People at greatest risk need ‘politics of friendship’

Away back in May of 2007, David and I were driving toward the Mexican border on Highway 77 near Victoria, Texas, when we noticed flowers and signs by the side of the road. We stopped and soon realized we were at a place where people were remembering a tragedy.

On May 14, 2003, 19 migrants died here after a driver abandoned a trailer truck that carried as many as 100 people.

We remembered them last week as news came that 53 migrants had died after the trailer in which they were being carried had been abandoned off Interstate 35 near San Antonio, Texas. 

That incident came only three days after 23 African men lost their lives in a desperate attempt to reach Europe by trying to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla from neighbouring Morocco.

Politicians have tried to excuse their culpability in all of these deaths by blaming them on “human smugglers,” but the true problem is migration policies that are inhumane – “criminal,” said an editorial in Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper.

Back in 2003, the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Migration, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski (now the archbishop of Miami) said the deaths in Victoria were the result of a “flawed and inhumane” border policy. 

“It is time for our elected officials to acknowledge that the border blockade strategy our nation has pursued since 1993 is a flawed and inhumane policy,” he said in a written statement issued a day after the tragedy. (His comments were published by National Catholic Reporter on May 30, 2003, but the article is no longer available on line.)

Politics of friendship

As I thought about the migrants who died last week, it seemed to me that many people in the wealthier countries of the global North lack empathy with people faced by extreme levels of violence and poverty in the global South. 

And then a line from José Cueti (psychologist, author and columnist at Mexico City’s La Jornada daily newspaper) caught my eye: 

“Lo real es que no existen las políticas de amistad hacia los más necesitados.”  Or, fairly literally: “What’s real is that politics of friendship towards those in greatest need do not exist.”

So then I found myself in a fairly deep dive into the thinking of Jacques Derrida on politiques de l’amitié. That led to Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti, where he proposes “a better kind of politics.” The politics we need, he argues in chapter 5, “is a politics centred on human dignity and not subjected to finance because ‘the marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem.’” And finally I read a comment by the Argentinean-Mexican philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel where he proposes the concept of solidarity as a way to overcome contradictions and limitations that occur in some uses of friendship and fraternity (including not only the limited gender sense of the latter).

Empathy. Friendship. Fraternity. Solidarity. We don’t have enough of any of those, and we fail to allow those values to inform our politics, much less our refugee determination policies. Instead, greed limits our human response to the tragedies that lead people into the back of a trailer, or on to a rubber lifeboat in the Mediterranean, or over a wall between Melilla and Morocco.

Immigration policies that do not allow migrants to present a refugee claim are part of the problem, and I have frequently decried economic development practices that augment poverty, violence and desperation in countless countries around the world.

Consider the choices (or lack of them) that might have driven your ancestors to migrate.

A few words about a book that might help you understand better the limited choices facing huge numbers of people.

John Vaillant, The Jaguar’s Children. (Knopf Canada, 2015).

Most North American writers get Mexico wrong. Vaillant gets it mostly right. He even grasps México profundo—the people, places and stories that are distant from official Mexico. He gets inside the faith of the people—that practice of Christianity that is woven together with the spiritual traditions of Nahua, Zapotec, Maya and many other Indigenous peoples.

Here is a novel that speaks specifically of Indigenous Mexican’s profound relationship with corn and the threat they feel from industrial agriculture and its genetic modifications, terminator seeds and exclusion of all that is valuable in the shameless search for profit.

If you can’t afford to buy the book, or you’re too impatient to wait for a library copy, or you think that you don’t read novels: go and stand in a bookstore or a library and read chapter 24. Here, concisely, is all the horror of what is going on in Mexico and Central America these days: the free trade schemes that destroy traditional agriculture, decimate rural communities and drive hundreds of thousands of migrants into the cities and across the northern border.

In Colombia, those who believe in peace with justice rejoice

A Gustavo Petro campaign poster from 2010.

On a winter evening about 20 years ago – I am sorry that I cannot be more precise – Bill Fairbairn and I met in Toronto with a Colombian congressman and one of his aides. Bill worked for the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA), and I served on its board. And I can’t remember if this meeting was before or after mid-2001 when the work of ICCHRLA was folded (partially) into KAIROS. We were in what I think we used to call the Blue Room of Deer Park United Church in Toronto where the offices of ICCHRLA and later KAIROS were located.

I do remember the congressman, Gustavo Petro, and his earnest search for international allies in the struggle to end Colombia’s civil war and to obtain a measure of social justice to the oppressed majority.

Two decades later, Petro is weeks away from being sworn in as Colombia’s first president from a party of the left. His victory results from the mobilization of young and new voters from parts of Colombia that are always ignored, especially the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. 

Celebrating victory (left); voters from the margins propelled Petro to power.

A large measure of credit goes to his running mate, the environmental activist and lawyer Francia Márquez, 40. She will become the country’s first Afro-Colombian to hold executive office. This election was the first time voter turnout topped 60 per cent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

I met Petro again in August 2004 in Caracas, Venezuela. We were staying in the same hotel and both of us were observers of a referendum that opponents hoped would remove President Hugo Chávez from power. During Petro’s three campaigns to become president, along with his congressional and senate races, and the 2011 drive that made him mayor of Bogotá, right-wing politicians tagged him as castrochavista (as if that were a bad thing). They decried his youthful involvement in the M-19 guerrillas. They had made peace with the government in 1990. Petro, unlike many former fighters who laid down their weapons, survived the waves of selective assassinations that sought to eliminate them from political life.

Victory this past Sunday by Gustavo Petro, 62, in Colombia’s presidential election offers hope for reviving a peace process stalled these past four years by President Iván Duque, protegé of former president Álvaro Uribe – the fiercest guardian of the ways that things have always been done by those with power in Colombia.

Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández, a millionaire conservative who was frequently compared to Donald Trump.

This election (like recent ones in Chile, Honduras and Peru) is also firm rejection of Canadian and U.S. foreign policy that for the past 20 years has paid lip service to the search for peace, but always protected the interests of those who control land and natural resources. Before Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his majority in Parliament in 2011, Canada negotiated a free trade agreement with Colombia that as a sop to the Liberal party contained a mechanism for a toothless human rights impact assessment. Colombia was also the key regional ally in setting up the “Lima Group,” the attempt by Washington and Ottawa to isolate Venezuela when most members of the Organization of American States refused to play along.

After the victories by Hugo Chávez in December 1998 in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva in Brazil in 2002, some of us starting talking about a “pink tide” sweeping across Latin America (forgetting perhaps that tides also recede). Now the tide is back, this time stronger than before. In Brazil, Lula is again leading the polls in anticipation of the election later this year.

The road ahead for Petro will be difficult, just as it has been for Pedro Castillo in Peru since his victory a year ago. The opposition will set traps and take advantage of every misstep. In this third attempt to win power, Petro proposed pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms. He would change how Colombia fights drug cartels and start new talks with remaining guerrilla fighters. But his coalition has only about 15 per cent of the seats in Congress, which will force him to make deals, limit some reforms or abandon others. Parts of the U.S. government (military and intelligence agencies) will not be friendly, and Canada (because of influence by resource-extraction companies) may not be either.

Summit of the Americas: U.S. can’t break old habits

That the White House announced Canada’s planned response to the flow of refugees in Central America said a lot to me about the way the Biden administration mishandled the Summit of the Americas, held in Los Angeles last week.

Canada will welcome 4,000 additional migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, the White House announced on June 10. That number is insignificant compared to the size of the challenge: 

  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021. About one-third were deported; another third sought asylum in Mexico. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). None of the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador chose to attend the summit – and Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela were told by Biden not to come. It’s hard to solve problems when you’re not talking to people who can do something about them.
  • As of February in the United States, about 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in alternatives-to-detention programs managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE). This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents – or the people actually held in detention.

The White House announcement of Canada’s support included commitments from other countries on migration issues, and was reported by Canadian Press in an article widely shared in Canadian media (CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, among others).

“The agreement also includes a pre-existing Canadian commitment to bring in an additional 50,000 agricultural workers this year from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean.” (Those are temporary workers whose rights are limited.)

To its credit, the government (via the Prime Minister’s Office, not Global Affairs Canada) also announced an additional $118 million for “progressive initiatives” aimed at improving the lives of people where they already live in Latin America and the Caribbean. That includes $67.9 million to promote gender equality; $31.5 million in health and pandemic response spending; $17.3 million on democratic governance and $1.6 million for digital access and anti-disinformation measures. It will also spend $26.9 million to address “irregular migration and forced displacement” in the hemisphere.

Washington “still trying to dictate” to neighbours

But it was the exclusions and boycotts that drew most attention. Because Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua were excluded by the host country, Mexico, Honduras, Bolivia and some Caribbean leaders chose to stay away. Leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador did not attend because of issues with U.S. treatment of allegations of corruption and abuses of human rights in their countries. In the end only about 20 of potentially 35 heads of state or government attended.

Apparently modelling the art of understatement, Reuters reported: “Hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Biden sought to assure the assembled leaders about his administration’s commitment to the region despite nagging concerns that Washington, at times, is still trying to dictate to its poorer southern neighbours.”

The presence of the unelected prime minister of Haiti, Ariel Henry, drew fire. During a panel discussion on “journalistic freedom,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had the good grace to seem embarrassed when challenged over Henry’s presence. As Alterpresse pointed out, “not only does Henry govern without a mandate in violation of the Haitian Constitution, he is also implicated in serious crimes, including the death of a Haitian journalist in February 2022 by Haitian police.” (Two other journalists had been killed in January in a gang attack.)

In the tradition of each Summit of the Americas (including the teargas summit in Quebec City in 2001), a People’s Summit was held, gathering more than 250 community organizations, social movements, trade unions and other progressive groups. “In the ‘richest country in the world,’ 140 million live in or near poverty. The US government is addicted to militarism and war and will spend over $800 billion in 2022, on death and destruction,” said the final declaration. “Instead of preparing for war, society must be organized to meet human needs. We want a future without evictions, police violence and mass incarceration, deportations, sanctions, and blockades. We say: no more!”