Sunday, July 05, 2015

Is dialogue the only way?

Recently in the face of a serious crisis in a Latin American country, a bishop stated
“In a democracy, dialogue is the only way to get any type of disagreement or difference off the ground.” 
This echoed a statement of the bishops’ conference that
In whatever democracy, the only way to solve differences is dialogue, which is open, respectful, and sincere, with capacity for listening and which provides concrete and verifiable solutions which benefit society.
The bishops seem to be reflecting a quote from a homily of Pope John Paul II in 2000 at the Jubilee Mass for governmental leaders and politicians:
... dialogue always presents itself as an irreplaceable instrument for any constructive confrontation both in the internal relations of the States and in the international ones.
In light of the current situation in Honduras, I’m not sure that the statement of the bishops fits.

The situation in Honduras

First of all, here’s a rather over-simplified look at the current situation.

In Honduras we have a critical situation in the light of serious issues of corruption and impunity which affect the governing political party.

The opposition, initiated with students who call themselves the indignados, and has attracted the attention of several opposition political parties but more importantly the support of many who have taken to the streets of the major cities in torch-lit marches for more than a month.

The opposition is calling for the establishment in Honduras of a Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad [CICI], an International Commission against Impunity, as was done in Guatemala. The CICIG is a United Nations-backed commission formed to combat corruption in Guatemala.

Many in opposition are also calling for the resignation of the current president Juan Orlando Hernández and other government leaders involved in the crisis

In response, President Hernández has called for dialogue and proposed his own approach to corruption: Sistema Integral Contra la Impunidad, Integrated System Against Impunity.

Many of the protestors reject this approach, even though there are reports that the United Nations and the Organization of American States are willing to serve as part of a dialogue.

Is this a reasonable response?
More details of this can be found on the Honduras Culture and Politics blog as well as on the Central American Politics blog. 

The call for dialogue

I am all for dialogue but not all “dialogues” are really dialogues. But I do wonder if dialogue is the only way —“la única forma” — to deal with social conflicts.

My first thought when reading this statement was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, who was answering some clergy who thought the direct action of the civil rights movement in Birmingham was unwise and untimely. “Why not negotiate?”
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
Would President Hernández have even suggested dialogue if there had not been the massive street marches?

But I think that there are also conditions for any real dialogue.

First of all, there must be some mutual respect.

I do think some of the reactions of the opposition are a bit overboard – in the heat of the moment.

But this has taken place in a framework of contempt. Ebal Díaz, an adviser of the president has stated: “They don’t believe in God; they don’t respect anyone; and they are inclined to sow chaos.”

Can there be dialogue when at least one - and perhaps both - of the parties involved has marginalized the other in this way?

President Hernández has made some efforts to “dialogue” with persons and groups. The most notable has been the Honduran Conference of Bishops. Here, in Spanish, is an example of how the government seems to have manipulated that event.

But has the President, either himself or through aides, tried to dialogue with leaders of the opposition or even with the youth and indigenous who are fasting near the Presidential Palace?

He has called for a dialogue and asked for help from the Catholic bishops, other national groups, and international bodies. He met with the bishops last week.

But can there be dialogue when one party controls the venue and the agenda of the dialogue – or decides who will facilitate any dialogue?
Addendum: The minister of Labor has been appointed to facilitate the dialogue process.
Can there be any real dialogue when one of the parties holds a monopoly of power?

Can there be any real dialogue when one of the parties is accused of actions that have provoked the outburst of indignation?

On June 29, several Honduran intellectuals released a very significant statement, found here in Spanish, that addresses some of these issues. The signers include the Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, the director of Radio Progreso.

Here are some extracts, loosely translated:
No one in a right mind, who believes in democracy and who is grieving this Honduras humiliated, could deny dialogue. At the end, there must be dialogue. 
 Nevertheless, to speak of dialogue so lightly without touching the ground of what is the origin of the polarization and the confirmation of the political cliques to hijack the goods of the State instead of contributing to the solution of the crisis of the institution is a trap. 
 In Honduras we have a long history of dialogues among those at the top which, instead of resolving the contradictions, foster conspiracies and in the end result the approval of decrees and laws which temporarily enhance the same groups in power in their antidemocratic practices. 
 To address the true conflicts that this crisis occasions, it is necessary to set up a dialogue which brings to light the truth about the conflicts, the inequalities, and with identifies those responsible for the institutional disaster, for the corruption and collapse of decent governing. 
 We insist: all can participate; but the dialogue which we need to reconcile society and reconstruct the institutional functioning [institutionalidad] can not be convened nor directed by those who are suspected or identified as part of the problem, by those who are directly promoting of the crisis or directly responsible [for it].
Catholic social thought and democracy

But I have two additional concerns about the assertion that dialogue is the only way to deal with conflict and division.

The first was addressed directly by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
Secondly, Catholic Social Thought has affirmed the importance of the development and participation of civil society in the construction of a real participatory democracy.

Here are a few citations form the 2007 final statement of the meeting of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM) in Aparecida, Brazil:
75. Participatory democracy is growing stronger with the more assertive presence of civil society, and the emergence of new social actors, such as indigenous people, Afro-Americans, women, professionals, a broad middle class, and organized poor people, and more room for political participation is being created. These groups are becoming aware of the power they hold in their hands and of the possibility of bringing about major changes for achieving more just government policies, which will reverse their situation of exclusion.
 76… All this indicates that there cannot be true and stable democracy without social justice, without real separation of powers, and unless the rule of law is upheld.
 406…. we propose the following:
         a.  Support the participation of civil society for the reorientation and consequent restoration of ethics in politics. Hence, venues for the participation of civil society to make democracy effective, a true economy of solidarity, and comprehensive, sustainable development in solidarity are all very important.
I would suggest that the presence of groups of people on the streets of Honduras can be a sign of a people awakening to taking its responsibility for the good of the country. It is – despite errors and problems – one of the ways that the people are using to work for real change in the Honduran society.

It is not the only way – but it cannot be ruled out by stating that dialogue is the only way to resolve conflicts in a democracy.

One church leader has stated that “If there is no dialogue, there will be anarchy.”

But I would suggest that if there is no openness to listening to all parties – especially those in the streets and those who are on hunger strike – there will be anarchy – the lack of rule of law.

Perhaps we are already in a state of anarchy – where corruption, inequality, and impunity reign.

Perhaps the torch-lit marches have helped open up the Honduran society for a real dialogue – based in the pursuit of justice and the common good.

I hope so.

I pray so.

And I long for more people like Padre Fausto Milla, an 88 year old priest from our diocese, who went and listened to those who are fasting.

Padre Fausto with some of the hunger strikers

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