Franciscan Solidarity Experience and World Social Forum

John C. Coughlin Around the Province

During the last two weeks in January, Franciscan men and women, both religious and seculars, gathered together in Caracas, Venezuela to promote Franciscan solidarity. We did this so that together we could inspire a Franciscan response of peace in a world where injustice, violence, and war are ever present. Our daily gatherings for more than a week included prayer, discussions, lectures, presentations on current realities in our countries, and cultural sharing. After this, we devoted ourselves to being a Franciscan presence at the World Social Forum.

What is the World Social Forum? It is an annual meeting that was started in Brazil in 2001 that both coincides with and is meant to counter the World Economic Forum. The WEF is a meeting attended mainly by the chief executives of the world’s richest countries and is held each year in Davos, Switzerland. Whereas the WEC has an annual attendance of about 2,000, the WSF has drawn upwards of 100,000 participants. This year, instead of meeting in one location, the WSF had regional meetings in Caracas, Venezuela and Bamako, Mali in January. Karachi, Pakistan is due to host the WSF in March. The regional focus of the WSF I attended was the Americas.

The WSF is politically left-leaning and comprised primarily of a wide number of grass roots organizations from around the world. One could find any number of environmental groups, anti-war organizations, groups advocating women’s and workers’ rights and the protection of indigenous populations and natural resources, just to name a few. The WSF is anti-neo-liberal, anti-imperialist, anti-free trade, anti-globalization, and pro-democracy. It favors a world taxation system that will help the development of Third World countries, and a trade system that equals the playing field between what it sees as unequal trade participants.

Last autumn, at the recommendation of Jud Weiksnar, I was asked by Joe Rozansky to represent HNP at the Franciscan and WSF gatherings in Venezuela. I was a little surprised to be considered for such a mission, especially since I have never served on the JPIC committee. But I saw it as an opportunity to both learn and to let Franciscans from other countries know what we are doing in HNP.

Reflecting upon my 15 days in Caracas, I find that so many memories, thoughts, and feelings flood my consciousness. When I was there, I was deeply touched by the love, warmth, faith, and care for others that the members of our Franciscan gathering so easily expressed. I was in the presence of so many wonderful people who accepted me as their brother. I left Caracas knowing that the Franciscan family is rich in spirit and truly blessed by God.

One of the things I became acutely aware of at both the Franciscan and WSF meetings I attended was a gulf that exists between North America (the U.S. and Canada) and Latin America. I see this gulf based mainly on cultural and economic differences with political differences becoming increasingly more apparent as Latin America swings more forcefully leftward. (The January election victories of two socialists, in Bolivia of Evo Morales and in Chile of Michele Bachelet, underscore this point.)

At many of the meetings I attended, the words “United States” and “imperialist” were used synonymously. As an American, it was not easy for me to listen to the constant criticism of the U.S. government and its policies. But I knew it was valuable to hear how some other people in our hemisphere really feel about us at the moment. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the “War on Terrorism” have only magnified the “imperialist” image that this country has in Latin America.

I also heard a lot of anger expressed over the U.S. having a military presence in some Latin American countries (Colombia and Paraguay were two countries given special mention), as well as the U.S. selling arms and training Latin American military personnel. Many voices I heard at both Franciscan meetings and WSF meetings claimed that those factors only helped to destabilize countries in that region.

The great majority of problems and challenges focused on at the Franciscan meetings and the WSF were exclusive to Latin America. When the U.S. was mentioned, it was usually as a problem to Latin America. The calls for solidarity that I kept hearing when I was in Caracas seemed to be calls more for unity and integration among Latin Americans. This is, at least, the way I perceived it.

I attribute this to a few factors: (1) the two events I attended took place in South America, (2) there is a gulf, in my opinion, that exists between Latin America and North America that I mentioned above, and (3) there was a very low turn-out of folks from North America. In fact, I was the only Franciscan man representing the U.S. No Canadian Franciscans were there. Two American Franciscan sisters attended, two Brazilian sisters living now in the U.S. attended, and Bill Brown, an American OFM friar, who has served as a missionary in Peru for 47 years, was there, but he represented the friars of his Peruvian province. The largest group of Franciscans came from Brazil.

At the parade that commenced the WSF, there were flags from just about every country in the Americas except the U.S. Whenever I saw a U.S. flag at the WSF, or anywhere else in Caracas for that matter, it was depicted as a protest against this country. The clarion call for solidarity in the Americas that emanated from the WSF did not seem to me to include the land of Uncle Sam. I was left with the uneasy feeling that the U.S. “is in the hemisphere of the Americas but not of it.”

Although I was in a few South American countries in the late 90s, my time in Venezuela reopened my eyes to the great economic disparity that exists between North American countries like the U.S. and Canada and our Latin American neighbors to the south. I encountered a lot of poverty. To see children hawking items on the streets late at night to try to put a little extra money on their families’ tables helped me to realize that the great wealth of the northern part of this hemisphere must do more for Latin America.

As a friar currently ministering in Camden, N.J. to a large population of Hispanic immigrants, I can’t help but think about the proposed law that, if passed, would result in the construction of walls on this country’s southern border. Money that will possibly be spent to erect barriers that would keep Latin Americans from entering this country could be better spent, I believe, helping to alleviate the poverty in some of those countries.