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‘Solidarity voucher’called a ploy to exclude the poor

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Quito, Ecuador

Catholic bishops have split over economic measures adopted by President Jamil Mahuad’s government, especially the so-called “solidarity voucher,” which administration officials had originally dubbed the “poverty voucher.”

The measures, announced scarcely a month after Mahuad took office, quintupled the price of cooking gas and electricity by eliminating subsidies. The cost of public transportation also increased, and the sucre, the Ecuadoran currency, was devalued by 15 percent.

In a televised speech on Sept. 14, Mahuad, flanked by a colonial crucifix and the Ecuadoran flag, said the Catholic church and evangelical denominations would help distribute the vouchers, which provide the equivalent of $15 monthly to mothers of minor children. In order to qualify, the women must pledge before a priest or minister that they are poor. People over age 65 qualify for vouchers worth about $8 a month.

While Archbishop Mario Ruiz, president of the Ecuadoran Conference of Bishops, agreed that the Catholic church would cooperate in the government program, various bishops, including Alberto Luna Tobar of Cuenca, in the south-central province of Azuay, and Jesus Martínez de Esquerecocha of Babahoyo, in the province of Los Ríos, publicly rejected the vouchers, saying they were not an effective way to counter the effects of the economic measures on poor families. The bishops also said the plan was discriminatory, because it forced low-income Ecuadorans to define themselves as poor, further marginalizing them.

Luna Tobar called the voucher a government strategy designed to exclude the poor from the economy of this country of 11.9 million people.

“The church’s option for the poor must seek to eliminate the causes of poverty by confronting the economic model that causes them, not by participating in it,” Luna Tobar said, adding that parishes in his diocese would not distribute the vouchers. Because the program is a political issue rather than a religious one, he said, it did not require obedience.

“The neoliberal economic system is sinful,” Luna Tobar said. “It is a social sin against groups of human beings, because it deprives them of a dignified life and condemns them to poverty. If the church wants to be faithful to its option for the poor, it must not attack the symptoms of this system, but the structural causes.”

Luna Tobar will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 this month and submit his resignation. Like the bishop, a large number of priests in Azuay have directed their ministry toward marginalized groups, especially indigenous people and migrants. Outspoken in criticizing neoliberal economic policies as a cause of the region’s severe poverty, these priests insist that the next bishop share Luna Tobar’s views.

Bishop Antonio Arregui of Ibarra, secretary general of the Ecuadoran Conference of Bishops, said Luna Tobar’s successor will be named according to established procedures for consultation and denied that the influential bishop’s replacement is causing a struggle among various sectors of the church.

When he took office Aug. 10, Jamil Mahuad inherited a country on the verge of economic collapse. Finance Minister Fidel Jaramillo said that because of low oil prices, the global financial crisis and domestic financial difficulties, Ecuador was nearly bankrupt. Losses of more than $2.6 billion from last year’s El Niño phenomenon complicated the already bleak economic outlook caused by a huge deficit in a budget that was based on oil income of $16 per barrel. Oil prices, currently about $13 a barrel, fell as low as $7 earlier in the year.

In order to increase revenues and reduce public spending, Mahuad vowed to cut the number of public employees, the fleet of government vehicles and the presidential security force. In a country whose external debt equals $1,332 per person, while the annual per-capita income is $1,280, the government also announced it would seek additional foreign loans.

Bankers and business leaders have backed Mahuad’s plan, but unions, indigenous groups and women’s organizations took to the streets in early October to protest. The most violent protests occurred in the coastal cities of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, where three people died.

María Hernández, a grassroots activist and community leader in Itchimbía, on the outskirts of Quito, said the economic adjustment hits women especially hard.

“No voucher can compensate for the economic measures,” Hernández said, adding that it costs $150 a month just to feed a family of five in Quito, the capital, but a poor family’s income is less than $100. “This is a policy of identifying poverty -- it has reached the point of giving identity cards to poor people. Women are singled out for the poverty identification card, because the mothers of children under 18 years of age are the ones who receive the vouchers,” she said.

“The solidarity voucher, or poverty voucher, is a way to avoid facing the real social problems,” Luna Tobar said. “Moreover, the government has always given priority to the ‘wealth voucher’ with which it supports and protects the richest sectors of society.”

Still, women are lining up to apply for the vouchers.

“No one agrees with them, but all the women from poor neighborhoods are signing up,” Hernández said. “We know it isn’t enough, we know it’s humiliating, but it is a little additional income. We have been discussing this in women’s groups, and we are proposing that in the future the voucher become a right and that it increase with the cost of living.”

Protests against Mahuad’s economic measures had the greatest effect in rural areas, where indigenous groups blocked the country’s main highways. The administration sent troops to reopen the roads, and government minister Ana Lucía Armijos called representatives of the indigenous groups together to negotiate a settlement. The talks led to a government agreement to allow indigenous communities to administer the solidarity voucher funds, rather than distributing the money to individuals, and restore the subsidy for bottled cooking gas in rural areas.

Protests in Quito were interrupted by Mayor Roque Sevilla’s announcement that the volcano Pichincha, on the western edge of the city, was expected to erupt. The demonstrations dissipated as residents scrambled to prepare for a natural disaster, stockpiling gas masks, bottled water and canned goods.

Officials now say the volcano is not an immediate menace. While observers were hesitant to say the threatened eruption was a political ploy, some commented that the volcano’s rumblings were conveniently timed. With the announcement of an imminent eruption, however, tourist arrivals to the capital dropped by 50 percent, further depressing the local economy.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998