Report by a Canadian participant
In retrospect, it must be said that the College of Cardinals made an astute decision in 2013 when they chose Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the Vicar of Christ. Pope Francis, as he is now called, has emerged as a world leader in speaking out on the major social and humanitarian issues ranging from climate crisis to poverty and social exclusion. Francis, the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere, is especially popular in Latin America, where the Church of Rome is contending with burgeoning evangelical sects and emerging secular movements around such issues as abortion and gay rights.
Early on in his papacy, Francis indicated his close affinity with President Evo Morales and the “Process of Change” that Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) are spearheading in Bolivia. When the initial World Meeting of Popular Movements was held at the Vatican in October 2014, Morales was the only elected head of state who attended.
In December, following the failure of the United Nations COP20 climate talks in Lima to take meaningful actions to prevent catastrophic climate warming, Morales urged the environment ministers of the ALBA countries to organize a “world encounter of social movements” in 2015 that would develop “a proposal to save life and humanity.”
Second World Meeting
of Popular Movements
It seems that the Pope’s scheduled visit in July to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay – three relatively peripheral nations with large Indigenous populations – became the occasion for this encounter. The Bolivian government and its supporting popular movements collaborated with the Vatican and the social movement organizers of the First World Meeting to organize a Second World Meeting, this time in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Held July 7-9, it drew 1500 participants. It coincided with the Pope’s 48-hour visit to Bolivia, and was the major event of both his visit and the meeting of the popular movements.
The Pope’s closing speech at the Santa Cruz assembly, a powerful statement of identification with the major objectives of the social agenda being pursued, unevenly, by the social movements and a few progressive governments of Latin America, continues to be cited and debated in the Bolivian media.
Among the 1500 participants at the Santa Cruz meeting gathering were two Canadian women: Susana Deranger, an Indigenous environmental activist from Regina, and Judith Marshall of Toronto, recently retired after two decades working on global labour exchange through the Steelworkers Humanity Fund. Judith contributes the following guest column reporting on their experiences in Santa Cruz and analyzing with insight the ways in which Pope Francis is helping to advance a progressive global agenda among broad circles seldom reached by the traditional left. •
Both these articles first appeared on Richard Fidler’s blog Life on the Left.
Pope Francis and the Protagonism
of the Excluded
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has arguably become the most articulate and critical leader of today’s global institutions. He is fearlessly and forthrightly tackling the urgent questions of our times.
His much-anticipated Papal Encyclical on climate change, Laudato Sí, does not disappoint. He tackles the “structurally perverse economic system” that creates a world of obscene rich-poor disparities. He makes a damning critique of a global economic system in which power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the few while the many struggle for basic needs. He calls attention to how the poor and excluded have become, in effect, the discards from the game plans of the rich.
Pope Francis is forthright about how the global economic system and the throw-away culture it has spawned are destroying not only the lives of the poor but also the planet itself, turning the earth into “an immense pile of filth.”
Pope Francis is now well-known for speaking out on global issues – Syrian war refugees, hunger, migration of Africans to Europe, austerity politics, Cuba. Less well-known are his organizational initiatives, many carried out jointly with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson. Reaching out organizationally to the poor and excluded is one of the most striking initiatives.
In 2013, the leaders in the Landless People’s Movement (MST) in Brazil began to hear signals that Pope Francis was interested in building working links with popular movements. As Bishop Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Francis had been a constant figure among poverty activists, building strong ties with precarious workers and the solidarity economy.
Argentine activists like Juan Grabois, a lawyer based in the University of Buenos Aires who is on the coordinating committee of the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers, are long-time collaborators with Pope Francis. Grabois and other popular movement leaders like Joao Pedro Stedile from the MST were invited to the Vatican for consultations.
An initial seminar was organized at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome in December 2013 to focus on global inequalities as experienced and understood by the excluded themselves. Plans were made for a larger gathering.
The First World Meeting of Popular Movements with more than 150 participants took place in Rome in October 2014. Grabois and Stedile, working with Via Campesina, became the co-organizers. They identified more than 100 activists around the world working on three key issues – land, housing and work. These activists from amongst the poor and excluded were invited to come to Rome to be heard and seen. They brought with them a broad plurality of religious beliefs, ethnic origins, gender, age and sexual orientations. The church co-organizers did not vet the activists list. Their own list included thirty bishops known for accompanying and support to struggles of the poor. A dozen representatives of labour and rights organizations vetted by the activists were also invited, myself included.
Undoubtedly the most striking memory of the first meeting was the day when our motley crew invaded St. Peter’s Basilica. Meeting with us in the Old Synod Hall, Pope Francis thanked the participants, acknowledging them as men and women who actually suffered poverty and exclusion in the flesh. He told them that their presence in Rome had huge importance. The fact that the poor existed was known by all. The fact that the poor were on their feet, organized, active, planning, inventing, and resisting – this was what was new and made visible for all to see by their presence.
He focussed on the fact that the poor were not waiting with arms crossed for either NGOs or governments to solve their problems. Their protagonism was strong and creative. While some of it was simply to survive, in many cases, the survival strategies had in them the seeds of new ways of living on the planet, with greater social solidarity and more care of the earth.
Popular Movements Gather in Bolivia
The much-expanded Second World Meeting of Popular Movements held in Santa Cruz, Bolivia followed the same organizational logic as in Rome, It was a gathering to listen to the poor and discarded themselves, their stories of exploitation and exclusion but also their plans and strategies and proposals, We were to meet on the final day with Pope Francis who had committed himself to take these voices and proposals of the poor with him when he addresses the United Nations next September. Happily the organizers readily agreed to the inclusion of an indigenous delegate from Mother Earth Action Cooperative in Regina.
Land, housing and work had been the overarching themes in Rome. In Bolivia these became the “3 Ts” of Tierra, Trabajo and Techo, rendered not quite so happily from Spanish into English as the “3 Ls” of Land, Labour and Lodging. The approach to these basic themes was broadly conceived. The theme of labour, for example, differed strikingly from the very narrow conception that prevails all too often in trade union circles.
In Rome last October, a million people had flooded the streets the day we arrived for the first meeting, protesting austerity budgets. In Italy, the youth unemployment figure stood at 40%. In neighbouring Greece, it was even higher. Poverty and discarded people are not just a phenomenon of the South. Whole generations of young people in Europe are being sacrificed in the name of re-stabilizing the economic system.
At the Bolivia meetings, the reality of colonial conquest and the endemic poverty of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas were highlighted. Holding the meeting in the “Plurinational State of Bolivia” where Evo Morales is the first elected Indigenous head of state made a powerful statement in and of itself. The participants came from situations where loss of livelihoods through land grabs by mining or agro-business companies are common, where precarious work is endemic, where situations of migrant labour, guest labour, temporary labour and even slave labour and trafficking are prevalent.
Susana and I got an unexpected call to address the plenary during the first day. A surprise visit by Evo Morales resulted in cancellation of the scheduled discussions in smaller groups. Testimonials from the participants were substituted. Susana got the opportunity to put First Nations issues in Canada on the agenda, from residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous Peoples, and resource extraction on Indigenous Territories. I got the chance to highlight the role of big mining, companies like Barrick and Vale today operating in a tight embrace with national governments in the North and the South to carry out widespread destruction of both ecosystems and livelihoods. To the surprise of the Latino delegates, Susana spoke in Spanish, an acquisition from living and working in Latin America, and I spoke in Portuguese, acquired after many years of work in Mozambique and Brazil.
The two of us had been housed with the church delegation. Cardinal Turkson, who is originally from Ghana, joined us for breakfast on the second morning, and we were able to tell him about the thousands of Indigenous children in Canada who had been torn from their families and communities and forced into Church-run residential schools where they were deprived of their languages and cultures – the last school closing in 1996 in Saskatchewan. We also told him of the sexual abuse and torture in many schools. We spoke to him of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its conclusion naming cultural genocide and its recommendation that the Pope be invited to Canada to apologize for the Catholic church. Cardinal Turkson listened with attention and compassion.
Being housed and transported around Santa Cruz with the church delegation left me with different impressions of how the initiatives of Pope Francis play out in his own institution. The speech in Ecuador was being watched on TV during supper the first night. Every time Pope Francis made a strong point, cheers erupted around the table, almost as if a ref had shouted “goal.” A fellow priest from Argentina revelled in Francis’ transformation from the quiet, dedicated Bishop of Buenos Aires into a fearless, prophetic voice on the world stage. For those who lamented the demise of liberation theology, Pope Francis brought hope of its reincarnation. I asked some of the church delegates about how Pope Francis’ reaching out to the poor on the periphery was resonating in their parishes. Their responses left me with the impression that for many, it was pastoral care for the faithful as usual rather than hearing a radical call for systemic change and taking on new roles, reaching out to accompany and support the protagonism of the poor.
After two days putting together our perspectives on the questions of land, housing, work, global warming and peace, the participants prepared a statement of our concerns and proposals. We presented this document to Pope Francis during a meeting with him at the Santa Cruz Expo Fair on the final day where our contingent of 1500 had been joined by another 1000 activists from Bolivia.
His legendary simplicity and humanity were once again in evidence in Santa Cruz. The huge trade fair auditorium had constructed a walled off aisle down the middle through which he would enter. The participants vied for seats close to the shoulder-high wall with the hope that they might reach out and touch Pope Francis’ hand. When he passed by our section, a Latino activist across the aisle from us held out a calabash gourd of mate tea with metal straw. Pope Francis paused and took a sip, to the utter delight of the participants, and possibly to the absolute horror of those responsible for his security!
Bolivia was the second stop on a visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, each fraught with delicate politics among church, state and civil society actors. Despite a grueling schedule, Pope Francis gave a lengthy and powerful address to the popular movements, full of love and encouragement for the poor and excluded who were gathered, lauding them for the importance of their struggles and their care of Mother Earth.
He ended by challenging the popular movements to make a decisive and shared contribution to three great tasks. The first was:
“to put the economy at the service of people. Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money. Let us say NO to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”
The second great task was to “unite our people on the path of peace and justice.” He spoke of the world’s people wanting to be “artisans of their own destiny.
“They do not want forms of tutelage or interference by which those with greater power subordinate those with less. They want their culture, their language, their social processes and their religious traditions to be respected. No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty.”
He talked of historical restrictions on independence through colonialism and contemporary restrictions on sovereignty through a new colonialism driven by corporations, loan agencies, “free trade” agreements and “austerity” agendas.
The third great task he charged the popular movements with taking on was defence of Mother Earth.
“Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity. Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin. We see with growing disappointment how one international summit after another takes place without any significant result…. We cannot allow certain interests – interests which are global but not universal – to take over, to dominate states and international organizations and to continue destroying creation.”
Apology to Indigenous People for Church’s Role in
“Conquest” of the Americas
The most startling moment in the speech came as Pope Francis developed the theme of old and new colonialisms. He did not spare his own institution.
“Some may rightly say, ‘When the Pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the Church.’ I say this to you with regret; many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”
After referencing acknowledgement of this by some of his predecessors, Pope Francis went on to say “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America….
“To our brothers and sisters in the …Indigenous movement, allow me to express my deep affection and appreciation of their efforts to bring people and cultures together… in a form of coexistence … where each group preserves its own identify by building together a plurality which does not threaten but rather reinforces unity. Your quest for an interculturalism, which combines the defense of the rights of the native peoples with respect for the territorial integrity of states, is for all of us a source of enrichment and encouragement.”
Susana had travelled to Bolivia tasked by her fellow-activists in Canada with lobbying the Pope to visit Canada and apologize for residential schools. She was seated in the front row when this unexpected and totally forthright admission of guilt was made. The apology and request for forgiveness for the role of the Catholic church in the conquest of the Americas had her jumping to her feet and joining others in embraces of joy. Susana later reflected on the experience:
“I never thought I would hear these words in my lifetime. It was extraordinary. I know many will say that these are only words and that there is still much work ahead such as rejecting the Papal Bull along with the Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius. This is true, but the Pope’s words are a first step. His words were not just read off a piece of paper. They seemed genuine. Let’s embrace the hope. Let’s move with the passion and hope he comes to Canada to meet with the same people he met with in Rome – the grassroots, the poor, the people on the front lines, and those affected the most by the colonialism he asks forgiveness for.”
Pope Francis and Global Organizing
On their return to Rome, Pope Francis and Cardinal Turkson embarked on yet another organizational initiative, taking on the contentious question of mining. They had already engaged in conversations with mining company executives in 2014 and will do so again later this year. This time, they worked very closely with “Iglesias y Mineria” (Churches and Mining), a network of about 70 Latin American Christian base communities that have been accompanying communities affected by mining for many years.
The gathering was entitled “United with God, we hear a cry.” It was hosted in Rome by Justice and Peace from July 17-19 and attended by community leaders from mining areas in Asia, Africa and Latina America. In a hard-hitting message to the opening session, the Pope urged the participants to “to echo the cry of the many people, families and communities who suffer directly and indirectly as a result of the consequences, too often negative, of mining activities.” He spoke of
“a cry for lost land;
a cry for the extraction of wealth from land that paradoxically does not produce wealth for the local populations who remain poor;
a cry of pain in reaction to violence, threats and corruption;
a cry of indignation and for help for the violations of human rights, blatantly or discreetly trampled with regard to the health of populations, working conditions, and at times the slavery and human trafficking that feeds the tragic phenomenon of prostitution;
a cry of sadness and impotence for the contamination of the water, the air and the land;
a cry of incomprehension for the absence for inclusive processes or support from the civil, local and national authorities, which have the fundamental duty to promote the common good.”
The Pope called on the mining industry “to effect a radical paradigm change,” listing the many who needed to heed this call:
“A contribution can be made by the governments of the countries of origin of multinational companies and those in which they operate, businesses and investors, the local authorities who supervise mining operations, workers and their representatives, the international supply chains with their various intermediaries and those who work in the markets of these materials, and the consumers of goods for whose production the minerals are required. All these people are called upon to adopt behaviour inspired by the fact that we constitute a single human family, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”
While the mining activists gathered in the Salesian Conference Centre to testify to the destructiveness of extractivism, the Pope was engaged in yet another organizational initiative among the powerful. As another follow-up to Laudato Si, the Vatican had invited 60 mayors from around the world (including Gregor Robertson of Vancouver) to a two-day conference aimed at keeping the pressure on world leaders before December’s climate talks in Paris. The conference’s final declaration, reports the Toronto Star, demands that national leaders take bold steps in Paris, possibly “the last chance to keep the Earth’s warming levels still safe for humanity.” It states that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”
California Governor Jerry Brown had won applause earlier when he denounced the climate change deniers in the U.S. who are “bamboozling the public and politicians.” Stockholm Mayor Karin Wanngard said the Paris talks must take fossil fuels off the table. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, a founding member of an alliance of world cities committed to an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 or sooner, characterized the months until the Paris summit as a sprint to the finish line during which it would be necessary to “take every local action we can…to maximize the chance that our national governments will act boldly.”
Globalizing Resistance, Globalizing Hope
What are the most striking features of these gatherings in which Pope Francis is reaching out to the excluded and linking their fate to the fate of our common home?
First, perhaps, is the strength and forthrightness of his language, abandoning the diplomatic posture and deference to the powerful that has characterized the Papacy in times past. Pope Francis does not hesitate to lay the blame for global poverty and exclusion on corporate greed, irresponsible banks and international financial institutions, a culture of consumerism and individualism, a worship of money and a loss of compassion and humanity.
He names the inverted logic that normalizes societies being sacrificed to stabilize the economy, as in contemporary Greece, and calls for economies to be organized so that they safe-guard the well-being of society. Activists in popular movements derive hope and courage when a world leader of Pope Francis’ stature and integrity names the world as they experience it.
We discovered in Bolivia how challenging it was to craft a popular movement statement in which we were not outflanked to the left by the Pope! While our Santa Cruz statement contained important points, my first take on it found it a little prosaic, especially compared to the pungent prose, scope and challenges of the Pope’s speech. Susana reminded me, however, of how far-reaching it was:
“The unity it called for and committed to was inspiring. They said when something goes down in one country, they will all stand up. They also said that they must turn to Indigenous Peoples to learn how to take care of Mother Earth….”
Another striking aspect of these meetings is the framing of the issues The exploration of global poverty and exclusion through the lenses of land, labour and housing, with care of our common home as a cross-cutting theme, is instructive. Faced with the global reach and seeming impunity of transnational corporations, and their willingness to discard most of the world’s people from their game plans with full connivance of national governments, all concepts are up for redefinition. Take the theme of work, for example. At the First World Meeting, in Rome last October, the opening presentation on the theme of labour was expressed not in ILO parlance about decent jobs and labour rights but about cardboard recyclers in Argentina, many of them “illegal” migrant workers from Bolivia.
In Buenos Aires, they had been scavenging refuse, working in dangerous and dirty conditions for middle-men who bought the cardboard or plastic for a pittance and made profit from it by having a monopoly on transport and marketing. These cardboard recyclers had organized themselves into a cooperative and managed to take over the recycling business. Now they earn a little more, have proper recycling carts, uniforms with reflective tape for safety, a modicum of health benefits and the contacts with the buyers including Danone, which buys up the plastic for yogurt containers.
It is a far cry from a full-time, secure, well-paid, pensioned job. It is, however, work that feeds families and meets a basic need of Buenos Aires for recycling. The workers themselves are the protagonists who made it happen and control it. They are still poor but have regained a measure of dignity. They know the Pope well from times past when he both supported their cooperative and sorted out the red tape for baptizing their children. They were much in evidence again during the event in Bolivia, promoting the idea of a popular economy with autonomous groups inventing ways to provide for their own basic needs through self-employment.
The discussions on work left me with all the questions that movements in Latin America and organizations like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain throw up. What does work look like when your starting point is a basic needs agenda and how to provide your citizens with food, water, housing, transport, education, health care – and income-generating activity?
Clearly any notions of “limitless growth” need to be set aside definitively. The same for any “development” fantasy that, with enough time and investment, all people on the planet can – or should – attain the material consumption levels of the 1%. Are there important lessons to be learned from aboriginal cultures or from peasant cultures about simpler ways of living on and caring for the earth?
Another striking theme from the two meetings is the moral project being promoted by Pope Francis and the centrality of human beings themselves. How much have we normalized the ideological trappings of neoliberalism that suggest that human beings are genetically competitive and greedy, hard-wired to be individualistic? How much have we internalized the idea that “having” more is “being” more, with annual acquisition of the latest Nikes or “smart” phone or tablet as the measure? What if “being” more is actually “having” more – being more compassionate, being more collective, being more in tune with Mother Earth?
Pope Francis locates these questions and their answers squarely in Christian teachings. Chilean social scientist Marta Harnecker in her new book on 21st Century Socialism, A World to Build, locates them in the classic Marxist texts about “integral human development” and “human beings as social beings.” She holds out a vision of the 21st century socialism in the imaginary and actual practice of several countries in Latin America. It is a socialism built from the bottom up by collectivities of socialists, women and men, elders and youth, as active participants and protagonists in their own rural communities, urban neighbourhoods, workplaces and classrooms. It is a vision of robust democratic spaces where citizens assume responsibility jointly for initiatives and projects to create the social life around them and to care for the earth that sustains them.
Another striking theme from the meetings was the reality of social exclusion as a global feature of contemporary capitalism. To be exploited is still to be integrated into the system, albeit negatively. Contemporary capitalism, however, expands and creates profitable enterprises and global supply chains while excluding and discarding more and more of the earth’s population, dispossessing them of their lands, their water, their air, their traditional livelihoods. It creates sacrifice zones from Detroit to Damascus, from rural wastelands to urban slums.
Some of the popular movement leaders are seeking to theorize more adequately this new protagonism of the poor and the importance of social movements as new social actors. Juan Grabois has recently written an essay entitled “Exclusion in Contemporary Capitalism.” He speaks as a Latin American from a generation forged not from fighting against military dictatorships as in Brazil, dirty wars as in Argentina, or a U.S.-backed coup against an elected socialist head of state as in Chile. His generation grew up after the “democratic transition” and lived through the full-blown capitulation of government after government to the neoliberal mantras of deregulation, privatization, cuts in social sector spending.
“The consciousness of my generation was born as wave after wave descended into the hell of exclusion. We saw our fathers lose their employment and never get another job. We saw our mothers go out to look for chicken carcasses in the shops to fill the cooking pot. We saw the plague of drugs, depression and alcoholism destroy families and damage lives until this became part of the landscape. Those living in the shantytowns and working class neighbourhoods suffered these things in their own flesh – or in the flesh of their brothers who, frightened to death by their own ‘insecurity’, watched from the barred windows of their middle class homes as people rummaged in garbage cans in search of scraps of food.”
Grabois argues that his generation was forged at a moment in history when the labour power of the proletariat was of little or no interest to capital. The political education of his generation came not through striking industrial workers but through the struggle for the basics, forged on picket lines of the unemployed, soup kitchens of the hungry, informal settlements of the homeless, occupations of abandoned factories by workers, barricades of peasant farmers confronting land grabs, occupations by indigenous communities fighting for their territories.
These new forms of exploitation operate through a wall of exclusion. People were first dispossessed of their land. Then they were dispossessed of their jobs in factories. As Occupy Wall Street made starkly visible, 99% of humanity today lives on the side of this wall characterized by poverty, homelessness, with jobs that are at best precarious, dangerous, without legal protection.
Grabois goes on to argue that an important new social actor is being formed from this historical moment, an actor that has been dispossessed of land and livelihood but refuses to cease struggling. Barricades and blockades against mining companies are a good example. Many of the struggles focus on resolving basic needs for land and housing and for work that generates enough income to feed a family.
The poor and discarded are inventing forms of self-employment, cooperatives and worker-owned factories. The robust popular economy that has emerged in Argentina is one example of this new protagonism. The solidarity economy network that was constructed in Greece to withstand the extremities of the austerity measures is another. The community resistance from below that makes South Africa the protest capital of the world is part of the same phenomenon.
These initiatives of Pope Francis provide an opportunity for the Church and the world to listen to the voices of the poor and excluded. They give visibility to the iniquity of a global system that discards human beings as waste. For activists in the popular movements, these initiatives not only globalize resistance. They also globalize hope. •
Judith Marshall is a global activist who has worked and studied in New York, Ghana, Holland and Mozambique. She recently retired after 20 years as a labour educator with the Steelworkers Humanity Fund.