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Statement on Situations of Concern in the Latin American Region

25 November 2019

World Council of Churches

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE

Bossey, Switzerland

20-26 November 2019

Doc. No. 04.7 rev

 

Statement on Situations of Concern in the Latin American Region

Latin America is experiencing a period of exceptional concurrent crises. Among other situations of concern, Brazil is facing a complex crisis of political and social polarization, affecting the rule of law, human rights and environmental protection, and diminishing civil society space, while Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay, Peru and Argentina have all experienced mass protests and political crises that have shaken their governments, economies and societies. In some cases, such as in Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia, popular protests have resulted in violent clashes and deaths.

The WCC executive committee, meeting in Bossey, Switzerland, on 20-26 November 2019:

Expresses its deep concern and alarm at the concurrence of so much turmoil in so many parts of the Latin American region, affecting societies and churches throughout the region.

Highlights the impacts and consequences for poor and vulnerable communities – especially Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendants – and for the rule of law, democracy, human rights and environmental protection in a region holding some of the greatest remaining repositories of biodiversity.

Calls upon governments and political leaderships in Latin America to:

-       Support and strengthen the institutions of democracy and the rule of law, and to protect the political space for civil society.

-       Listen to the voices of the people, to take seriously their demands, to protect their rights and security, and to foster their social and economic wellbeing.

-       Address the high levels of inequality in many parts of the region, promote social and economic inclusion, and ensure a just and equitable redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation arrangements and social protection.

-       Take urgent action against the high levels of violence in society, especially armed violence and sexual and gender-based violence.

-       Commit to prioritizing protection of the environment and biodiversity – as well as the security and rights of environmental defenders and Indigenous Peoples – and to take decisive action for climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience.

-       Address displacement and migration – one of the most neglected and overwhelming problems for millions of people in the region – attending to the root causes of displacement and ensuring respect for the human rights and dignity of all migrants and displaced people.

Expresses particular concern about the polarization of societies, communities and churches in the region, leaving no space for constructive dialogue based on fundamental ethical and moral principles of justice, human dignity, and care for creation.

Affirms the commitment of the WCC and its member churches in other regions to accompanying the churches of Latin America in their work for justice and for peace in such difficult and challenging circumstances.

Undertakes to increase collaboration with ecumenical partners – including the Roman Catholic Church and ACT Alliance – to support the work of the churches in the region for justice and peace.

Requests the WCC general secretary to explore the feasibility of establishing a regional Ecumenical Observatory for Human Rights and Democracy, in cooperation with civil society, governmental and intergovernmental partners.

 

Background

Latin America is the most violent, most unequal, and yet – demographically – the most Christian region on the planet.

Violence – especially gender-based violence – continues to exceptionally prevalent in many parts of the region. Generalized violence intersects with easy access to weapons, drug trafficking, smuggling, organized crime and gangs.

Poverty and inequality are persistent and escalating challenges. In 2017 a total of 184 million Latin Americans were living in poverty (30.2% of the population), of which 62 million were suffering from extreme poverty (10.2% of the population - the highest percentage since 2008). It is to be expected that in 2019 these percentages will continue to grow.

40% of the employed population of the Latin America and Caribbean region receives income below the minimum wage established by their country, and that proportion is much higher among women (48.7%) and young people aged 15 to 24 years (55.9%). Among young women that figure reaches 60.3%. More than half of employed women (51.8%) are employed in low productivity sectors and 82.2% of them are not affiliated or are not listed in a pension system.

10% of the richest households in the region concentrate on average 34.1% of total income.

The effects of climate change are increasing the inequality gaps in the communities of the region. Vulnerability deepens with extractivism, monocultures and the growth of mega-cities, phenomena linked to the dominant production model.

Multinational companies and ultra-rich individuals are often more powerful than governments in many places. The independence, voice and vitality of civil society are increasingly threatened, and the influence of religious groups in politics is increasing. Social and political polarization and instability is increasing.

Populist political shifts in parts of the region have been accompanied by a rollback of respect for the rule of law and of many hard-won human rights, civil liberties and social and environmental protections. Several States do not respect international humanitarian or human rights law, discriminate against displaced persons and refugees, and place greater emphasis on security rather than justice.

Throughout the region, women and Indigenous Peoples continue to be the most affected by extreme poverty, violence and multiple vulnerabilities.

Brazil

During 2019 social and political polarization and intolerance in Brazil have been increasing to disturbing levels. The rule of law and the principles of human rights have been attacked, and the legitimacy of Brazilian democratic institutions challenged. The collapse of a Brazilian mining dam and the fires in the Amazon forest made news headlines all over the world.

On 28 August 2019 in Geneva, WCC convened a roundtable with Brazilian church leaders and ecumenical partners, to discuss a) how the churches could raise a public voice on important issues in a context in which their own membership is highly polarized, and b) how the WCC and partners might assist and follow up on some issues raised by the churches and during the meeting itself (violence, Indigenous Peoples’ rights, the Amazon and environmental issues, religious intolerance, human rights, etc.). The roundtable identified three modalities of possible response:

-       Biblical and theological reflection on a Christian response to polarization, violence and the misuse of Christian theology to justify injustice.

-       Situating the church response within social movements and civil society more broadly.

-       Youth engagement (an inter-generational approach)

Chile

A wave of violent protests began in mid-October, after a rise in the price of Santiago Metro fares sparked a popular reaction against extreme levels of inequality in the country. Police responded with tear gas and severe force. 18 people died and more than 1,400 were arrested as a result of the disturbances.

The WCC general secretary joined other church leaders in calling for a cessation of violence and a mechanism for addressing its root causes, observing that democracy and social justice in Chile is at stake. WCC member churches, together with ecumenical partners, have been speaking out about the situation, calling for peace and condemning acts of violence, and urging the Chilean government to address underlying inequalities in the country.

Bolivia

Following presidential elections in October, street protests erupted as questions were raised over the outcome which appeared to give President Evo Morales a fourth term. A commitment to hold new elections did not quench the protests, and after the chief of the army recommended that he resign, President Morales fled to Mexico where he has received political asylum. However, President Morales’ supporters, especially from Indigenous communities, continue to demonstrate against a self-declared interim President. Five weeks of violent political clashes that have left more than 30 people dead, and protestors have set up roadblocks across the country and particularly around the capital La Paz.

Venezuela

Venezuela has been experiencing a recession and hyper-inflation for years, and a massive outflow of the country's population has taken place because of poverty and widespread shortages. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself president in January. In late April, he attempted to organize an uprising against President Nicolás Maduro. Some members of the military joined, but most of the armed forces remained loyal to the Chavist regime. There have been violent clashes in Caracas, and at least five people are reported to have died.

Colombia

Three years have passed since the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC, but its implementation has been incomplete and highly contested. Despite promises of protection, 168 demobilized FARC fighters have been killed, and well as more than 150 social leaders. There have been several massacres of Indigenous civilians in Toribío, Corinto and Tacueyó, municipalities of Cauca. The commitment of President Duque’s government to peace, reconciliation and social justice is widely doubted.

Most recently, anti-government demonstrations erupted on Thursday 21 November, when more than 250,000 marched in a national strike protesting against corruption and possible austerity measures. A number of deaths have taken been reported in ensuing violence.

The churches organized in DIPAZ continue to accompany the social integration of ex-combatants. The Presbyterian Church in Colombia also works together with other churches in addressing the situation of Venezuelan migrants and constant student protests for quality in higher education.

Nicaragua

Nicaragua is striving to overcome the after-effects of dictatorship, civil war and natural disasters, which have left it one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega made his political comeback in the November 2006 elections, having led Nicaragua through revolution and a civil war before being voted out in 1990. Mr Ortega has strong support from the country's poor who account for more than a third of the population and have benefitted from his social programmes. During his tenure, Nicaragua has experienced stable economic growth, poverty levels have fallen and levels of violence have been low compared to elsewhere in Central America. However, President Ortega faced violent unrest in mid-2018 which was initially triggered by proposed reforms to the near-bankrupt social security system. The government and security forces responded with severe and persistent repression.

WCC member church the Moravian Church of Nicaragua has been struggling to address a serious internal division.

Argentina

In September, members of the social movements of Argentina protested in Buenos Aires to demand that President Mauricio Macri declare a food emergency, to combat extreme poverty. The Roman Catholic Church supported the demand. Congress unanimously passed an emergency food bill to provide more resources for social programs. Poverty in Argentina had risen from 32.0% to 35.4% in the first half of the year, the highest level since the collapse of the economy in 2001. The country recently held a presidential election, and Peronist leader Alberto Fernandez was elected.

The Federation of Evangelical Churches in Argentina (FAIE) has been vocal in denouncing rising poverty and violations of human rights in the country.

Ecuador

Eleven days of violent protests and roadblocks erupted in October after President Lenin Moreno announced the end of a 40-year fuel subsidy, causing prices to rise by up to 123% - part of a package of measures to meet IMF targets. In reaction to the demonstrations, the government declared a "state of exception" and moved the government headquarters from Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil. However, demonstrations and riots continued, leaving seven dead, 1,340 injured and 1,152 arrested. On 14 October the president, after meeting with Indigenous leaders, announced that he would revoke the fuel subsidy cut.

Mexico

Mexico has the second-largest economy in Latin America and is a major oil exporter. But prosperity remains a mirage for many Mexicans, and the socio-economic gap remains wide. Rural areas are often neglected, and huge shanty towns ring the cities. Many poor Mexicans have sought to cross the 3,000-km border with the US in search of a job, but in recent years more Mexicans immigrants have returned to Mexico than migrated to the US.  Tens of thousands of people have been killed in drug-related gang violence in the past decade. Powerful cartels control the trafficking of drugs from South America to the US. Andres Manuel López Obrador won an overwhelming victory in the July 2018 presidential election.

Practically all churches in Mexico are involved in humanitarian work for refugees and migrants, including the Methodist Church of Mexico, visited by WCC general secretary in October.

Paraguay

In May the government signed with Brazil a document pledging to buy more expensive energy than usual from the Itaipu Power Plant, which belongs to both countries. As a result, in August Paraguay plunged into a political crisis, officials in key positions fell, and President Mario Abdo was threatened with impeachment. There were demonstrations throughout the country, mainly in the capital Asunción. The May deal was officially canceled, and tensions eased.

Peru

In late September, President Martín Vizcarra, after a defeat in Congress, dissolved the legislature and called new elections. In response, Congress members voted to suspend the President and appointed his deputy Mercedes Aráoz to fill his post. She, however, resigned from the post, and Vizcarra remained in office. Protesters supported the dissolution of Congress amid the continuing crisis of credibility of the political class following the Odebrecht scandal.

WCC member church the Methodist Church of Peru has a significant involvement in assisting Venezuelan migrants in the country.