Mexico and the world: “For the good of all, the poor come first”

JIM HODGSON

As Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), gets ready to meet Thursday, Nov. 18, with U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 18, I prepared a few notes to keep in mind.

In the lead-up to the summit, much attention is paid to U.S. “Buy America” initiatives that threaten the (messy and often-unfair) market created after 1994 by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On that issue, Trudeau and AMLO will each back the other, especially with regard to the automobile industry.

But there are other issues.

Most media fail to understand the Mexican president, or worse: they misrepresent his intent to put impoverished people at the centre of policy-making. I’ll touch on two issues here—energy and Mexican proposals on international development—but their treatment has an impact on climate, deforestation, corruption and migration.

AMLO in Juárez, Chiapas, July 2014–campaigning four years ahead of the 2018 election. Behind him, the lower part of his party’s banner says in part: “We reject the energy reform.” Photo: Jim Hodgson

Energy—and learning about coal and colonialism

One of the points of tension in the Glasgow climate negotiations was the enormous advantage the rich countries of the global “North” have over countries in the global “South,” most of which still struggle to overcome colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. 

And one of the countries that gets criticized for not doing more is Mexico, where energy policy has been a hot topic for most of the past century. (In 1925, when Mexico declared all petroleum products to be of “public use,” and then in 1938 when Mexico expropriated assets of foreign oil companies, the United States (which always sees its corporations’ interests as national interests) objected. Mexico excluded energy from NAFTA, but governments from 2000 to 2018 began allowed limited foreign investment in the sector. AMLO is now trying to reform those reforms.)

While the Mexican representative in Glasgow criticized the last-minute move by India and China to change the language on coal from “phase-out” to “phase-down,” Mexico currently has no phase-out policy in place

In Glasgow, Prime Minister Trudeau repeated his campaign pledge to stop the export of “thermal coal” (the kind used for power production) by 2030. It’s an easy promise to keep: just five per cent of Canadian coal exports are of thermal coal. Most of the Canadian production that is exported is “metallurgical coal” (the kind used for making steel—also harmful to the atmosphere, but harder to do without). 

But Canada does not track shipments of thermal coal that originate in the United States. During the Glasgow summit, a coalition of Canadian groups demanded that Canada end thermal coal exports by 2023

In front, you see the Roberts Bank Superport, and just beyond it, the Tsawwassen B.C. ferry terminal. The superport is owned by Westshore Terminals Ltd., and is the largest single export coal terminal in all of North America. Further back, you see Point Roberts and Mount Baker in Washington state. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Indeed, comparisons of Canadian and Mexican CO2 outputs typify the hypocrisy of global North promises from the perspective of people in the global South. Here’s a comparison of per capital CO2 output based on information from Our World in Data:

Canada (1980 18.14t)  2000 18.52t     2020 14.20t (a 23% drop)
Mexico (1980 3.95t)    2000 4.00t       2020 2.77t (a 31% drop)

And yes: Canada has a colder climate, and our population is spread thinly. But the CO2 output of Mexicans is far lower than that of Canadians, and it’s dropping more quickly.

Development, or something like it, in the face of climate change and migration

Every time someone utters the world ”development” these days, I shudder. Much of what rich countries have done in the name of development over the past 80 years has worsened inequalities and perpetuated colonial patterns of exploitation. But let us rescue what we can….

Front page of La Jornada Nov. 10: AMLO at the UN; cartoon by José Hernández, Nov. 10

In a speech to the UN Security Council on Nov. 9, AMLO proposed a plan that would lift about 750 million people living on less than US$2 per day out of extreme poverty. The plan, which would raise about U.S.$1 billion each year, has three sources:

  • An annual voluntary contribution of four per cent of the fortunes of the 1,000 richest people on the planet
  • A similar contribution from the largest 1,000 private corporations on the planet
  • A contribution of 0.2 per cent from each of the members of the G20.

“Never in the history of this organisation has something substantial been really done for the benefit of the poor, but it is never too late to do justice,” he said. “Today is the time to act against marginalisation, addressing the causes and not only the consequences.”

AMLO said that the main problems of the planet are political, economic, legal and financial forms of corruption, and that these lead to inequality, poverty, frustration, violence, migration and grave social conflicts. Using the pandemic as an example, he noted that pharmaceutical companies have sold 94 per cent of their vaccines, but only six per cent has been distributed to the COVAX facility for use in the developing world—a painful and “complete failure of inclusion.”

It was the second international development plan proposed by AMLO this year. At the end of April, he proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support—as a way to address root causes of migration.

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for over two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power in Mexico between 1988 and 2018.

Critics warn, however, that Sembrando Vida is not sufficient. “It won’t but the brakes on deforestation or other degradation, because it’s not having a direct impact on the causes of these problems,” said Danae Azuara of the Mexican Climate Initiative. Additional programs are needed to end deforestation.

Canada, Mexico and the United States are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their development and, official pronouncements aside, their governments are likely happier in a phase-down world than in an phase-out one. 

But none is exempt from extreme weather events—heat domes and drought, hurricanes and floods—related to climate change.

Climate change—unpredictable cycles of rainy and dry seasons—is a driver of migration from Central America and Mexico to the north. In talks with Biden, Mexico wants the United States to regularize the status of 11 million Mexicans living in the United States, and to negotiate a temporary foreign worker program not unlike the one that Canada already has with Mexico.

Fifty years of A Theology of Liberation

Jim Hodgson

My background is in journalism (not theology), but I made a sort of career at the intersections of journalism, religion and Latin America. I have been close to conversations about and actions deriving from liberation theology for about 40 years. I am a follower of Jesus formed in liberation theologies that I learned alongside sugar-cane cutters, Indigenous communities, queer and trans people—folks who struggle for liberation the world over. Theirs are the stories I try to share.

Liberation theology is a method of doing theology, not a topic, Elsa Támez has said. It begins with a situation of repression and God’s call to transform that situation. Theology then is a reflection on God’s action in history. In the mid-1980s, however, Pope John Paul II and his head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), made liberation theology a topic of heated debate. As a young journalist, I covered that debate (see the items at the bottom of this post), but over time, I concentrated more on the stories of the people who worked for change.

This year, we celebrate the publication 50 years ago of Teología de la Liberación, Perspectivas, the book that brought together a series of reflections on the practice of ministry, or the praxis of liberation, among the impoverished people of Latin America. The English translation, A Theology of Liberation (Orbis), appeared two years later. His second chapter is a critique of what was wrong with development in Latin America in the 1960s that remains valid today.

Image from the tribute to Gutiérrez on the website of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP).

The book’s author, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, had been sharing his perspectives in conferences since the mid-60s, including in the summer of 1967 at the Faculty of Theology at the Université de Montréal.

He was never alone in those reflections, and others were working in similar or parallel veins. The African-American theologian James H. Cone published A Black Theology of Liberation in 1970 (Orbis). In Cuba during the 1960s, Sergio Arce developed a “theology in revolution,” which was about God in human history, especially in the revolution against poverty, exclusion and imperialism. In the 1960s and 70s, priests and other people of faith organized in new ways: Priests for the Third World in Argentina, the National Organization for Social Integration (ONIS) in Peru, the Golcanda group in Colombia, Christians for Socialism in Chile during the time of Salvador Allende.

Other contextual theologies emerged—Indigenous, feminist, womanist, queer, Minjung in South Korea—along with a wide spectrum of criticism, much of it helpful in adding “new subjects” that Gutiérrez had overlooked. But sometimes, the criticism was led directly to the persecution of the “church of the poor” and to countless murders and other violations of human rights. After the assassination in San Salvador in 1989 of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, proponents of liberation theology spoke instead of Latin American theology, a situation that persisted until the election of Pope Francis in 2013.

From top left: Enrique Dussel, Elsa Támez, Frei Betto and Leonardo Boff. 
Bottom left: Chung Hyun Kyung, Miguel Concha. 
Dussel, born in Argentina and living in Mexico, is a philosopher and historian. Támez, born in Mexico, works with the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica and with Indigenus biblical translators. Frei Betto is best known for exploring political implications of liberation theology, and Boff is a leading proponent of ecological perspectives in theology: they are shown during a presentation at the first World Forum on Theology and Liberation, held in days ahead of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2005.
In ecumenical circles, Chung is remembered for sparking good debate over Christian relations with other religions during and after the Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1993. Concha is shown during a news conference by social movements during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Mexico City in 1999. Jim Hodgson photos.

Miguel Concha, a Mexican priest of the Dominican religious order and columnist at La Jornada, wrote on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of first publication of Gutiérrez’s book:

“Liberation theology is not limited to helping the poor individually. Nor is it reformist, trying to improve a situation but leaving intact the types of social relations and basic structures of an unjust society. Beyond moving ethically in the face of collective misery, it considers impoverished people to be subjects of their own liberation, valuing in them their awareness of their rights and capacity for resistance, organization and transformation of their situation.”

In these 50 years, I think the formal presentation of Gutiérrez’s method has become melded in our imaginations with other processes: 

  • the outcomes of the II Vatican Council and several meetings of Latin American bishops (CELAM), especially the articulation of the church’s “preferential option for the poor” at the CELAM conferences in Medellín in 1968 and in Puebla in 1979; 
  • the pastoral action of certain church leaders (Sergio Mendes Arceo, Hélder Câmara, Oscar Romero, Samuel Ruíz, the Argentinean Methodist Federico Pagura, among many others), whether they identified explicitly with liberation theology or not; 
  • a mix of popular education and base Christian community experiences; and the political action of movements like the Sandinista Front In Nicaragua in the 70s and 80s, or that which propelled Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency of Haiti in 1990 and again in 2000.

During the last week of October, Fr. Gustavo, now 93 years of age, joined with scores of scholars and faithful for an online seminar to mark the anniversary. Videos of the presentations can be viewed (in Spanish) on the Facebook site of the Instituto Bartolomé de Las Casas.

I am appending here below parts of some to the articles I wrote in the mid-80s about the debates over liberation theology.

A thousand people attended a conference on liberation theology held at Simon Fraser University in February 1986. Among the speakers were Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny (now a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church) and Fr. Ronaldo Muñoz (not a Jesuit, but rather a priest of the Sacred Heart in Chile, who died in 2009). Muñoz said: “Liberation theology is telling of our experience of God in the context of our commitment to the struggle of the people: God in history, God in the Bible, in Jesus, in those who have been humiliated. The theologies of theologians, books, speeches, conferences in Vancouver, are in second place. Liberation theology seeks to be at the service of this struggle, this history of faith.”

Hélder Câmara (1909–1999) was the archbishop of Olinda and Recife, serving from 1964 to 1985. At the invitation of Youth Corps, a ministry of the archdiocese of Toronto, he participated events – “Circus of the Heart” and “Stories of the Heart” – in Toronto in 1985 and 1986. 
My first time “inside” the media bubble of accredited journalists on a papal visit. I remember the Vatican correspondents didn’t like me being on “their” bus around the Santo Domingo venues. Penny Lernoux (Cry of the People, 1980), Latin America correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, took me under her wing to meetings with several of the more progressive Latin American bishops.

Debt, vaccines, climate: from “blah-blah” to meaningful change on a global scale

This year, global network of organisations (including KAIROS Canada) sponsored Global Days of Action for Justice and Debt Cancellation during the last two weeks of October to focus attention on the intersections of debt, climate and pandemic.

In the wake of G20 summit in Rome and as the global climate meeting in Glasgow gets underway, those of us who hold out hope for an international system that can produce meaningful change are disappointed by failures both on debt cancellation and vaccine distribution—and working for better results on climate issues.

“Political games while the world burns” was the assessment by the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) after the annual meetings Oct. 11-17 of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Back in April 2020, when pandemic lockdowns still were a novelty, the G20 announced a debt service suspension initiative (DSSI). But the Jubilee Debt Campaign says that the DSSI has suspended less than a quarter of debt payments for a very limited group of 46 countries.

Tim Jones, Head of Policy at Jubilee Debt Campaign, said: “The failure to make banks, hedge funds and oil traders take part in the G20’s flagship debt suspension scheme has made a mockery of this initiative. Tens of billions of dollars have flooded out of lower income countries at a time when they were desperately needed to protect lives and livelihoods.”

The campaign also cited research showing that 34 countries spend five times more on debt payments than climate change mitigation or adaptation.

Vaccine sharing

Meanwhile, about 82 countries cannot meet the World Health Organization (WHO) target of 40 per cent Covid-19 vaccination coverage by end of the current year. The global vaccine-sharing arrangement known as COVAX has delivered only about 400 million doses to about 140 low- and middle-income countries.

On Oct. 28, WHO and other aid groups called on the G20 to fund a new, a U.S. $23.4 billion plan to bring vaccines, tests and drugs to impoverished countries in the next year.

During the G20 summit in Rome two days later, Canada announced it will donate 10 million Moderna vaccines and deliver 200 million doses by the end of next year. The new promise comes despite abject failure of the last set of promises: Canada delivered only 3 million doses out of a planned 40.7 million does announced at the G7 summit last June.

On average, the G20 countries have vaccinated about 55 per cent of their eligible populations, reported The Globe and Mail. Globally, the figure is 38 per cent, and in Africa, only seven per cent.

Today in La Jornada, Mexico City: Headlines acknowledge an agreement to impose a 15-per-cent global tax on transnational corporations and new promises to donate vaccines. Photos show protests. Carrying signs that condemned “profiting from the pandemic” (left), protesters in Rome drew attention to vaccine nationalism and called for an end to patent protection for vaccines: “a global right.” And (right) protesting economic policies of the Italian government and G20.

Sharing costs of climate change

A day before being shuffled out his job as Canada’s environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson joined German and British counterparts in a news conference Oct. 25 to announce “significant progress” in getting commitments from rich countries to boost financing for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the developing world. 

At the Copenhagen summit 12 years ago, wealthy countries pledged channel U.S. $100 billion each year to fund this effort. That level was never achieved.

The plan announced by Wilkinson, together with Germany’s Jochen Flasbarth and the U.K.’s Alok Sharma—the COP26 president-designate—would see U.S. $500 billion flow over the five years 2021-25.

Access to climate finance has been a critical issue for many developing countries, and failure to meet past goals had become “a matter of trust,” the ministers said.

A report posted on the COP26 presidency’s website does not show the commitments of individual countries, noting, for example, that the Biden administration in Washington “will work closely with Congress” to achieve U.S. commitments.Moreover, about 70 per cent of the funds would be in the form of loans, not grants, and part of the funding would come too from the private sector.


Equitable financing—based on recognition that the wealthy countries foster an economic system that uses carbon-intensive technology to exploit of the planet’s resources—is part of the challenge everyone on the planet faces as the Glasgow COP gets underway.

But underlying the struggles over who pays is the issue of holding to the 2015 Paris commitment to limit the carbon-induced temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. As “environmental icon” David Suzuki said on CBC Radio this morning, if we love our children and grand-children—and if we love participating with all of this planet’s life and generosity—we’ll stop adding more carbon to the atmosphere.

Many of Canada’s faith-based organizations have come together in an initiative called For the Love of Creation to mobilize education, reflection, action and advocacy for climate justice. The United Church of Canada has shared its accredited status at the COP with other members, and together they formed an ecumenical delegation to work “virtually” at the summit. You can follow the delegation’s activities at COP26 by following #FLCCOP26, #UCCanCOP26 on Facebook and Instagram.