3 Brownie Points
| Latin America Agenda, May 7: Catholic Church, Patents, Bank of the South |
A conservative church
The Latin American Bishops' Conference doesn't meet very often and gatherings - which take place every ten to 15 years - can be pretty significant. Most famously, the Medellín conference of 1968, for example, marked the rising influence of the so-called theology of liberation, paving the way for a stormy period in which radical priests were often identified with guerrilla movements and left-wing governments.
The conference that will take place this week in Aparecida, São Paulo - which coincides with the visit of Pope Benedict XV1 to Brazil - will define a very different direction, reinforcing a trend towards much more conservative stance in recent years.
That is not to say that the Pope is not worried by the region's poverty and social inequality. Indeed he is expected to endorse the church's social work, such as that undertaken by Brazil's Pastoral da Criança. But he is a fierce critic of the more explicit political involvement advocated by liberation theologists and an even sterner conservative on issues like abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and a string of other moral issues.
His posture on these latter questions is likely to ring hollow with many Catholic Latin Americans who happily ignore the church's teaching on contraception and even favour decriminalisation of abortion. That is particularly true in easy-going Brazil, where President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has recently called for an "end to hypocrisy" on contraception and where health minister José Gomes Temporão favours a referendum on abortion.
But social conservatism may well serve the church's interests as it battles to preserve its influence in the face of continuing recruitment by evangelical churches. As new research by the Fundacão Getúlio Vargas pointed out last week, nearly 18 per cent of Brazilians profess to be Protestants, compared with only 5.2 per cent in 1970. The number of Catholics has stopped falling, but evangelicals and especially conservative Pentecostal churches continue to make big inroads, especially in poorer, more marginal urban areas.
Broken patents ?
So, after coming repeatedly to the brink in its patent battles with international drugs companies, Brazil has finally broken a patent - or has it ? Friday's decision to issue a "compulsory license" on Efavirenz, Merck's anti-AIDs drug, came after several months of fruitless efforts to press the company to reduce the costs of a drug used by more than 70,000 Brazilian AIDs sufferers. The company's offer - a 30 per cent discount - fell short of what health minister José Gomes Temporão was demanding.
But one senses that is not the end of the story. The savings obtained by buying generic versions of the drug from India amount to $30m per year for the next six years or so, but if Brazil were to be seen as a patent buster, the costs could be much higher. The Brazilian way is to avoid points of no return. If Merck were to offer a bigger discount, there could still be a solution even at this late stage in the affair.
Bank of the South
While the crisis continues at the World Bank, the future of Banco del Sur, the all-Latin American development bank being promoted by Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez seems to get brighter and brighter.
Officials from Venezuela and five other countries - Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina - met last week in Quito and will follow up with sessions in Rio de Janeiro and Asunción over the next month or so. If all goes according to plan, Banco del Sur could be launched by the end of June, much earlier than seemed to be the case only a few weeks ago.
Brazil's commitment to the organisation is still questionable, but Argentina seems seriously interested in building an institution that would make it less dependent on Washington. Venezuela is flush with funds as a result of the recovery in the oil price and President Chávez, eager to make maximum propaganda advantage from the misfortunes of Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank president , is anxious to spend them as rapidly as possible. Banco del Sur may not amount to much in the end, but there can be no doubting Mr Chávez's determination to make it happen.