While Latin American leaders initially struck a positive note in the face of the global economic downturn, most are now hurriedly drafting plans to create jobs, keep financial systems from collapsing and shore up social programs in the event of a prolonged economic recession. The challenges are not simply economic. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2009 in a number of countries, including Chile, Uruguay, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama. Experts expect that as these countries scale back social programs in order to pump more money into other areas of the economy, political instability may result. “At some point, that’s going to affect their political support,” says Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank concerned with Western Hemisphere issues. quo;Unless these governments can deliver, they’re going to be in trouble.”
The worldwide financial crisis has ended a half-decade-long boom that saw Latin America’s economy expand by an average of 5 percent a year, with some countries growing by more than 7 percent annually. The region’s economic growth rate slowed to 4.6 percent in 2008, and the most optimistic growth forecast for 2009 is 1.9 percent, according to the United Nations. “It’s very hard to have an upbeat outlook about the region,” Shifter said.
The boom was spurred by exports of such raw materials as minerals, oil and timber to the United States and emerging economic giants like China, as well as by money sent home by migrants working abroad, payments known as remittances. The plunge in world oil prices has also hit countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia particularly hard, while in Peru decreased demand for metals has led to the layoffs of thousands of workers by mining companies and their suppliers. At the same time, remittances are slowing. Only half of Latin Americans living abroad said they sent money home in 2008, down from 73 percent in 2006.
Economic woes could also precipitate serious political crises in the region, further deflecting attention from other pressing social problems. Some observers, for example, fear that the economic crisis will undermine efforts to address environmental initiatives. In Brazil, where the Catholic bishops have made the protection of the Amazon region a priority, the government recently announced a plan to cut deforestation in half over the next 10 years. In neighboring Peru, Environment Minister Antonio Brack told foreign journalists on Jan. 8 that with financial assistance the country could stop deforestation in 10 years. European countries already have pledged more than $7 million for forest conservation, he said. Yet with budget cutbacks causing countries to spend less on conservation, these plans could all be in jeopardy.
Experts agree that the crisis will hit poor Latin Americans the hardest. It will increase unemployment, pushing more people into the informal economy—without health insurance, pensions or other social safety nets—and widening the already gargantuan gap between rich and poor. People in desperate economic straits may take even greater risks to get past tighter U.S. border controls, says Rick Jones, deputy regional director of Catholic Relief Services , making them more likely to fall prey to human traffickers. Drug smuggling, migrant smuggling and human trafficking have converged under the control of the same cartels, Jones said, making the migration gamble even more dangerous. Drug-related corruptio n and violence are on the rise in the region as a result, especially in Central America and Mexico, but also in countries like Peru, at a time when governments are likely to have fewer resources to combat them. These factors should pressure the administration of President Barack Obama  to review its approach to combating illegal drugs, said Michael Shifter.Obama, Blair Discuss Faith
WASHINGTON, D.C.-- President Barack Obama and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair struck similar themes in remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 5, noting that all of the world’s major religions share a core principle of caring for others. President Obama said, “No matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate.... There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.”
Tony Blair, who became a Roman Catholic in June 2007, made similar observations while noting that “religion is under attack from without and from within. From within it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other...[saying] if you do not believe as I believe, you are a lesser human being. From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict.” “Thus do the extreme believers and the aggressive nonbelievers come together in unholy alliance.”
Both Mr. Blair and Mr. Obama spoke of how their experiences with people of faith helped inspire their own search for God. Blair explained how a teacher knelt and prayed with him as he worried about his ailing father. “Now my father was a militant atheist,” he said. “Before we prayed, I thought I should confess this. ‘I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God,’ I said. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ my teacher replied. ‘God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return.’” Mr. Blair continued: “That is what inspires, the unconditional nature of God’s love. A promise perpetually kept. A covenant never broken.”
For his part, Mr. Obama explained that he was not raised with strong religious traditions. “I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were nonpracticing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known,” the president said. “She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done,” he said.
President Obama explained that he became a Christian after he moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. “It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck—no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to,” Obama said. “It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose—his purpose,” he said.
The National Prayer Breakfast is a privately organized annual event that draws participants from around the world to several days of activities. Every sitting president since Dwight Eisenhower has participated.Office for Faith Initiatives Created
President Barack Obama signed an executive order Feb. 5 creating a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships , which will expand upon and rework the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office’s top priority, according to White House officials, will be “making community groups an integral part of our economic recovery and poverty a burden fewer have to bear when recovery is complete.” The office will also focus on reducing demand for abortions, encouraging fathers to stand by their families and working with the National Security Council  to “foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world.” The president named Joshua Dubois head of the office. Dubois, a Pentecostal minister, ran Mr. Obama’s religious outreach efforts during the campaign.Malaysian Official Warns Non-Muslims
Amid a dispute over the use of the word Allah in a Malaysian Catholic newspaper, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a government official, has warned non-Muslim leaders not to “challenge the sacredness of Islam.” The Herald, a Catholic weekly, has been engaged in a dispute with the government over the paper’s use of the word Allah in place of God in its section printed in Malay, the national language of Malaysia. The government has said that Allah refers exclusively to the god of Islam. Mr. Zahid said such problems would not arise if all parties recognize that Islam is the official religion of the country, adding that he suspects “a certain agenda” in the Herald controversy, alluding to the prohibition against non-Muslims proselytizing Muslims in the country. Bernard Dompok, a government official and a Catholic, urged the Home Affairs Ministry in January to stop “harassing” the Herald, noting that the term Allah is widely used by Christians in Indonesia and in Arab countries. The use of Allah as a name for God among Malaysian Christians became more pronounced after the importation of Indonesian bibles.Faith-Based Investors Apply ‘Green’ Index
The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility , a leader in the corporate social responsibility movement, said Feb. 5 it would use an index measuring how “green” publicly traded corporations are in order to help it make investment decisions and push for more eco-friendly business practices. During a conference call with reporters, the ratings of 150 companies were released by Trucost, an independent environmental data company retained by the center.
Among the companies analyzed by Trucost, the health care and insurance firm Aetna was the leader with a rating of minus 1.40. Under the evaluation method used, the lower the score, the greener the company; the higher the number, the less environmentally friendly a company is judged to be. One hundred and fourteen of the companies had “minus” rankings. The worst offender was the investment firm Goldman Sachs, with a rating of 3.21.News Briefs
The Australian Catholic Bishops said the church would lend support to families victimized by a series of wildfires that have left more than 180 dead in Victoria State. • A Vatican-sponsored conference on evolution scheduled for March 3-7 will include critical study of the theory of intelligent design, which, organizers said, represents poor theology and science. • America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group, said about 80 prayer vigils and other faith-based events in support of immigration reform had been organized for Feb. 13-22. • Michael J. Bransfield, bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, has been unanimously elected president of the Papal Foundation, a group dedicated to the charitable interests of the pope. • Michel Nguyen Khac Ngu, retired bishop of Long Xuyen, Vietnam, celebrated his 100th birthday on Feb. 2. Bishop Ngu is remembered for leading Catholics to the south of Vietnam in 1954 following the Communist victory in the north.