In Haiti, the Day of the Flag is marked with protests and proposals for change

In the wake of weeks of violence perpetrated by criminal gangs, the civil society organizations and political parties that have proposed ways out of the country’s political and legal chaos have called for a march against violence.

It’s Flag Day in Haiti, marking the creation of the national flag 219 years ago – just before the triumph of the revolution in 1804 that freed the slaves and drove out the French colonial regime.

According to United Nations human rights officials, between April 2 and May 16 at least 92 people unaffiliated with gangs and some 96 alleged to be gang members were reportedly killed during coordinated armed attacks in Port-au-Prince. Another 113 were injured, 12 reported missing, and 49 kidnapped for ransom. The actual number of people killed may be much higher.

On May 17, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Haitian authorities and the international community to promptly restore the rule of law and protect people from armed violence. “State institutions need to be strengthened to combat impunity and corruption,” she stressed. “The authorities have a duty to protect life from all reasonably foreseeable threats, including from threats emanating from private individuals and entities, such as armed criminal gangs.”

But the Haitian “state” has been weakened by natural disasters and the whims of its political class and their wealthy backers, domestic and foreign. Bachelet’s words are welcomed by all who want profound change, but not by those whose only interests are permanent and cheap labour, and preventing people from leaving (the United States and the Dominican Republic.

It could all be different. Haiti should have been “built back better” (words of former U.S. President Bill Clinton) after the 2010 earthquake. But it wasn’t. The dubious 2011 election (25 per cent turn-out) gave power to by Michel Martelly (“Sweet Mickey”), a pop singer whose shaved head gave name to his political movement, Tet Kale (PHTK). A much-delayed and even worse election in 2016 (21 per cent turn-out) produced Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated just under a year ago. Since then, there have been two interim prime ministers, the second one chosen by the “Core Group” of foreign ambassadors (Canada, Germany, Brazil, Spain, the United States, France and the European Union). Terms of all elected politicians have expired; the prime minister (Ariel Henry) dismissed the electoral council; no new plan or date is set.

The Core Group should listen to the voices of the civil society organizations and opposition parties. Last August 30, they came together to produce a platform (called the Montana Accord for the city hotel where it was finalised). The accord proposes a path toward new elections.

Meanwhile, proposals for change come from other sectors. One list that caught my eye this week – it calls for revolt – emerges from a congress of university students brought together by the student chaplaincy of the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince:

“The commitment of the university in the fight against insecurity.” 

The University Congress asserts that: 

  • the State, which should be the first guarantor of national security)
  • the university, which is the compass of society in its mission to train executives and be the vanguard of the collective conscience, and 
  • the Church, which is a moral institution accompanying society in maintaining social balance) must assume concrete commitments within the framework of the fight  against this phenomenon.

The delegates, at the end of a reflection on the commitment of these three entities, agreed on the fact that the globalized insecurity which reigns in the country is a political and economic construction, a deleterious construction which aims to annihilate the state and society in general. The population must therefore revolt against this state of affairs.

Pending the arrival of leaders who truly represent the interests of the community, the public authorities must be compelled to:

  • Strengthen the judiciary
  • Control the borders
  • Invest in national production
  • Provide adequate material resources to the PNH
  • Invest in education
  • Encourage good citizenship
  • Create jobs
  • Establish social well-being programs

Then, for its part, the university should:

  • Raise awareness among young people for the progress of Haiti
  • Organize conference-debates, colloquia on insecurity
  • Conduct research and reflection, then develop and propose strategic plans to combat insecurity
  • Promote the active participation of academics in the political life of the country
  • Be a real pressure force in society
  • Promote the patriotic spirit in the country
  • Serving society

Finally, for its part, the Church, as a moral and spiritual authority, has the imperative duty to:

  • Educate the faithful on a civic level
  • Stop preaching resignation
  • Opt for a more intensified and active social ministry

We all undertake, as students, academics, to act in the name of our belonging to the City, to the University, to any religious denomination or whatever our ideological convictions, and to invest ourselves fully in order to promote the implementation of these resolutions. This, for a serene, just society, and a prosperous Haiti.

Given in Port-au-Prince on May 15, 2022

¿Dónde están? Saturday in Guatemala City

As I prepare for a journey with friends to an area that was afflicted by the violence and repression in Guatemala’s long civil war, I’ve been walking a lot in the capital city – and taking some photos.
Reminders of the war are everywhere.
One of the places I pass frequently is the ruined building shown above. It’s at 7ª Avenida and 4ª  Calle in Zona 2, a kilometre or so north of the city’s main plaza. I don’t know what the building was used for (and if I ever learn, I’ll correct this post), but today it is plastered with posters about the murdered and the disappeared. I found other posters on 6ª Avenida just a few blocks away. Here below are some stories that I have been able to piece together that will give you a sense of what Guatemalans faced in those horrific years.
Adelina Caal, a Kekchi woman known as Mamá Maquín, was legendary for her struggles for the land and against economic exploitation. She was born in 1915, and together with her family moved from Carchá to the Polochic River valley in search of land. They obtained a piece of land on a farm called La Soledad, Panzós.
At Panzós, Mamá Maquín developed strong leadership in rural mobilizations for access to land, while promoting the organization and participation of women. She also promoted cultural activities of the Kekchi people. For all this, she enjoyed recognition and leadership in the campesino communities of the region. On May 29, 1978 Adelina Caal led the march that culminated in the Panzós massacre. 
The Panzós massacre was the machine-gunning of Kekchi Indigenous people carried out on May 29, 1978, by members of the Guatemalan Armed Forces. Including Mamá Maquín, at least 53 men, women and children died – the message in the photo above says 100 – and another 47 were wounded.
To honour the memory of Mama Maquín, an organization of Indigenous and campesina women bears her name. They had returned from refuge in Mexico during the armed conflict, and, together with other organizations, have been pioneers in the fight for women’s right to ownership and co-ownership of land.

The large poster on the left shows Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. He was 14 years old when he was taken from his family’s home on October 6, 1981. He is one about 5,000 children who are among the 50,000 people who were disappeared in the years of conflict: those in addition to the 200,000 killed. About a week before Marco Antonio disappeared, his sister Emma Guadalupe – a member of a labour-focused youth organization – had been detained. After beatings, sexual assaults, interrogations and torture, she escaped from the military base in Quetzaltenango where she had been held. The forced disappearance of Marco Antonio is considered a reprisal for Emma’s escape and for the family’s political activity. 
The large poster on the right shows Jorge Alberto Rosal Paz y Paz, a 28-year-old agronomist in the eastern department of Zacapa. On Aug. 12, 1983, he was driving between the cities of Zacapa and Teculután when he was stopped by men in an army jeep. Though dressed in civilian clothing, witnesses said they were soldiers because of the jeep and the heavy weapons they were carrying. 
This is Gustavo Adolfo Meza Soberanis, medical doctor and surgeon, member of the Organización del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA), kidnapped by the army in Ciudad Nueva, Zona 2, on September 7, 1983. His is one of the cases recorded by the army in its infamous “Diario Militar,” which also shows that he was executed on February 7, 1984. But there is no indication of what was done with the body. Hence the question, ¿Dónde estás? Where are you?

Option for the Poor: the Life and Witness of Bishop Juan Gerardi

The “Nunca Más” (Never Again) poster has always fascinated me. The images are from the covers of the four volumes of the REMHI report. A young man is shown covering his mouth, his eyes, his ears and then finally shouting. His image is shown superimposed over an unchanging image of a pelvic bone (but it looks like the wings of an angel).

Jim Hodgson

After being away for three years, I have returned to Guatemala to join a small Breaking the Silence team that will be looking into just one of a myriad of land conflicts that continue to afflict this country’s most impoverished people. I’ll write more about that in days and weeks ahead. 

For now, I want to share some thoughts about the life and witness of Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera(1922-1998), a man that I never met but whose friends have influenced me for decades.

From deep inside my venerable laptop, I found notes that I prepared on April 24, 2004, the sixth anniversary of his presentation of the report of the Catholic Church’s three-year Recuperation of the Historic Memory (REMHI) project entitled, Guatemala: Nunca Más (Guatemala: Never Again).

Gerardi was born in the Guatemalan capital in 1922. His biography says that at age 12, he “insisted firmly” that he wanted to enter seminary and to become a priest. His ordination came at age 24 in 1946. Over the next 20 years, he served as parish priest in several small communities and thus came to know the lives of Indigenous people and small farmers. 

In 1967, he was named bishop of La Verapaz, a diocese that lacked economic resources but was rich in human resources. He worked with the Indigenous communities and organized courses for catechists, Indigenous pastoral accompaniment, and the movement of Delegates of the Word of God. Together, they organized liturgies in the Kekchi language.

In 1974, he was named bishop of El Quiché, and that trajectory is better known. This was in the time that violence was increasing. In 1980, after the massacre of protesters in the Spanish embassy, military repression increased in all of Quiché. Violence against the priests and other pastoral agents of the diocese was so extreme that the decision was taken to close the work of the diocese. (See the image below of my 1985 article about the Guatemalan Church in Exile.)

Almost two decades later, he would present the REMHI report. After his own time in exile and return to Guatemala in 1982, he was named auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala in 1984, and that is where he worked to create the Office of Human Rights of the archdiocese (ODHAG), and where he began the work of REMHI.

Francisco Goldman’s excellent book (left) has been made into an equally-fine HBO documentary. On April 26, Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini (white shirt, centre) led the march from the garage where Bishop Gerardi was murdered to the cathedral where he is buried. (Photo: La Hora).

Bishop Gerardi presented the report in the capital city’s Metropolitan Cathedral on April 24, 1998. This was 16 months after the peace accords had been signed, and in that context, the bishop said: 

“Within the pastoral work of the Catholic Church, the REMHI project is a legitimate and painful denunciation that we must listen to with profound respect and a spirit of solidarity. But it is also an announcement. It is an alternative aimed at finding new ways for human beings to live with one another. When we began this project, we were interested in discovering the truth in order to share it. We were interested in reconstructing the history of pain and death, seeing the reasons for it, understanding the why and how. We wanted to show the human drama and to share with others the sorrow and the anguish of the thousands of dead, disappeared and tortured. We wanted to look at the roots of injustice and the absence of values….

“Years of terror and death have displaced and reduced the majority of Guatemala to fear and silence. Truth is the primary word, the serious and mature action that makes it possible for us to break this cycle of death and violence and to open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all…. Peace is possible – a peace that is born from the truth that comes from each one of us and from all of us. It is a painful truth, full of memories of the deep and bloody wounds of this country. It is a liberating and humanizing truth that makes it possible for all men and women to come to terms with themselves and their life stories. It is a truth that challenges each one of us to recognize our individual and collective responsibility and commit ourselves to action so that those abominable acts never happen again.”

While the report does not claim to include all the violations committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, it documents 55,000 violations of human rights. A little over 48 hours after the presentation, Bishop Gerardi was killed. Perhaps more than any other event, this assassination highlighted the fragile state of human rights and the peace process in Guatemala. 

One of those present in the Cathedral for the presentation was the Very Rev. Robert Smith, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada there on behalf of the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America. Bob wrote later about the great bells of the Metropolitan Cathedral ringing that day. He wrote that telling the truth about the genocide is essential to creating a new society: without this, “there can be no possibility of justice, healing or reconciliation.”

“Shockingly,” he added, “no more than five days later the great bells of the Metropolitan Cathedral were ringing again, this time as devastated Guatemalans followed the funeral casket…. Well, they can silence Bishop Juan Gerardi, beloved human rights defender and martyr. But they can’t un-ring the bells that barely a week ago celebrated the truth that some in the shadows of power do not want told. The sound of those bells – arrhythmic and at times discordant – is nonetheless the sound of un-utterable courage and unquenchable hope.”

In 1985, I wrote for Catholic New Times about the Iglesia Guatemalteca en Exilio — the Guatemalan Church in Exile — a group from Quiché that I met in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Repression in the department had become so fierce that the Catholic diocese of Santa Cruz del Quiché (led then by Bishop Gerardi) had closed its churches and withdrawn its personnel. You can find a beautiful profile of Fr. Luis Gurriarán (in the photo above) here (in Spanish).