In the 1980s, when governments waged dirty wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua that they claimed would make the world safe for democracy, the churches said no. Today, churches in the Americas are organizing once again for justice. This time, their target is the big lie of the new millennium: The contention that "free trade" agreements and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will strengthen democracy and help the poor.
In fact, such agreements benefit the economic elite by dramatically strengthening their hand against democratic governments. "Free trade" makes large corporations free to move jobs at the drop of a hat, playing countries against one another in a race to the bottom in wages, environmental standards, and labor laws. Wall Street investment is free to skittishly stampede in and out of countries, producing crippling financial crises. If environmental or health laws threaten profits, companies are free to sue governments for massive sums in closed-door tribunals. And powerful countries such as the United States are free to negotiate preferential trade terms for themselveswherein, for example, poor countries must eliminate farm subsidies and open their markets to heavily subsidized U.S. farm goods.
The issue has never been more timely: The proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, modeled on NAFTA, is being rushed through negotiations this year, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is on the table for 2005. In the face of this blatant corporate power grab, a groundswell of church groups in Latin America, like their counterparts to the north, are joining with other parts of civil society to speak out and strategize.