Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Hot question: Is Pope Francis anti-capitalist?

Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight from Rome to Havana, Saturday.
Pope Francis speaks to journalists on his flight from Rome to Havana, Saturday. AP

One of the biggest questions about Pope Francis’ first ever visit to the United States will be whether — and how — he will respond to those who criticize his statements against unbridled capitalism and say that he has a soft spot for leftist dictators.

Francis is not only under fire from right-wing extremists, as was to be expected, but also from some highly respected economists. They question his July 9 speech in Santa Cruz de la Sierrra, Bolivia, in which he called for changing a capitalist system based on “profits at any cost, without thinking about social exclusion.” The pope added that “this system is no longer bearable. It’s not bearable by the peasants, it’s not bearable by the workers.”

The pope, 78, who has never visited the United States, is also being criticized for an alleged coziness with authoritarian leftist presidents across Latin America. “Pope Francis has a lot to say on the excesses of capitalism. What about Cuba and Venezuela?,” asked a tweeter from The Economist magazine last week.

Ricardo Hausmann, a well-known international economist who heads Harvard University’s Center for International Development, took aim at the pope’s economic views in a recent article entitled, “Does capitalism cause poverty?”

In it, Hausmann stated that, contrary to what Francis says, the poorest countries in the world are not characterized by a naive trust in capitalism, but by an utter distrust in capitalism. The world’s most profitable companies are not exploiting Bolivia but are simply not going there because they find a hostile business environment there, he wrote.

“The main cause of poverty is not exploitation, but exclusion,” Hausmann told me in an interview. In Latin America, the main problem are not the millions of people who work in established, capitalist companies, who receive a monthly salary, a pension, and are protected by labor laws, but the millions of others who work in the informal economy and are excluded from these benefits, he told me.

“The problem in Bolivia are not the workers in the formal, modern, capitalist sector of the economy. They are the middle class sectors of society. The problem in Bolivia are the self-employed, those who are not being ‘exploited” by the capitalist system,” he said.

Referring to the Pope’s criticism of excessive corporate profits, Hausmann said that “the problem in Latin America is not that formal, modern, capitalist companies are too profitable. If they are, it’s because of lack of competition, because of protectionism and other barriers. The problem is that there are not enough of these companies.”

Hausmann said the Pope is influenced by his Jesuit formation in Argentina in the sixties. “I think he has a good heart, and good intentions, but his interpretation of the development problem is wrong,” he said.

Francis supporters in the U.S. counter that the pope is not attacking capitalism, but the excesses of capitalism.

“He is critical of capitalism in the sense that it’s a system that can sometimes place profits ahead of the common good,” said Jose Casanova, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “But he’s not anti-capitalist.”

My opinion: The pope is right in focusing on the world’s poor, and he also has a point in criticizing unbridled capitalism. In his recent trip to Bolivia, however, he talked about the latter without mentioning the excesses of anti-capitalist countries, which have created more poverty and oppression than any others. It will be very interesting to see if he brings some balance to his rhetoric during his U.S. visit. I bet that he will.

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