Social Ministry Day Two: Interview with Cardinal Terrazas of Bolivia

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Interview with Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia
February 25, 2008

Born in Bolivia, Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval, a Redemptorist, earned a degree in social ministry in France. He has been elected president of the Bolivian bishops’ conference on several occasions, and has also held a number of leadership positions in CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference. Terrazas was an important figure at the recent Fifth General Conference of CELAM in Aparecida, Brazil. Since the 2005 election of populist Evo Morales as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Terrazas has become one of a growing number of Latin American prelates living under leftist governments which are often congenial to the church on social justice matters, but also at times anti-clerical and occasionally hostile on life issues as well as the public role of the church.

Terrazas was in Washington this week in part to meet with members of the U.S. Congress to support extension of preferential trading status for the Andean nations of Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, originally designed to curb the drug trade by promoting development in other sectors, which are due to expire next week. Extension is now in doubt, in part because of occasional anti-American statements by Morales. In large measure, however, the difficulties pivot on efforts by the Bush administration to gain congressional approval of a new free trade agreement with Colombia, which is opposed by labor groups and many congressional Democrats. Some Republicans are now reluctant to renew preferential trading status for the other Andean nations on the theory that it gives Democrats an excuse to vote against the deal with Colombia. Terrazas came to Washington to plea, therefore, that Bolivia not be caught in the political crossfire.

This morning, NCR sat down with Terrazas on the margins of the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

You came to the United States in part to meet with several members of Congress about U.S. policy towards Latin America, and Bolivia in particular. What have you found?
tIn general, I would say that the understanding is more theoretical than practical, in part because Latin America is enormously diverse, and that’s not always clear from a distance. I sense an intention to have a new kind of relationship, but they haven’t yet figured out, it seems to me, how to do that in a very practical way.
tWith regard to Bolivia, because we’re relatively small from an economic point of view, we’re not seen as a country to which the United States should be paying much attention – despite the fact that there are high levels of poverty that desperately need attention. For the people I met, Bolivia is often seen as a card that can be played as part of the larger diplomatic game, especially with regard to Colombia and the desire for a free trade agreement. Obviously, we don’t like to think of ourselves as a lasso that can be used to pull along other issues.
tI’ve also tried to encourage people to consider the plight of the Bolivian people and not exclusively the language of the government, which at this stage is fairly hot with regard to the United States. If they cut these trade preferences that we’ve had for twenty years, it will dramatically effect Bolivians, particularly 40,000 small businesses and tens of thousands of people who depend on them. The message that would send to the Bolivian people is obviously not a good one.
tAt the same time, people have been very kind, very polite, and they’ve listened to what I have to say. It’s not very clear, however, how they intend to advance our case in Congress.

From the outside, Morales seems like a left-wing populist similar in some ways to Castro and Chavez. How are relations with the church?

First of all, not everything that seems like it’s leaning left necessarily is left-wing. It’s clear, however, that Bolivians have put their faith in a change that was absolutely necessary. There was tremendous injustice that had endured for centuries, and it was important to open that up to make possible greater opportunities for the majority of Bolivians. Unfortunately, what they’ve done is to focus on what happened in the past, and they’ve tried to make such a clean break with the past that it’s leaving a lot of people out of the march towards the future. For example, there’s a deep tension between those who live in the highlands of Bolivia and those who live in the plains that is being provoked in the current political situation. The government doesn’t like it when we say it, but they really are losing a historical moment to move forward and to combat some of these injustices.
tSo far relations with the church have been fairly good, and they don’t go after us very frequently. There have been some moments of tension, but by and large the church is still quite respected.

Could you give an example of those tensions?
tIn the highlands, you have the Aymara and the Quechua peoples who are great devotees of the president and by and large will listen to him, be grateful to him, and follow him. The eastern part of the country is more developed, with people who have taken advantage of economic opportunities. Some are very resistant to reform, because they don’t want to give up what they’ve achieved, and want to defend their natural rights.

How is the church involved in these tensions?

The church has to speak in favor of peace and reconciliation, and that means opposing attempts to manipulate these tensions for political purposes by all the parties, including the government. The law has to be valid for all, and the church has to be concerned with the common good, which means the whole society.

There’s been concern in the Vatican about a left-wing movement sweeping across Latin America, including Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina Ecuador, and other nations, which sometimes has anti-clerical dimensions. Is this a real danger?

This idea of church/state conflict is not true in every country, or even in every part of the countries you just mentioned. It’s focused on certain high-profile issues, especially in Venezuela. We know these voices very well, particularly the voice of Chavez. I frankly don’t see a great worry in the Vatican, because much of the social teaching of the church concerns matters such as land reform or equal distribution of wealth that are also on the agenda of these new governments. Naturally whenever there’s violence or exploitation we have to speak out against it, but there’s also a lot of common ground with these government and potential for collaboration.

Another source of tension in Latin America these days is the coming election in Paraguay, and the candidacy of Bishop Fernando Lugo for the presidency. As you know, Lugo requested laicization but the Holy See refused, telling him to stay out of politics. He’s running anyway on a left-wing populist platform, and the polls suggest he could well win. How is he seen by the Latin American bishops?

I don’t think we see it as a real source of worry, or as something that demands a major response from us. Even though he’s very committed and dedicated, Lugo doesn’t seem to have been able to draw from the wells of his faith to figure out how to advance his goals from within the context of his episcopal ministry, so he’s decided to go into politics. We hope that he manages to achieve a balanced vision, and that he also avoids some of the temptations that always seem to come with being in a position of power.

If he’s elected, how will CELAM react?

I don’t think the mere fact of him being a cleric involved in politics will, in itself, generate a huge reaction, because as you know we’ve seen it before. At the same time, we won’t feel limited or intimidated because there’s now a bishop, or an ex-bishop who’s now in elected office. We’ll still speak our mind and advocate for our issues as we always have, and as we would with any regime.

But you wouldn’t refuse to deal with him until he resolves his canonical problems with the Holy See?

You can’t ignore the president of a country. We’d interact with him as we would any elected official.

What policies could the United States adopt that would be of greatest help to your people?

What we’re looking for is a gesture that expresses the values, the good values, that we know the American people have. We’re also asking, despite some of the conflicts that go on at the level of governments, for you to think about the poor people in Bolivia and extend a hand to them. What we need to see from the United States is that you’re not so worried about these words that provoke conflicts among leaders, and that you’re really on the side of life and the life of the Bolivian people.
tThe trade preferences we spoke about a moment ago are very important in this regard. What extending them would show is that the United States is concerned about Bolivia, a poor country still struggling to escape its poverty. It would show that the United States really does want Bolivia to advance, not to fall back.

What do you think will happen?

tWith your Congress I don’t know, but I can say that many of the young people we met in America seem to share this vision, and that’s our hope.

It’s now been several months since the CELAM conference in Aparecida closed. What would you say are its principal fruits?

It’s still a little early to say what fruits it will have, because it’s only been a few months. What we don’t want is for Aparecida to become just another document, like other documents. It really should be a spirit distilled in our work that promotes freedom and justice for our people. While the Aparecida meeting produced a great document, and we give thanks for the moment and the experience, we have to see it as something that is current, present with us today. That’s our big concern, and we hope to put some resources into it, so that Aparecida becomes a spirit, not just a document, especially for the simple people, the humble people, that we serve.

What about the project of a ‘Great Continental Evangelization’ announced by CELAM at Aparecida?

We were just discussing this in CELAM in meetings last week. Rather than set dates and have fixed goals about what we’re going to do, the idea is to see if we can get people convinced to become disciples of the Aparecida moment – sowing the seed in people’s hearts, so the spirit of Aparecida is in the heart of those who will carry forward this mission.
In a few words, how would you define the ‘spirit’ of Aparecida?

To take seriously, in a humble way, our baptismal call to serve God and to serve one another.

After Aparecida, can we say that liberation theology lives?

Yes, I believe so, very much. Of course, there are different ways of expressing liberation theology. There are those who are really confronting the new challenges that we face, which requires a new form of analysis. Then there are those who use the label of ‘liberation theology,’ but are not really rooted in serious theological reflection and the tradition of the church. I would add that I’ve been positively impressed with the way many liberation theologians have written positive things about Aparecida.

Here in the United States, we’re in the middle of campaign season. What hopes do you think Latin Americans have for the 2008 elections in the United States?

Certainly the people of Latin America, including the people of Bolivia, are following the election in the U.S. very closely. We’re intrigued by the whole process. It’s given us a model, for example, of how you can seek a common path amid all these differences, through all these stages before you actually get to elect someone. We hope that it’s an outcome good for the entire continent. We hope we don’t have first-class countries and second-class countries. We hope that the United States turns its face to this hemisphere, knowing that there are always other foreign policy situations to draw your attention away from your own neighborhood.
tThere’s an old image we use sometimes. We hope that Latin America is not seen as the backyard of the United States, but as the central square, the plaza mayor, in which we can all meet.

Finally, a not-so-serious question. If Bolivians could vote in the American election, who do you think they’d pick?

A majority voted for Evo Morales already, and something tells me they would vote for him again … even here!

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