Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The economic reality of Honduras

A lot of people are afraid of class analysis, claiming it promotes class struggle. But even Ruby K. Payne, the editor of A Framework for Understanding Poverty acknowledges the importance of recognizing class, though her proposed solution is to make the US poor middle class, without acknowledging, I think, the dangers of middle class consumerism and individualism nor the intrinsic value of sharing as seen among some of the poor.

For the past few months the staff of Caritas has been meeting every Monday morning, for prayer, a short study of Catholic Social Teaching (which I lead), and a section of Caritas’ school on governability and participation.

A few weeks ago we did an exercise on the different economic levels in Honduras: the super rich, the rich, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, the poor with possibilities, the extremely poor, and the indigent.

Here were some of the reflections shared by the participants. This is not a scientific analysis but it is revealing.

The Super Rich: Millionaires, whose children study in prestigious expensive foreign universities, who drive this year’s cars, who have helicopters, yachts and planes. They live in mansions and have large plantations (haciendas), They own multinational business, franchises, banks, maquilas (piece work factories), dispensas (large stores – wholesale?), concessions for mining, rivers, etc. They would usually have chefs and nannies for their kids. They are usually thought of as being ten families. They are behind the scenes of politics. They are involved in the churches – but of the rich, with private baptisms and weddings, welcomed by some hierarchy.

The Rich: Landowners with haciendas (plantations), owners of transport and construction businesses. They have new cars. Their children study in private universities, They are the privileged clients of banks. They often speak English. They would often have good cooks and a nanny for their kids. They make up about 7% of the population. They are likely to be officials in the political parties and some of them would be congressional representatives.

The Upper Middle Class: Bilingual. Professionals, university trained, new cars bought on credit, owners of medium sized businesses, bureaucrats in administrative roles, are coffee or cattle farmers. They live in nice residential houses. The housekeeper/cook might also scare fro the kids at home.They are clients with loans from banks. Their salary is above 40000 lempiras (about $2100) per month. They are about 20% of the population. [I think this is a little high, but this might include both the upper and lower middle class.] In terms of partisan politics, they may hold positions and elected offices in departments and municipalities. Parts of this class would be sympathetic to the resistance.

Lower Middle Class: Used car, five years or less or an motorcycle. Nice houses but with mortgages. Small business owners, professionals in education. Small accounts in banks, clients of cooperatives. They have credit cards. Their children study in public universities and in public high schools. In political terms they might hold some public offices, as mayors, etc.

The Poor with Possibilities: a very modest home, and maybe an old car, animals. They are workers. Their children study in public schools or the distance education radio schools. They would deal with Cajas Rurales (rural borrowing and lending institutions), with private lenders (some of whom might be loan sharks). In political terms they would be party activists. They have some chickens and other animals. They would make between 5,000 and 8,000 lempiras ($260 - $425) per month. In this diocese they would be the mainstay of the base communities. Some of these would respond to the themes of the Resistance.

The extremely poor: Very poor houses - shacks, day laborers, live on credit. They leave school early. They work on borrowed land. They have cats and dogs. They eat “salteado” – tortilla with salt, and not much else. They are 40% of the population. They are often spoken of by international organizations as the “irrescatables” – the irredeemable. Not involved in church or politics.

The Indigent: Live in the street, wander around (sometimes selling trinkets), beg, collect food from wherever (trashcans, dumps), wear rags, steal. They, too, are often spoken of by international organizations as the irredeemable.

This is an interesting analysis of the situation. What I do find interesting is that the Caritas school for governability and participation is planning several pilot projects to involve base communities and some municipal governments in processes to help several extremely poor families.

As I understand it, the base communities of the local parish will seek out and suggest several really poor families and will “sponsor” them. The base communities will seek to find land that these families can work without paying rent. They will try to get the municipal government to provide loans to the families for seeds, fertilizers, and other supplies needed for growing basic grains (corn and beans). The municipality will subsidize the loan with public moneys and the families will pay back 60%. (In one municipality the mayor is proposing to subsidize it so that the loan is only for 50% of the cost.) The base communities will accompany the families and help them work through this process and hold them accountable.

It appears that this will be a reality in at least one municipality next year. Another seems interested but seems to try to put a partisan politics spin on the project. Another has expressed interest but has not yet come forward to have meetings to work on this.

This is a very interesting model since it seeks to respond to the extremely poor who are often neglected by nongovernmental organizations.

We’ll see where this goes.

In the mean time I'm sharing photos of this past week's session - where we provided drawings of our hopes for real communities where justice flourishes, human rights are respected, and nature is cared for. Here are the results from two of the groups.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Honduras - ¿independent?

What a week.

It was quiet here in Santa Rosa this week, though there were small parades Monday through Wednesday to celebrate Honduras’ independence day.

Mid- morning Wednesday I walked to the center of town to see the parade. It was different from other years; there weren’t as many groups marching. There were a few high schools and other groups, but something was missing.

I learned later that the three largest schools didn’t march. The two largest are “official” schools (public schools) and they didn’t march because of the current political situation. In fact the largest school, Alvaro Contreras, held classes. A sort of reverse strike. The third largest school is the Catholic girls’ school Maria Auxiliadora; I don’t know why they weren’t in the march.

I found out later that the Resistance had a forum that day to do some analysis of the situation.

All was calm here, but that was not the case in San Pedro Sula. The Resistance planned a march and a major concert, but it was violently broken up by the police and military who used tear gas on the crowd, fired water cannons at the concert stage and destroyed sound equipment, destroyed instruments of some of the musicians as well as some of the high school bands that were marching with the Resistance. One man was killed as a result of the tear gas, many were beaten, and several were detained. It was, in my mind, at the very least a clear case of overreaction by the military and police, if not an act of political repression. To read more on this I suggest looking here, and here on the incredible blog Honduras Culture and Politics, as well as several posts (with photos and videos) on Quotha.

The situation is getting very critical, at least in some parts of the country. Perhaps the powers in charge are feeling threatened.


This week, on Thursday, there was a formal presentation of petitions for the calling of an Asamblea Nacional Constituyente – a constitutional convention to “refound Honduras.” This was a sticking point last year before the coup, since President Mel Zelaya was promoting a poll to petition setting up a fourth ballot box in November to ask if the people were in favor of an “Asamblea Nacional Constituyente.” The morning of the poll, the forms were seized throughout the country and the President was removed from his home and flown to Costa Rica.

The Resistance had collected 1,346,876 signatures on the petition.

But what does that mean? Honduras is a country of about 7.5 million. 1.34 is just short of 18% of the population.

Last November the de facto coup government held an election. Of the 4,611,211 on the voting roles, less than 50% voted (2,299,578) and of these only 2,145,848 were valid (since some were blank or nullified).

And the party of the winner, Pepe Lobo, had only 1,213,634.

So the Resistance’s petition has more signatures than the number of votes Lobo received in November.

There, of course, may be duplicate signatures and perhaps some invalid signatures. But it’s significant and reveals some of the discontent that I keep hearing here in western Honduras - from church leaders, some professionals, and - above all - campesinos, especially those involved in the church base communities.

The presentation of the signatures in Tegucigalpa brought together members of the Resistance leadership as well as others. Padre Fausto Milla were there. And the bishop of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos was there.

The bishop spoke out strongly, especially in light of the events in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday.

“Enough of the repression,” he demanded, “ we will not tolerate a single more death at the hands of the police and the military.”

Though he has been critical of the teachers at times, he noted that “the teachers shouldn’t continue to endure being clubbed - I have seen them bleeding. And I don’t think that those of us who have protested against the unjust Mining Law should continue shedding our blood in the western part of our country.”

“It is good that the people are peaceful, but we cannot put up with the images which we have been seeing.”

And that's how we are in Honduras these days.

From Thursday to Saturday I was with a group of lay leaders of the diocese in the second Catholic Social Teaching workshop. This one we spent on learning the “See, Judge, Act” methodology of Catholic Social Teaching, with three priests leading the sessions.

One group identified as weaknesses of the country – corruption, ungovernability (manifested by poverty, drug-trafficking, violence, and the lack of security in the country which the government is unable to control), and the radical bipartite political system, virtually controlled by the two major parties.)

Later this emerged as the list of the most urgent problems of Honduras:
  • poverty and its effects
  • the destruction of nature
  • the concessions (licenses to exploit) for mining and hydroelectric dams
  • ungovernability (violence and impunity)
  • migration
We didn’t go into much depth on the problems since this was more an effort to identify the reality and then look at some issues in light of Catholic Social Teaching.

But on the second night I showed a few videos I had downloaded – a 2008 video on climate change and its effect on Honduras, taken in Tomalá, Lempira, and one taken this year on the proposed dam in San Francisco de Opalaca, Intibucá, financed by a company owned by one of the wealthy elite.

Since it was late we had a short discussion. The concern about the severe weather here is real – the rains have affected crops in many parts of the diocese and so next year we may face more serious hunger. And the concern about the taking over of rivers for large hydroelectric dams by large companies is real.

And so we go forward, seeking justice.

And, to put it in the context of faith, , this morning, at Mass, Padre Fausto challenged us with the first reading, Amos 8, 4-7.
Hear this, you who trample on the needy to do away with the weak of the land. You who say, "When will the new moon or the sabbath feast be over that we may open the store and sell our grain? Let us lower the measure and raise the price; let us cheat and tamper with the scales, and even sell the refuse with the whole grain. We will buy up the poor for money and the needy for a pair of sandals." Yahweh, the pride of Jacob, has sworn by himself, “I shall never forget their deeds.”
Christian Community Bible translation
Amos was talking about Israel, but he could just as well be speaking about Honduras.

Scripture comes alive here – and challenges us, over and over again.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Holy Spirit has become Honduran

“The Holy Spirit has become Honduran,” said Pablo Richard, a Chilean theologian, at the end of a workshop on the Acts of the Apostles for laity in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán this past weekend in the study center in El Pinalejo, Santa Bárbara.

Padre Pablo, who has worked for many years for the Costa Rican-based theological center, DEI, Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones, had given a week-long workshop to the priests of the diocese and spent two days with laity.

I got to part of the workshop since I had a workshop to give in the parish of Macuelizo on Ecology.

Padre Marco Aurelio had asked me to give the workshop, from 9 am to 3 pm, and said there would be about 70 participants. I arrived and found more than 125 waiting in the church.

It was a good day, though very hot. (I sweat more than I have in three years!)

The challenge is always to help the people recognize and name the reality of their lives and, from the perspective of faith, be able to see the moral and political implications of these realities, and then act on them. (This is nothing more than the traditional Catholic social method – See, Judge, Act.)

I decided to start with the reality of the connectedness of all creation and then look at the way these relations have been broken. And so we talked about land ownership, the pollution of the earth and water.

I was surprised at the level of political savvy of these people. They work on small parcels of land, in small corner stores (pulperías), or in the house. There were a few teachers and few with a few cattle. (The richest cattle owner has about 20 milk-cows.) There were a very few who had studied or were studying at the university level (mostly related to education) and a number of others who had a high school education.

I spoke a little with a very interesting group of three guys in their early thirties – all bachelors! Two worked in agriculture, one was a bank teller. Two had finished high school, one tenth grade. But all were involved in the church and that Saturday night were responsible for a Celebration of the Word in their zone in the parish.

My overall impression that the people in this parish have a little higher educational level than I’ve seen in other parts of the diocese. Also, there seems to be a lot of leadership - something I have seen throughout the diocese.

I was very pleased to see a large representation of women, as well as young people in their late teens and twenties. I found out later that ERIC-SJ, the Jesuit think tank and training center, comes once Saturday each month to work with the young people.

I had read beforehand that one group of young people had made a study on the question of ownership of rivers in the area. One young woman who is coordinator of the social ministry in one zone of the parish shared their work with the group.

A very good day. As part of the evaluation they hoped I’d come back for another workshop. Before I left I talked with Padre Marco Aurelio. First, he introduced me to the group of leaders he was working with. Then, speaking privately, he hoped I’d be able to come back.

This was good to hear, since it is hard to break through some of the structures of institutions here, including in the church.

Then, I went to the workshop with Pablo Richard, about 30 minutes away.

I entered the conference center while they were working in small groups. Pablo, seeing me, came up and introduced himself, asking about me. How very inviting.

The groups then shared their reflections about how their parishes measured up against the early church as recorded in Acts of the Apostles. I was surprised how negative they judged their parishes. Pablo Richard also noted this exaggerated pessimism.

I know that many of these parishes are doing very well and are witnesses to the world of the Kingdom of God.

On the way back to Santa Rosa I gave a ride to folks from the Dulce Nombre parish. Sor Pedrina and I had a very good discussion about this very matter.

We noted some problems in the church here were low self- esteem, an exaggerated sense of sinfulness and inadequacy, as well as a desire to have everyone committed to the work of the church. Thus some pastoral workers are disheartened. They fail, I think, to see all the good that is being done.

Dom Helder Câmara wrote about the Abrahamic minorities, the small groups that have recognized the Gospel and strive to make it real in the world. Dom Helder speaks more of this group in terms of social ministry. In The Spiral of Violence, page 69, he wrote,
“…everywhere there are minorities capable of understanding Action for Justice and adopting it as a workshop for study and action. Let us call these minorities the Abrahamic minorities, because, like Abraham, we are hoping against all hope.”
I’d suggest that we use this term to understand the work of the base communities in our diocese. That way people can see the work of God in the diocese and, perhaps, be less disheartened when they face obstacles or indifference in their parishes and base communities.

It was therefore fascinating to recall the final remarks of Pablo Richard where he recalled how the world is looking at Honduras. He was very impressed by what he saw in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán – its commitment to the poor, its rejection of the coup d’état the commitment of so many pastoral workers in the parishes.

Monseñor Luís Alfonso Santos (bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán),
Padre Pablo Richard, and me

These are signs of hope.

Pablo Richard also recalled how in Daniel 7, the great statue of imperial power has feet of clay, which are broken, and then the statue falls.

Oppression is not the final word. There is always the resurrection. Christ Jesus shows us the way. And the Acts of the Apostles shows us how the first communities sought to live the Way.

There’s much more to think about – but almost enough for today.

One last note: the singing.

These two days I heard so many strong justice-oriented songs and hymns. I knew some of them but almost everyone there knew all the words by heart. In a few cases, our bishop, Monseñor Santos, could be seen singing loudly and trying to direct the singing. He dedicated one strong song - "Yo no puedo callar" to Pablo Richard.

In this song there is a line about "Yanquis poderosos - the powerful Yankees" Throughout the workshop when there was a remark about the US people had turned to me, mischievously - but in good fun, to see my reaction. In this case when people turned, the bishop said, "He's not a Yankee." I replied, "And I'm not powerful."


Monday, September 06, 2010

An ordinary week

I haven’t written anything in the blog this past week because there has not been much extraordinary here. But that is life here and I'm not complaining. For in the ordinary one finds both grace and sin.

Last Wednesday I went with Sister Nancy to the El Salvador border to meet a group of Dubuque Franciscan sisters and associates. It was great to see two good friends. We talked in the van, ate pizza at Weekend’s Pizza (the best pizza in Central America!), and had some time with Padre Fausto Milla.

On Saturday and Sunday I went out to the Ducle Nombre de María parish to be present for confirmations.
Saturday the confirmations were in El Zapote de Santa Rose – about 136 of them. Sunday there were about 220 in Dulce Nombre de Copán, the seat of the parish.

The confirmed in El Zapote de Santa Rosa

It was wonderful to see a wide range of young people (and others) being confirmed and reaffirming their faith.

Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos was very energetic both days. After the actual confirmation of the candidates, he has this incredible routine about being witnesses, being light for the world. Then he leads them in very spirited singing for about 10 -15 minutes. Pentecostals would be jealous!

The confirmed in Dulce Nombre de Copán

On Sunday during the singing I was particularly moved, seeing the commitment of these people, mostly from poor villages.

Most of those being confirmed wore a white shirt and black or blue pants or skirts – the typical school uniform here. But there was one group from a very remote village – El Bosque, I believe – who wore colored shirts and pants. (There is the bottom left of the picture below.) They are that poor!

Saturday on the way back from El Zapote the battery died and I was stuck on a road. The bishop passed by in Father Efraín’s truck and he and several guys helped push the car to the side of the road. (Yrah, a bishop pushing a car - my car!)

A friend from Santa Rosa passed by and found a mechanic who got the car started – and refused to charge. Back in Santa Rosa, the battery failed again. So today, Monday morning, I went, got a new battery (no cost since the dead battery had a guarantee) and had a mechanic fix a wire that was loose. The charge, beside three taxi rides of 14 lempiras/75¢, was three lempiras/18¢ for a connector. No charge for checking the battery or the recharging system.

This week I will be mostly in Santa Rosa, preparing for a full day Saturday workshop I have to do in Macuelizo on the environment and Catholic Social Teaching. I’m looking forward to the workshop and trying to think of ways to make it as participative and empowering as possible.

And so life continues – with all its joys and its difficulties (now, for me, often associated with the car.)

But the poverty seems to get worse. Food is scarce in some communities. There are fears of major losses of the bean crop because of the rains. The infrastructure gets worse with the rains – landslides, some roads becoming nearly impassible for the erosion, bridges wiped out.

On Wednesday an article in the newpaper El Tiempo cited a study by La Unidad Técnica de Seguirdad Alimentaria y Nutricional that stated that 72 out of every 100 persons in Honduras do not have access to the most necessary foodstuffs. About 4.5 million don't have enough for the basic food basket and another 1.5 million hardly have enough to pay for their food and cannot cover the costs of health, education, and housing.

But in the midst of this people struggle – in faith – and also struggle for a better Honduras.