic continent. But the composition of Christianity has changed over the centuries. In the 19th Century, for instance, the Protestant and Anglican Churches came to serve in the continent and the Orthodox Church was established and has contributed to build the social fabric of different communities. In the last decades, Evangelical churches, mainly Pentecostal ones, have been growing systematically and in some countries have become important percentages of the population. Responding to the need to grant equal treatment to all religions, raised by many WCC member churches, improvements have been made in some national legislations to recognise their rights.

18. Ecumenism has made important contributions to the history of Latin America, particularly in recent times. Churches and ecumenical organisations in the region have played a key role in struggling against dictatorial and authoritarian regimes and defending Human Rights all over the region. The WCC, through different programmes, and particularly through its Human Rights Resources Office for Latin America, and together with CLAI, has been closely accompanying and supporting the churches and ecumenical, human rights and victims' organisations in their work to combat impunity, achieve peace agreements after civil wars, strengthen democracy and build up reconciliation.

19. The struggle for human dignity by the churches can be traced back to the fervent defence of the Indigenous Peoples by Christians like Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in the XVIth century. The struggle for human dignity has been a pillar of Latin American theology ever since. This particular consideration for the poor, the marginalized and the excluded in different societies throughout history has been at the origins of the particular theological approach known as Liberation Theology. Strongly incarnated in the social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, more recently it has expanded its foci towards the economic, ecological, gender and inter-religious dimensions. Therefore, nurtured in this theological methodology rooted in a deep spiritual experience, Latin American Christianity has become deeply involved in defending, caring and celebrating life in its multiple manifestations, recognising God's presence in every life expression and especially in human life. This experience has been a gift of God to the whole Church.

Resolution:

The Ninth Assembly, meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 14-23 February 2006:

a) Adopts the statement on Latin America.
b) Commends the Latin American churches in their work to overcome poverty and injustice, heal the wounds of violence, struggle for life and dignity, grant equal treatment to all religions in national legislations and asks them to further develop their work and reflection on issues such as grace, economy, gender, youth, disability, ethnicity, ecology and violence as part of their contribution to the ecumenical movement and in preparation for CLAI's Assembly in 2007.
c) Invites churches, ecumenical organisations and other civil society groups to have an active participation in the "Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace" which focuses this year on Latin America.
d) Appeals to WCC member churches and staff to emphasise the exchange with Latin American churches and ecumenical organisations and look for new ways of interacting with the churches and peoples of the region.
e) Encourages Latin American peoples to continue in their struggle to build new societies which respect the dignity of the whole creation and pay special attention to the most vulnerable and excluded, including Indigenous Peoples and African descendants, and to share their visions, concerns and lessons learned with peoples of other regions.
f) Calls on Latin American governments to strengthen their work towards a more effective integration of the region to face the challenges of the present world; to look for effective policies to overcome poverty, injustice and the degradation of the environment; to strengthen the rule of law and the respect and promotion of Human Rights and dignity and to continue to look for ways of enhancing democracy in their countries.
g) Urges the international community, the states and International Financial Institutions to recognise the illegitimacy of the external debt that burdens the region as well as to revise the rationale of free trade agreements in order to effectively respond to the needs of the population and to the concerns expressed recently by the churches in the region regarding the consequences for peasants, workers and communities' rights, the environment and citizen's participation.