Friday, May 31, 2019

Mary's Magnificat and Honduran street demonstrations

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and raised up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1: 53-53

Today is the second day of a nation-wide strike in Honduras. In many parts of the country, teachers, medical professionals, university students, and others have taken to the streets. The government security forces have come out and often responded with tear gas and, according to a few reports, with live ammunition. In a few cases there has been violence by the protestors.

This has not affected me directly in our parish, but it concerns me.

What has spurred this round of major demonstrations is a new law in Congress that affects the education and health systems.

The health system here is, in many ways, a disaster. There are hospitals and health centers without medicine. There are some rural health centers that have no personnel.

The educational system is also problematic.

In addition, these public sectors and others are affected by the political system that often hands out employment based on one’s political affiliation. In the last election, some public health employees were told to publish propaganda for the governing party on their social media pages. Nepotism and cronyism are not uncommon.

I do not know the details of the laws but what many fear is the privatization of health and education. According to one report I have heard, the money for these sectors may be placed in the hands of local officials who, if they cannot run the programs, may contract out to private corporations.

Decentralization sounds good, but in a corrupt system this will lead to even more corruption. Who will get the jobs? Who will get the contracts? Who will oversee the expenditures? Who will determine if the private companies will work for the good of the people or be more concerned with their corporate profits?

People are suspicious, especially in light of the semi-privatization of the electric systems. Many people experienced extremely high bills. Electric outages continue.

But the current unrest is happening in a context – both nationally and internationally.

There are more and more reports that high government officials have been and are involved in the drug-trade. The brother of the current president is in jail in the US, denied bail, on charges of major drug trafficking. There have been investigations of the previous president and his wife, mostly on corruption charges. There are also rumors of major investigations of the current president and his advisers.

There have been major increases in the cost of living for the poor and the tiny middle class. The minimum salary (which means almost nothing to the people in the countryside) doesn’t cover the cost of the basic food basket.

Coffee prices are extremely low and the small coffee farmers are struggling.

Then there is the increased emigration.

This is a complicated issues and my opinions are complex. So I won’t comment much in this blog. But one of the effects of the emigration is the exodus of men, especially young men and fathers of families, from the villages.

In light of the immigration, US president Trump has called for ending of humanitarian aid programs in Honduras. I have heard reports that USAID, that does have a number of projects aiding farmers, is pulling out.

Yet the Honduran government, with the aid of the US and Israel (among other nations), is increasing the militarization of the country, including the militarization of police forces, as well a buying lots of military equipment. There is enough money for weapons and tear gas and bullets, but there is not enough for health.

All this – and more – has brought us to this point, where the people are on the streets.

My hopes are that the government will respond to the demands with care for the needs of the poorest, without violence, and that the forces of opposition will be more engaged in activities that help the people to organize themselves and initiate creative responses to the problems facing the poorest. I also hope that the US will change it immigration policies.

But today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, as recorded in Luke 1: 39-56.

Mary’s response to her cousin’s greeting is the beautiful and revolutionary hymn, The Magnificat. Rooted in the hymn of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, the hymn presents us with a God who takes on the cause of the oppressed, turning the world upside down.

So today, I will pray this hymn with even more attention – to the world as it is around me in Honduras with the hope and the determination that the Lord – with our participation – will make this country anew, where “the bows of the mighty are broken” and the Lord “raises the needy from the dust,” and where “the hungry are filled with good things.”

 Image by Ben Wildflower.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Fractured limbs and fractured lives - malnutrition and poverty

My ministry isn't often filled with surprises. There are training sessions with catechists, meetings with the parish social ministry, talks at training sessions for missionary and delegates of the Word, assisting at Masses and preaching, visits to remote villages on Sundays for Celebrations of the Word with Communion, visits with youth in various towns, and visits to the sick. 

My life is also not filled with too many surprises - except for car repairs and now some dental work.

But once in a while there is a situation that touches and, sometimes, troubles me. Often they reveal the fractured lives of the people. 

A few weeks ago, Padre German noted a serious health situation in a family in a remote village in the parish. Two of the children had recently had a fracture. Two others had fractures in the past. In addition, the family had little to eat. He asked me to visit.

I knew the couple because I had done the final interview with them before their church marriage. I had also arranged some financial aid for the medical costs of the earlier fractures.

I went after a meeting in a nearby village. As I approached, in the midst of barking dogs, I was greeted by the mother of the family. I also saw the fifteen year old boy who had a fracture in his leg, due to an injury during a soccer game. The other boys, ages twelve, nine, and four were also there, as well as a five-month old girl. I found out that two of the boys had had two fractures at different times. 

The father, in search of work, was trying to enter the US.

We talked and I asked her about their diet. In particular, I asked if the children were drinking milk or eating cheese. No – it was too expensive for them.

I contacted a friend from a medical group that visits the area and explained the problem. She asked me to have a doctor friend go and evaluate the situation, so that they could bring what is  needed when they arrive in early June.

We went last Friday. The young doctor briefly examined the boys and measured their height and weight. As we had expected, malnutrition is a major contributing factor. To make things more complicated, the father is stuck on the Mexican-US border and has no way to cross – no money to pay anyone and, as I have heard from other sources, people are waiting extremely long times to even try to get a legal hearing.

I wonder how many other children in our parish are suffering serious malnutrition – which is exacerbated by the extreme poverty, in the face of higher food and utility prices, few opportunities for work that pay decently, little or no medicine in the public health centers, and more.

I find myself sad, perplexed, and wondering what can be done.

I talked with someone from the community yesterday and asked if there was someone who made cheese in their village. There is - but how could this family buy even some several times a month?

We will arrange for the whole family to get to one of the sites where the medical brigade will be. But in the long term? How can we accompany the people in their struggle to lead decent lives?

The problem is in large part due to the system that enriches some and leaves many impoverished, a system that is beset by massive corruption, militarism, and more. Systemic change is needed, as well as some cultural, social, and personal habits that impede real development.

I pray we can begin - and find ways so that people can live with dignity and initiative. God help us - and help us to come together to do this.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Mining threats in San Agustín

For several months there have been rumors that the open-pit mining operation in San Andrés, La Unión, Copán, was hoping to expand its operations in the corridor between the mine and San Agustín, Copán.

On May 10, notices began circulating in Facebook that there was a real chance of mining coming to the forest reserve El Quetzal, which is about five kilometers from San Agustín.

The mayor of San Agustín began getting messages and calls about this, but he didn’t really know anything about this. Last Tuesday, the office of the Environment of the municipality of San Agustín got a note date May 14, to come to a meeting in La Unión, Copán, on a project.

Even though there was no confirmation of a mining concession on the El Quetzal mountainside, the mayor called a Town Meeting (cabildo abierto) for Sunday afternoon at 1 pm. Word spread and the town hall was filled to overflowing.

The mayor told what he knew and what he had discovered. He also had gone to an office in Tegucigalpa and, from there, sent a message of the opposition of the municipality to mining on El Quetzal Mountain.

After some opening words, he asked the attendees if there was anyone in favor of a mining project. No one raised a hand. Then he asked who was against; the opposition was overwhelming.

He talked more and then had two of the owners of land on the mountain come forward. One, an evangelical pastor who had worked for eleven years in the mining industry was clearly opposed to the project. He also proceeded to share his opinion strongly opposed to mining and the dangers he sees coming from the mining industry.

The other owner also is opposed to the mining project, though not as vociferously as the pastor.

The mayor talked about two possibilities to prevent mining. The first is a formal legal definition of the land as a national reserve(check); the other is going forward for a water project from water sources on the mountain. The two landowners were a bit skeptical of one of the mayor’s proposals, but finally they agreed to sit down later this week to work out details and disagreements.

One of the congressional representatives from the department of Copán, who had been mayor of San Agustín, was there and also expressed concern. He contacted a government official of GEOMIN and will meet with him in the near future. The government official had no knowledge of any concession that had been granted during his time as director. There is, however, I found out and shared with the mayor, a concession for exploration.

The pastor of the parish of Dulce Nombre, Padre German Navarro, also spoke, in opposition, noting the local church's concerns about mining. (He did not  mention the bishop's letter on mining, which can be found in translation here.)

Many questions remain but I find myself somewhat hopeful. First of all, I was glad to see that great turnout for the town meeting. Secondly, the opposition of the mayor and of two landowners is a good sign; interestingly, both are members of the governing National Party. However, since there are some areas of disagreement on what to do, I have a concern that the mining industry will try to find a way to exploit the divisions in order to get its way.

The area is a treasure. There are trees there that are centuries old. One tree is so large that not even seven people can encircle it. It also is a great source of water, which is becoming an ever more serious concern here in Honduras. In addition, there are birds and animals of many species there.

As a follow up, I met with parishioners in the Social Ministry on Tuesday. We discussed the situation and we will try to inform people of the situation and prepare materials on the church’s social teachings regarding mining and use of natural resources.

Providentially, Pope Francis had sent a letter to a meeting on mining. I have not yet found a Spanish translation. The English is available here. But there are three points that summarize his concerns, that I posted in Spanish at the meeting.

1.     Mining, like other economic activities, ought to be at the service of the entire human community…
2.     Mining ought to be at the service of the human person, not the reverse…
3.     We ought to encourage the implementation of a circular economy, even more in the field of mining activities.

The Social Ministry would like to plan a pilgrimage and Mass to the site – to show our prayerful concern for the preservation of this treasure.

May God help us in this endeavor.