Dateline: Guatemala

[This piece was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of La Amistad, newsletter of the Amistad Catholic Worker]

by Fr. Tom Goekler, MM                                                                                                                        Casa Juan Gerardi Catholic Worker, Guatemala City

September 2009

The apostolate here in Guatemala seems to be finding it’s own rhythm. The ¨garage¨ is going through an amazing transformation as I hope is happening internally with the inhabitants of the house. This weekend we should be finishing up the three new second floor rooms. Juan Carlos has already started constructing the supports to lay a second floor to what will become our public tutoring and computer area. Juan Carlos and Odel have done all the designing and construction work and are rightfully proud of what is evolving. It actually is aesthetically lovely.

A major concern of mine over the years has been to not fall into the pitfall of those working and living with a foreigner (in this case me) living differently than the rest in a marginalized neighborhood. Trying to live the Catholic Worker simple lifestyle is one way to implement this ideal. Designing a space that is dignified but also completes this ideal of simplicity is another way. With the help of Juan Carlos and Odel we are well on our way to completing these goals.

One of the faults of our movement, and there have been many, has been to sidestep the political and structural realities that so condition the lives of our people. We have emphasized with the visiting groups relating with the young people that so capture the hearts of those groups who come to help and learn. One of the drawbacks is that people leave thinking that they have done good for others without facing the stark reality of entrenched money and power that insure that these same people will be condemned to a life of poverty and misery.

It’s true that to engage the young who are marginated without having a good political and structural analysis leads to sentimentalism and fundamentalism. It was hard for me to understand how so many Christian groups could have traveled to HAITI and internalize so little awareness of the situation of dependency  and corruption that was inherent in the dynamics that led to the overthrow of the popularly elected government a number of years ago.

Now the same phenomenon has repeated itself in Honduras. While I was in the States, there was an overthrow of the democratically elected president. When I asked an astute veteran Maryknoll priest who has worked in Maryknoll administration in Central America for almost four decades to sum up the situation, he responded, “That’s easy: the rich against the poor”

Historically the foreign policy of the United States has sided with the rich. Are there signs of a real change in stance or with the present governmental overthrow will it be business as usual? This question is more complicated that in may appear. By all assurances the United States administration seems to be opposed to the overthrow of the government but this does not completely clarify the position of middle management bureaucrats and vested economic interests that are accustomed to manipulate the political system for their own personal advantage. Over the decade that we labored to host almost 40 groups of visitors to Honduras, it’s a good time to question our work. How many of our visitors are presently putting into practice what they felt and experienced in Chamelecon to be in solidarity on the side of the poor wherever they presently find themselves?

Also unfortunately (I like the word in Spanish better: lamentablemente) when push comes to shove the hierarchical church has usually sided with the rich. The ecclesial statements over the years are beautiful. The theory is biblical and well stated. But in practice… In Honduras the only structural Church presence that has “resisted” the overthrow from the beginning are the Jesuits who are in pastoral work in El Progreso which is on the other side of the San Pedro Sula airport from Chamelecón and the Bishop of the Santa Rosa diocese who is Honduras. Only 3 of the 9 Bishops in
Honduras are natives.

The political dynamics in Guatemala are no different just more sophisticated and more complicated than in Honduras and in Haiti. In Guatemala City which has approximately the population of Chicago, 178 bus drivers and helpers have been assassinated this year. Extortion is in, in all it’s forms. In this type of crime its is chilling to realize the collusion of women especially young women in this manner of terrorizing ordinary people. Two recent assassinations are of particular note. Fr Larry Raushburg an OMI  priest (Order of Mary Immaculate) who was famous for his work with the poor in Brazil was killed about 3 months ago. He had been in Guatemala for almost two decades living very simply and always resisting in favor of the poor. He was killed in the same area that Fr. Bill Woods, a Maryknoll priest, was murdered over thirty years ago. The murder was neither accidental nor a common robbery.

A lawyer named Rodrigo Rosenberg was assassinated while riding his bicycle. He had completed a video a few days before his assassination speaking of a possible assassination and putting the responsibility, if it came to pass, at the feet of the president of Guatemala and some named, well placed, business people. A few days later he was assassinated. The video was shown in the cemetery at his burial. In the first week there were 650,000 hits to view the video on internet. So far 10 people have been arrested for the murder. These include eight members of the national police, a former member of the national police, and a former member of the military. It seems that 500 quetzales or $350 can buy this type of service. It is very unpopular to speak about these realities, or especially to preach about these realities in Guatemala. People believe that if you don’t talk about it, it will go away.

I was speaking yesterday at our diocesan priest’s meeting with a priest from Spain who has served here for many years. He is a member of a congregation in Spain which is a lot like Maryknoll in the United States. We were speaking of the relationship of Honduras and Guatemala. His comment: Honduras has a Toque de queda (a state of siege) but Guatemala is a Queda de Toque (the government itself is in a constant siege mentality)

I agree with Barack Obama’s comments in the United Nations. The USA can support other countries but they have to take their own responsibility of cleaning up corruption and inefficiency. However, this necessitates that the United States stop supporting the most notorious criminals in other countries. The first step in this process would be to close for good the SAB which is the “School of Americas” which has trained the worst of the Latin American killers. The latest of this list is the present head of the military in Honduras who has just engineered the overthrow of the institutionally elected government.

NOTES for further explanation:

1.  When John Negroponte was the ambassador to Honduras (1980 – 1985) and with the collusion of the United States Embassy, there was a new constitution written as part of the agreement to end the military dictatorship and elect by popular vote a president. To insure a weak presidency and that political control of the country world remain in the hands of the economic elite there was written into the constitution articles that could not be changed, one being that the president could never seek a second term. Mel Zelaya challenged that article and called for a plebiscite (not binding) on the issue. The day of the plebiscite was the day of the overthrow of the government by the actual controlling powers. The underlying issue here is that in recent years many Latin American governments who actually are trying to improve the lot of the poor have modified their constitutions so that the president can have a second term. These include the countries of Ecuador and Bolivia who have very popular elected presidents. The problem for entrenched business interests is that these government are using some of the wind falls that the rich always divided among themselves for better education, health and job training programs. This is anathema to the rich. Michelletti (the Bernie Madoff of Honduras) and his cohorts did a preemptive strike to ensure that this was not going to happen in Honduras.

2.  In countries like Guatemala and Honduras the powerful are protected by the “law of impunity.” Basically this means that is if you hold any political office you cannot be charged with any crime. This institutionalizes a corrupt political process. Obama was attacking this stance in his United Nations speech.

Our movement has been strong on education. My fear is that we will repeat history, empower young people, even those educated in Catholic Institutions within Central America or the United States to use their education to enter the governmental “or non – profit organization” beaurocracy  and use their position to begin systematically to rob the poor which has been so much of the history. Hopefully with our leadership training programs and biblical / societal workshops we are empowering young people in another way.

If you receive either Maryknoll Magazine or Maryknoll Revista Magazine, there is a good article on our work in the September 2009 issue.

My new e-mail address is:

1 Comment

Filed under La Amistad Fall/Winter 2009, La Amistad Newsletter

One response to “Dateline: Guatemala

  1. Pingback: Father Tom Goekler, MM, 1941-2010 « IonHartford

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