Friday, February 28, 2014

Some fallacies of US State Department warnings

Last year the US State Department issue two travel warnings on Honduras.

I found them woefully inadequate since they made generalizations about the situation, without recognizing regional differences.  Living or visiting in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula is much more dangerous than living in Santa Rosa de Copán. Even the differences between safety in different areas of these cities was glossed over.

There are other problems with the warnings, including the failure to look carefully at causes of violence other than gangs or drugs. The militarization of the police force and the corruption in institutions are not mentioned, nor is the US military presence and support for the militarization of the police.

But what really disturbed me was this line in the December warning, which was almost identical with the wording of the June warning:
U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality, and expatriates are victims of crime at levels similar to those of the local population.
Expatriates are people who live in a country other than the country of their nationality.

I believe this is a lie – or at the very least a statement that reveals the blindness of the US State Department about violence in poor countries.

In a critique of the June warning that I wrote to people at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames I wrote:
Crimes against Hondurans, I believe, are more likely than against non-Hondurans. In the big cities, many Hondurans are victims of crime because of where they live and work, and their need to use public transportation. Also, gangs are present almost exclusively in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa and along the north coast. Many Hondurans cannot move from where there are concentrations of violence and crime, whereas Europeans and North Americans are likely to avoid those areas and can move around in more secure transportation.
I still believe this but reading The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence has led me to confirm my belief that the violence that affects the poor is more and different from the violence that affects the non-poor (which includes almost all US citizens who visit Honduras or live here. I wrote about this book in a previous post, here. I highly recommend it.

We non-Hondurans are used to demanding justice and we can get further than most Hondurans in achieving this. We non-Hondurans can move to more secure housing if we have a problem. We non-Hondurans can more easily avoid more insecure places or means of transportation. We non-Hondurans can refuse a request for a bribe from the police without major complications. We can avoid being on some busses where not only is there fear of gangs and robberies but where all the men are forced to get out of the bus at a police checkpoint.

Poor Hondurans, the overwhelming majority of the people, not only suffer poverty but also the hidden violence of a corrupt and non-functioning police and justice system.

The State Department warning says, “The Honduran government is in the early stages of substantial reforms to its criminal justice institutions.”  But is the reform substantial or just superficial?

The militarization of the police does not necessarily make them feel safe. Sometimes the police and the military have been sources of violence against the poor here and throughout the world. Read The Locust Effect.

And so the US State Department releases warning about Honduras – that, I believe, are not based on the reality of the poor here. And, of course, the warning says nothing about US role here – and the amount of foreign aid sent here, some for good causes, but some for support of the militarization of the police.

Is the US interested in really helping Honduras transform its police and justice systems for the betterment of its poor citizens? Or in the US mainly interested in anti-drug efforts far from its shores and for establishing a climate conducive to foreign corporations that profit in Honduras?

There are serous questions that I don’t think are really being discussed.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Now reading

I almost never read just one book at a time.

Maybe it’s because I am just not disciplined enough to concentrate on one book. Maybe it’s because I need to read something different on a day when I have few responsibilities than what I might read after a long day of workshops or driving.

Anyway, I’ve just finished one book that has made a real impact on me, The Locust Effect, which I commented on in a previous post.

In the meantime I’ve begun four other books:

First there is Gregorio Iriarte’s ¿Qué es una comunidad eclesial de base? which I’m reading for my work with base communities in the Dulce Nombre parish.

In November I finished In the Company of the Poor: Conversations between Dr. Paul Farmer and Father Gustavo Gutiérrez.  Now I’m reading a book of speeches of Paul Farmer, To Repair the World. Farmer is very inspiring and motivational.

When the lectionary had a week of readings from the First Book of Kings, I started Dan Berrigan’s The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power. Dan Berrigan has been writing his poetic and prophetic commentaries on scriptures for several decades. This provocative volume isn’t disappointing me.

I was looking for something to help me start Lent next week and so I opened Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted: Who He Was. The first chapter on fact and interpretation was fascinating.

A few days ago I finished the mammoth History of the World Christian Movement: Volnhume II: Modern Christianity from 1454-1800 by Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist. It was my diversionary reading. I find reading histories and biographies relaxing. I also will read a trashy suspense novel or thriller, if I really need a diversion.

Right now, I have no diversionary book.

There are a few books I have on my soon-to-be read books, including the following:

I’m going on a five-day retreat in March (with the help of a US Jesuit in northeast Honduras. So I may read Margaret A.L. Blackie’s Rooted in Love: Integrating Ignatian Spirituality into Daily Life.

Lent is a week away. I will probably read George Weigel’s Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches. I’m reading this partly to recall my pilgrimage to Italy last February. Some people may be surprised that I’m reading George Weigel whose politics I hardly agree with. But I found his 2004 book Letters to A Young Catholic fairly good, except for his chapter on liturgy. I want to see if he can speak to me as he did in that book.

A friend recommended Mitri Raheb’s Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes. I had met the Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb about a decade ago when I visited Palestine where my friend was working with Pastor Raheb.

I may look into Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life.

I should also be reading a few more books in Spanish – but that is often more work than enjoyment.

I should get to Ramón Amaya Amador’s Prisión Verde, about the Honduran banana workers strike. I’ve had it for more than five years.

Another book in Spanish I must read is José Antonio Pagola’s Jesús: Aproximación histórica, which an Irish priest in Lima, Perú, gave me in October 2011.

And that’s my short list.

There are a few philosophy and theology books I should get around to reading. They are on my shelves gathering dust.

And then there are a few others: Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition; Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal; Hannah Arendt’s The Last Interview and Other Convversations; Christopher Pramuk’s  Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton; Freddy Derwahl’s The Last Monk of Tibhurine; Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good.

And then there's the book that I've been slowly reading since last year: Donal Door's Option for the Poor and for the Earth: Catholic Social Teaching. It's a good book but demands time fore study.

Any suggestions – especially in terms of biographies or histories (with an emphasis on the poor) – are appreciated.

One question my readers may have: Where does he get his books?

I often exchange books with the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters in nearby Gracias, Lempira.

When I go to the US or have visitors, I will order a few books on Amazon and then bring them back here or have a friend bring them.

But then there is the blessing (or curse) of Kindle. It gives me access to a lot of books I’d never have been able to find here. It’s been a help and I can easily carry it the books with me on the road.

Reading has been a part of my life since before I began first grade way back in 1952 at Blessed Virgin Mary Church parochial school. It continues. It’s a diversion and an escape, as well as a spur to thought, to self-examination, and to helping me evaluate what I’m trying to do here.

My only regret when I find a book that really speaks to my life and ministry here in Honduras is that I don’t have many people to help me process.

But now back to work - or a book - or a blog post on the Final Document of Aparecida...

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Locust Effect and the poor in western Honduras

Today I finished The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros. It has stirred my imagination – and my desire to work more on the violence that affects us here in Honduras. I do recommend studying it.

I must admit that I began this book with a prejudice. I feared that the authors would be proposing merely policy and legal recommendations for dealing with violence and would not have much to say about the need for developing a culture of nonviolent conflict transformation.

I know the hidden violence among the poor. I’ve seen it vividly once. I described it here.

I’ve heard many more tales from people I know. A friend riding on the back of a motorcycle escaped death because of a watermelon between him and the driver who was killed. A catechist’s husband was killed because he refused to back down from testifying against the perpetrator of a murder in his community. I drove to the hospital a woman who had been hacked by her husband with a machete. A mayor I know was shot while driving and woman and her infant to a clinic; he escaped, but the months-old infant was killed.

I have come to see that much of the rural violence I hear of here in western Honduras can be divided into several different types:
  • There is the domestic violence.
  • There are the attacks, often by machete, of drunk or drugged persons, usually males.
  • There are the vengeance killings. A member of one family kills a member of another family and, since there is no functioning justice system, the other family takes the law into their own hands and kills the perpetrator – or a member of his family.
  • There are the quarrels over land.
  • There are the attacks related to common crimes, such as robbery.
  • There are cases of small bands of robbers who use violence. There is supposedly one village in the parish where a band is in control.

There are several other types, some of which I have only heard about, though they are very real.
  • There’s the violence of police and paramilitary groups against certain segments of the society.
  • There is the repressive violence of private guards, often allied with the local police and military, to maintain the privileges of the rich and powerful. This is very clearly seen in place like the Baja Aguan in northern Honduras where there are serious land disputes, Arizona in Atlantida where there is concern about mining interests, and in Rio Blanco where indigenous Lenca groups are seeking to prevent a dam that will flood their lands.
  • There is the violence of the drug traffickers who operate in several parts of the country, often with the cooperation of local officials.
  • There is the violence of the gangs – another story altogether.

I am convinced that much of the local violence here in western Honduras is related to the lack of a functional justice system (police, public prosecutors, and judiciary) and to an underdeveloped capacity to deal with conflict.

In looking at responses, The Locust Effect deals mostly with the violence associated with domestic violence, slavery or forced labor, trafficking, and corruption, rather than the cases I most often see and hear about where I am. The authors do devote a few pages to partly successful attempts in Sierra Leone to provide legal empowerment to the poor that would help find ways to respond to common everyday violence.

I still wonder what we can do in a rural parish to face the systems that allow violence to continue, from the dysfunctional justice system to the roots of violence in the lives and habits of many people.

The Locust Effect offers suggestions for part of this process and recognizes the problems and difficulties. As the authors write:
… we know these criminal justice systems are indispensable for the poor, and we know it’s possible to build them— but we also know that building them is difficult, costly, dangerous, and unlikely.
In the face of these realities, what seems most needful and doable are experimental projects of transformation that bring real change, that teach us, and that inspire hope— because the vulnerable poor need all three.
I believe we also need to find ways to help people deal with conflict in creative ways. Some of this will help people develop skills of the imagination to respond to violence that undercut its effect. Some of this will help people deal with the conflicts of daily life. Some of this will help people deal creatively with major conflicts over specific problems, for example land issues, inter-family rivalries, and the conflict generated by political ties. It may also help them with the little violences they encounter in daily life.

In this I am influenced by my readings in nonviolence and issues like street safety. A fascinating article by George Lakey on the Waging Nonviolence blog, here, is just one example of this. The training sessions I've had in nonviolent action and alternatives to violence had awakened me to these possibilities.

Above all, I think working on the level of the poor will help them develop the courage and the imagination to demand the changes needed in their lives and in the criminal justice and judicial system that will lead to more security for the poor

I believe it is very important is to help people grow in their understanding of conflict and to help them develop their capacities to deal creatively and imaginatively to conflict. That would be an important step that can begin now.

Monday, February 17, 2014


Last week I spent four days in the Dulce Nombre parish.

On Tuesday I facilitated a workshop for catechists in Zone 4, the most distant part of the parish, in the village of Agua Buena Concepción. It’s also a fairly poor zone of the parish.

The workshop went well – and I gained an insight into St. Paul’s sense of humor which I wrote about here.

On the way back to Santa Rosa I stopped in San Isidro La Cueva to see the new church they are building.

Thursday the workshop for catechists was in Dulce Nombre. I was most impressed that the municipality of San Agustin sent nine persons for the workshop. Rather impressive.

Doing a mirroring exercise.
Saturday was very busy. The parish council meeting went from 9 am to about 2 pm.

I also could see the work that is starting on improving the infrastructure of the parish center to prepare a small kitchen and small dining room above the guest rooms.

The parish will soon be buying a stove for the large dining room and kitchen. Thus the cook won't need to work in the open air.

After that Padre German and I discussed (heatedly) the upcoming workshops for trainings of base community leaders from each village in order to revitalize base communities.  We’ll be facilitating two meetings this week and two next week.

After this I went out to Plan Grande to speak with the village church council about my moving out there and building on the church grounds. Now I’ve got to get my design worked on by someone who knows something about building design as well as work out a budget so that I can get enough money to do it.

The house will be not just for me. The house will become the parish’s when I leave or die. It will have two guest rooms so that it can be used by some people for private time or for a retreat, as well as by visitors from outside Honduras.

It has a splendid view. Here is a photo of the view from just outside the front door of the old church which is right beside where we’ll be building.

Sunday I was out – again – to Plan Grande for Mass and 28 baptisms of infants and children under seven.

Baptisms here are often moving. 

Yesterday a mischievous little guy - who I found out has a twin sister - had such a look of awe on his face as the candle was given to his godparents.

A little girl peered out at me as her parents and godparents held the candle above her.

I already feel like a member of the village – and eagerly await moving there.

Moving there will be a new experience. I’ll be much more accessible to people than I am here in Santa Rosa. I expect that I’ll have fewer nights to myself as people will get me involved in the life of the village. Though this will mean a little less privacy, it will offer me a chance to better accompany the people.

I will also be more available to visit other villages. Plan Grande is about 20 minutes from Dulce Nombre by car, but there are villages that are more than half an hour beyond Plan Grande.

Working with the people in the countryside revitalizes me. But even the ride out and back is good. This is despite the drivers who drive me crazy and lead me into temptation. See this post on my sin.

The countryside is extraordinarily beautiful, even though I know that much of the land is owned by a few large landowners and many of those I work with scarcely have enough land.

Even the treacherous passages are beautiful, in their way…

…as long as they don’t wash away while I’m crossing.