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Mystic Maria Esperanza of Venezuela once said that invading Iraq would be "tragic" for the U.S., and since the invasion, one must admit that it has been rough sledding -- lately, very rough.

Indeed, since 2002, the volume of financial derivatives (root of the current crisis) has skyrocketed from one to five trillion and led to the recent bust on Wall Street. The nation also has been buffeted by storms, fires, and other events.

Of course, that has been caused by any number of factors -- spiritual and monetary. There were the technology and then real estate and now bank bubbles pointing to the fact that the real bubble was the entire, borrow-borrow, spend-spend culture, fostered by global corporations and libertarianism.

Everyone was "growing" wealth (as if on trees). Everyone was "rich." It was like the Pope said: a house built on sand. (Or would "air" be a better expression?)

Trillions in stock have vanished, going nowhere, because there was nothing but speculation, in many instances, to start with (although, in "rallies," some will rematerialize).

The point:  There was the issue of speculation. There was also the sin of usury: credit-card companies were charging "juice" that put one in mind of loan sharks while banks were making homeowners spend just about their entire first payments on interest.

That's one reason for the economic downturn: It was a simple case of an economy that was defying gravity. Everyone could afford to go out to dinner at will, buy cell phones, purchase large flat-screen televisions, scoop up the latest laptop, or I-pod, and trade in the three-year-old automobile (or SUV).

As for the companies, they lost track of the common good -- so dehumanized that we were no longer able to get a human on the phone (and when we did, it was someone in India).

The stock market had created trillions in shareholder "value" at the same time that America was no longer actually making hardly anything. And so it has started to unravel.

But the financial crisis has afflicted other nations as well (it is not just the U.S. being "punished"), and so the recent events may not be connected to war and what Esperanza had mentioned. Her key concern was that invading other countries would present the U.S. as less than humble to the rest of the world -- in a bad light -- and that such would come back to haunt this nation she spent so much time visiting and truly loved. (She died in New Jersey.) At a spiritual level, current trends of downturn can also be traced to matters such as abortion, embryonic destruction, sexual immorality, violence, pride, secularism, gender confusion, corruption of the young, degradation of environment (God's Creation), and profanity.

Still, Maria felt America had the potential to be the "savior of the world" -- that its mission was spiritual.

More mysterious was what Esperanza, whose apparition site was formally approved by the Church, said about her own homeland. "It will start here," she once uttered (see The Bridge to Heaven) during an interview in Caracas.

Not long after -- less than a decade -- a storm caused a massive mudslide that killed more than 10,000 just outside of Caracas, a disaster that could be interpreted as the beginning of a long run of storm-linked events around the world. Twenty years ago, Esperanza (who predicted September 11) foresaw just such an increase in natural disturbances (especially in the United States).

Was that what she meant by "starting here"-- or was she pointing to the forces of geopolitics as well?

For since the great mystic uttered those words, her homeland -- Venezuela -- itself has undergone a radical transformation, from U.S. ally to a nation now under the thumb of a dictator who hates the West and has been actively siding with Russia, Libya, and Iran.

Recently two long-range Russian strategic bombers visited Venezuela (this was announced on September 11), and the two countries are swiftly forging economic ties, especially in oil and gas production. Most recently, President Hugo Chavez gave his okay to the docking of a Russian naval squadron in Venezuela for exercises.

Like many other nations -- and as Esperanza warned -- there has been a loss of respect for the U.S. (something that has been exacerbated by the recent financial crisis), and most alarming of all is the decrease of American prestige across Latin America.

Ecuador is also welcoming the Russian fleet. Bolivia is looking into deepening Russian ties. And so is Colombia -- America's staunchest ally in the region.

Add to this the gains in Latin American elections by mostly leftist leaders during the past three years and you see the reason for concern.

American power in the region has been in decline since 2002 and its clout is described by one expert as its lowest "in decades." In May, the prestigious U.S. Council on Foreign Relations declared "the end of U.S. hegemony in the Americas." A recent survey asking how much confidence respondents had that the U.S. President would do the right thing in foreign affairs found that only slightly more than five percent in Argentina had "a lot" of confidence in U.S. leadership, about 17 percent in Brazil, and about twenty percent in Bolivia.

The world is changing. Esperanza also mentioned -- mysteriously -- that in the future Asian races "would stand up." That was said in the early 1990s, and since then we have seen China rise as the next superpower (what isn't made there?). During the recent financial turmoil it has come to light that the U.S. owes China and Japan more than $500 billion each. China can be very hostile.

Is it all part of a "tragedy"? Is it the end of the U.S. as the foremost world power? Will our own hemisphere -- the southern part -- turn against us?

Esperanza's name meant "hope," and she felt that America had tremendous reserves of goodness. She believed it could be the agent of international transformation. She felt it could convert the world.

But first it has to convert itself.

"Leaders must be humble in heart and very wise, with patience and generosity," she once told us. "We are here in this world to serve -- serve, serve, serve, and never get tired of serving. We can never allow ourselves to be provoked. We have to be balanced. We must always have our minds on Heaven. We are here today because God wants us to be here.

"If we pray and honor Him, He will stop everything. Right now He is stopping things because of Our Lady. She is involved in many things to defeat the enemy, and this moment needs a lot of peace. Injustice is reigning right now, but Our Lord is fixing everything. Anyone who dares do something, who rises to do evil, will pay the consequences. Instead we must raise our hearts and open our eyes to the infinite, to eternity, and say only, 'My God, my Lord, we're waiting for You!'

"We must have a heart opened to the Lord and His grace, because God is now going to shake the whole world, not only the U.S. It will not be a violent shaking but something that makes people aware of His Presence.

"Even though times look so bad, it is glorious. We are going through glorious times. It will make everything better. Many signs are being disclosed. The U.S. is very smart and intelligent. It has many talents. But it is also a nation that must go back to God."

[resources:  The Bridge To Heaven, Tower of Light and Sent To Earth]

[see also: Pope John Paul II and Iraq]

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