Saturday, January 03, 2015

Identifying enslavement in Honduras

This Saturday the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán had an event to celebrate the World Day of Prayer for Peace.

The theme of this year’s World Day of Peace is “No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters.”

For Pope Francis, “Today, as in the past, slavery is rooted in a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object.”

Pope Francis writes about the many forms of slavery one can encounter in our current world, where “millions of people today – children, women and men of all ages – are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery.”

He includes:

the many men and women laborers, including minors, subjugated in different sectors, whether formally or informally, in domestic or agricultural workplaces, or in the manufacturing or mining industry; whether in countries where labor regulations fail to comply with international norms and minimum standards, or, equally illegally, in countries which lack legal protection for workers’ rights.

many migrants who, in their dramatic odyssey, experience hunger, are deprived of freedom, robbed of their possessions, or undergo physical and sexual abuse.

persons forced into prostitution, many of whom are minors, as well as male and female sex slaves.

all those persons, minors and adults alike, who are made objects of trafficking for the sale of organs, for recruitment as soldiers, for begging, for illegal activities such as the production and sale of narcotics, or for disguised forms of cross-border adoption.

all those kidnapped and held captive by terrorist groups...  

A Spanish missionary priest from the diocese of Comayagua gave a 45 minute talk on the pope’s document. There was a short period to discuss in parish groups where we find slavery in our parishes and how we might respond. Then we marched to the cathedral for a Mass.

To be totally honest, I was not inspired by the talk or the Mass, but I found the discussion intriguing, though disturbing.

Many people identified vices, technology, and fear as types of slavery. This may be all well and good but I don’t think this is central to what Pope Francis is discussing. These, as I see them, as examples of personal enslavement, the way we let ourselves become slaves to things outside us.

The bishop himself talked about the slavery that one might find in the way a husband treats a spouse. I think this is more what I would call relational enslavement. A person exerts control (often including violence) to make the other do what he or she wants.

This is closer to what the pope is discussing, but I think it misses a central point of the pope’s concern.

I think we ought to consider what I’d call structural enslavement. In these cases, structures of society might promote or allow persons to be treated as objects in a systematic way, not totally dependent of the will of the persons involved as enslavers.

In our group, one person (who works with the Catholic radio station) identified mass media as a type of enslavement. I think he is on to something since mass media often has a monopoly on the dissemination and interpretation of events.

Padre German identified the way that political institutions here in Honduras promote a type of enslavement, by handing out goods and making people dependent on them. This, of course, is seen blatantly in corruption where people and their votes are bought, but there are more subtle manifestations. Government institutions and some non-governmental charities may work in such a way as to encourage dependence, not promoting ways for people to be self-sustaining.

The way that vengeance leads to killings might also be a manifestation of enslavement because people see no other way to deal with conflict or with unresolved crimes and killings. I need to think about this a bit and see if there are structures – as well as customs – lead enslave people to vengeance and vengeance killings.

There are other social, economic, and workplace structures that also promote what might be identified as enslavement.

But I dared to ask whether there might be some aspects of the current coffee harvest that promote a type of enslavement.

One which seems rather obvious to me is the way that the intermediary coffee buyers work. They are often the ones who provide loans (at high interest rates) and then they buy the coffee. The lack of systems that allow and encourage the direct sale of coffee to the processors and exporters leads to a monopoly held by the intermediaries (sometimes called coyotes); the small farmers have no alternative.

I would note, however, that efforts like the one I mentioned in the previous post are small attempts to break the monopoly of the intermediaries.

I didn’t mention the concentration of land in the hands of a few large coffee growers. This, I think, can contribute to types of enslavement.

But I did mention that I have serious concerns about the coffee pickers who work on the larger coffee fields. I was especially critical of the children, sometimes under 5 years of age, who are out in the fields picking coffee in the fields of the grand coffee growers. (I started to write “coffee barons” but decided to be a little less provocative.) I can understand children working on the small coffee farms of their families but I wonder about those working on others’ lands.

I stirred up a hornet’s nest. One person insisted that it’s an opportunity to gain money and that the kids enjoy it. I really can’t dispute this, partly because I’ve seen and talked to some returning from a day of coffee picking.

But I don’t think that makes it right and just. Some may consider it needed, but that doesn’t absolve the system of the charge of enslavement.

Interesting, Padre German noted that “slavery is a situation in which the possibilities are closed.”

The person insisted that the coffee harvest offered “opportunities.” I rushed into the fray in our small group and mentioned, provocatively, that prostitution also offers possibilities.

Looking back, I guess I could have mentioned working in real sweat shops are also opportunities but are, in some cases, manifestations of slavery, especially when women are forced to take contraceptives and bathroom breaks are rationed.

But I think this points to one of the major difficulties I find here.

I find people are all too willing to lay the blame on personal behavior. They are also sometimes blatantly critical of political and economic institutions. But there seems to be a lack of critical analysis, especially in terms of structural issues.

We have our work cut out for us.


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