In Peru, the “battle between rich and poor” continues in wake of parliamentary coup

Indigenous people from Puno region head for the capital city, Lima (La Jornada, Jan. 18); the Government Palace on a quieter day in 2015.

For many years, Peruvians have endured political crises repeatedly. Few presidents have been able to serve full terms and even if they do, they may end up in jail for corruption – the fate of six of the last 10 presidents. 

In the 20th century, elected presidents faced military coups. Today, those have given way to parliamentary coups: impeachment and removal from office. What might be a normal state of tension between executive and legislative branches in Peru today is toxic. There was a week in November 2020 when Peru had three presidents. The last of these presided through the electoral period that saw Pedro Castillo, a teacher from rural Peru, triumph narrowly over Keiko Fujimori, daughter of a former dictator, on June 6, 2020.

More than 40 days after Castillo’s arrest and replacement by his vice-president, Dina Boluarte, about 50 people have been killed in protests and more than 600 injured, including 30 injured just yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 19). 

The protesters demand (with some variations): that Boluarte resign; that new congressional elections be held; that a constituent assembly be chosen to draft a new constitution; new presidential elections before the end of this year; and release of Castillo from prison.

Headlines from Peru on Dec. 7

The fury right now is that Castillo was elected by the rural poor – farmers, workers, Indigenous peoples – and in this latest conflict, they feel their vote is not respected by racist, urban elites. It may be that Castillo erred in trying to suspend congress on Dec. 7, but its summary impeachment (no trial) was at least as illegal. In his defence, Castillo’s move came after 18 months of confrontation: he was never allowed to lead. It’s the system that’s broken.

The outcome is consistent with 520 years of colonialism and keeping those of Indigenous ancestry out of the halls of power. During the election campaign, Castillo had said it was “a battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between master and slave.” That is what is playing out on the streets and at the roadblocks today.

A fact-finding mission by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) visited Peru in mid-January. Right: in Canada, Amnesty International launched an urgent action campaign to send letters to Peruvian and Canadian authorities.

The Latin American ecumenical news agency ALC Noticias spoke with several Peruvian church leaders.

We have arrived at social collapse, said Rev. Rafael Goto, a Methodist minister in Lima long active in human rights causes. “The crisis in which Peru is living shows us again the discrimination and contempt faced by those who are most impoverished. Once again, it seems that two different ways of looking at society are at play. On one side, that of political power, the historic colonial and oppressive mentalities are revived. On the other side, the excluded population continues to resist so as to break the chain of marginalisation, invisibility, and contempt.”

Rev. Luzmila Quezada, a Wesleyan minister, teacher and leader in the women’s movement, warned that Peru is reaching a point where “dehumanization” is apparent. “This crisis challenges us to connect with the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Andean South who have suffered for centuries from the exclusion and social stigmatization of a racist and fascist elite that only cares about material goods and forgets the maximum and urgent value of human life: who is our neighbour in this country?”

Meanwhile, a Catholic priest who worked for 26 years in the Puno diocese in southeast Peru (where some of the most extreme repression occurred), has returned to his native Argentina after his bishop ordered him to resign as parish priest in the city of Juliaca. In response to violence in Juliaca on Jan. 9, Fr. Luis Humberto Béjar had demanded Boluarte’s resignation. 

Later, he told reporters that he made the call because he believes that peace can only be achieved with her resignation. “I do not regret saying what I said, and I would say it 50 times more. In three hours, if I am not wrong, they killed 17 people, and one more died of wounds later.” A policeman was also killed in Juliaca that day.

A Quechua Indigenous woman whom I know in the Andean highlands sent a note to say that she and others are doing what they can to support the protests, but that it is difficult knowing that most of the victims of the violence are Quechua. 

“Our leaders are threatened,” she wrote. “There are no lawyers who will defend them. Everyone is afraid because the army and police are acting on behalf of the congress and Dina [Boluarte]. We have returned to the time of [Alberto] Fujimori [dictator in the 90s].”

Fake criminal charges, mining justice and solidarity in El Salvador

My friend Antonio Pacheco, renowned leader of a community development group in northern El Salvador, was arrested with five other men on Jan. 11 and charged in connection with a war-time death that happened more than 30 years ago. They are also charged with “illicit association,” the accusation that has led to detention of more than 60,000 alleged gang members by the government of President Nayib Bukele. 

The charges, say friends and allies, have nothing to do with achieving justice for any of the 75,000 people who died during the civil war, and everything to do with the government’s drive to re-open metals mining in El Salvador in the wake of its Bitcoin cryptocurrency failure.

Antonio Pacheco observes an ADES greenhouse in Santa Marta in 2009. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Pacheco and members of the Santa Marta Development Association of El Salvador (ADES) were leaders in the successful effort to stop a gold mining project in Cabañas department, and part of El Salvador’s National Roundtable on Metals Mining that achieved a ban on metals mining in 2017. 

During the civil war in the 1980s, Santa Marta was targeted by the Salvadoran military and most residents fled to Honduras. Successive Salvadoran governments have not investigated the dozens of cases of human rights violations documented by the people of Santa Marta against the armed forces (including the Lempa River massacre in 1980, where 30 people were murdered and 189 others disappeared). 

The arrests last week drew global attention, including articles in The Guardian, the German news service DW and TeleSUR, and solidarity statements from the U.S. Institute for Policy Studies, the Honduran group COPINH, the U.S. Sister Cities network, and others. “Antonio Pacheco has struggled almost his entire life to build a country that seeks social, economic and cultural well-being and who is a friend to the causes of the Honduran people,” said COPIHN (the organization led by Bertha Cáceres until her murder in 2016).

I came to know Antonio, ADES and many other people the rural communities of northern Cabañas during the 20 years of my work with The United Church of Canada. I wrote about him several times, including a profile published in the United Church’s Mandate magazine in February 2011:

“A Life-Long Passion” (excerpt)

A child grows up in El Salvador in the 1960s. He asks: “Mamá, why are there poor people?”

Decades later, the question still animates Antonio Pacheco, executive director of ADES….

“I hardly ever talk about this,” Antonio said, smiling over his coffee in the food court below the United Church general council office in Toronto. “I had this intense curiosity. I asked lots of questions. I read, and read some more. I read the Bible, or tried to.”

In the sixties and seventies, Christians in Latin America began creating “base communities” to provide space for questions like those of Antonio and to share the Word of God among neighbours.

“One word caught my attention: solidarity. I began to understand why Jesus was taken to the cross,” Antonio said. 

“By the time I was 11, I understood that I wanted to work for the people. I wanted to be a doctor so that I could help.”

But as Antonio entered high school in the mid-seventies, El Salvador was in political upheaval. The base communities and church leaders became targets of repression. Antonio emerged as a leader of the student movement in his high school in San Salvador, and joined the revolutionary movement in 1977. Political and education work took him to Santa Marta for the first time in 1979, and by 1982 as the civil war raged, Antonio worked with the community directly in its education efforts. But aerial bombing grew so intense that the entire community fled into exile in Honduras in the mid-1980s.

It was after the return to Santa Marta in October 1987 that Antonio’s community development work really began to bear fruit. Even though a final peace accord was not achieved until 1992, the people of Santa Marta sought and found international help to rebuild. The United Church of Canada and the Anglican Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund were among the first partners. In 1993, ADES was born to secure and manage development funds. Antonio has served as executive director since 1998.

Today, formal education is one of Santa Marta’s great successes…. ADES continues to lead in agricultural development and training in northern Cabañas, but a number of programs have spun off in varying degrees of autonomy: a micro-credit program for market workers, a community radio station in nearby La Victoria, and an AIDS education program for rural youth that works on both sides of the border.

Now in the 2020s, ADES is working with support from the United Church and the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation to expand ecological agricultural practices in Cabañas.

“David defeats Goliath”

With the mining victories in 2016 and 2017, Mandate published a short interview that I did with Antonio. At the end, I asked what he would say to Canadians about their responsibility to regulate their mining companies

“The Canadian people should be aware that Canadian companies operating outside the country have practices that fail to respect the human rights of the people in communities, and that they fail to repair damage to the environment. For those reasons, it is necessary and urgent that their actions abroad be regulated in Canada.”

Left: Mandate, February 2017. Right: Jim Hodgson with Antonio Pacheco, August 2006. Photo: Presbyterian World Service & Development.

What’s love got to do with it? The life and work of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Centre: Ben Wildflower‘s image of Mary and her words in the Magnificat (Luke 46-55). Among speakers at the 2005 World Forum on Theology and Liberation in Porto Alegre, Brazil, were Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (left) and Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya (right), both reprimanded by the Vatican in previous decades.

Jim Hodgson

Why write about the death of a former pope and cardinal in a blog about development? Because his condemnation of several liberation theologians in the 1980s and later were attacks on the most vigorous and coherent critique of contemporary development practice – or the ways inequality and exploitation are either maintained or overcome – to emerge from Christians in the late 20th century. And whatever good he may have done will always be overshadowed by the harsh treatment of some of our era’s finest theologians by Ratzinger during his leadership of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). 

When I came to Toronto in early 1984 to work with Catholic New Times, one of my “beats” was to cover the ways the Vatican was contending with liberation theology and its advocates. Over time, such scrutiny was imposed on feminists, defenders of LGBTI people, and advocates of respect for religious pluralism – and continued into Benedict’s pontificate. (Other writers elsewhere are recalling too his role in covering up clerical sexual abuse.)

Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting many of those who were reprimanded by Ratzinger and his CDF successors. Some found solidarity in the global ecumenical movement and join events like the World Forum on Theology and Liberation, an event held every couple of years since 2003 alongside the World Social Forum.

The central tenet of liberation theology – the preferential option for the poor – is now enshrined in Catholic social teaching. Debates continue, of course, about what we mean by “the poor” as new (and not-so-new) theological “subjects” emerge among those who are marginalized from patriarchal power in churches and beyond, and by political and economic structures that persist. And it’s important to remember that not all of those censured by the CDF had come under scrutiny because of their option for the poor, but also because of their analysis of power in the church (Leonardo Boff), relationships with other religions (Tissa Balasuriya, Roger Haight), rights of women (Ivone Gebara), ecology (Matthew Fox), or defence of sexual and gender minorities (Raymond Hunthausen, Jeannine Gramick, Robert Nugent), among others.

My single encounter with Cardinal Ratzinger came on April 23, 1986 when he spoke to a crowd of about 6,000 people at the old Varsity Arena at the University of Toronto. Outside, members of the Canadian Catholics for the Ordination of Women protested. The event was sponsored by Frank Stronach’s multinational auto parts company, Magna International. The crowd, made up mostly of conservative Catholics, welcomed his criticism of “theologians who abuse their authority as teachers.”

I saw Ratzinger as an obstacle, a foe, and was disheartened when he was chosen to be pope in 2005. 

Pope Benedict: Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

On a Saturday morning in November 2007, I slipped in to a pew in Havana’s Santísima Trinidad Anglican Cathedral to reflect on the social teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. 

The ecumenical lay education centre known as ISEBIT had welcomed Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the Apostolic Nuncio in Cuba to speak to students. (Bonazzi would later serve as nuncio in Canada and is now the nuncio in Albania.) 

In the context of a class on International Development Cooperation, in which students had been debating issues of humanitarian aid, Don Luigi began his reflection based on Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).

With Don Luigi’s guidance, I found myself surprised and then intrigued by the pontiff’s approach. “Being Christian,” Benedict wrote in the opening to his encyclical, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

For Benedict, the heart of Christian faith is in the simple statement, “God is love.” There are many implications: from the nature of God (“God is love” / “Love alone is” / “love makes being” / “love remains”) to “ways to address needs that require love” and “the need of humans for the witness of Christian love that is inspired by faith” and “the charitable action of the church.” 

There is a complex challenge here to those of us who react to what we perceive to be simplistic acts of charity by proclaiming the need for justice. Justice, for Benedict (and Don Luigi), cannot be “over” love: but Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

At this point, various aspects of Catholic social teaching find their place: 

  • each person is understood within a community of people, overcoming the idea of enemy;
  • affirmation of the human person as subject, not object, not instrument; 
  • encouragement of people to participate passionately for the common good; 
  • the church does not seek power over the state, but to avoid that politics in the “polis” (city) becomes about power, not service; all of our ideas are needed so that the “polis” can function;
  • the church participates “partially” in political life for the sake of a just society.

A student asked about social justice. Don Luigi responded: “Given these commitments, the church participates truly in the building of a just society. It participates and cannot not participate.” 

When we truly love, we cannot help but get involved. 

Later, Pope Benedict would write Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), a 144-page encyclical that is mostly about our collective economic life (with digressions). Its essence is the “principle of gratuitousness” – that being itself is a divine gift, including economic life. “The market is the economic institution that permits encounter between persons” as “economic subjects” who choose to trade goods and services of equivalent value. That, he says, involves trust and fraternity. The market used justly is an application of charity, which is the virtue Benedict believed to be at the core of all things, not “an added extra” tagged on with other activities.

This and other teachings prompted Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian who is prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, to praise Benedict’s embrace of “integral human development,” a phrase used decades earlier by Pope Paul VI. “To develop truly, authentically, people need to treat each other as the siblings we really are, freely and generously and openly,” he told the Globe and Mail after Benedict’s death Dec. 31.

But the debates won’t stop. Ratzinger’s leadership in the CDF failed to model ways of loving or of constructive theological dialogue. By the time of Benedict’s resignation in 2013, the Catholic Church had endured more than 35 years of top-heavy efforts to close the windows that had been opened by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). That Pope Francis has allowed some breezes to blow in dusty corridors is a sign of hope for those of us who still insist that God’s love is for ALL, that the powerful must be brought down from their thrones, and the poor lifted up (Luke 1:46-55).

Some of my 1984 articles focused on the gaps between Roman understanding of authority and Latin Americans’ perceptions of their own reality. Theological reflection followed action by people to transform their reality, and gave rise to questions of how churches should accompany the poor (and other marginalised groups) in their struggles for justice. (I have added the colour photos I took of people attending a mass celebrated in October 1984 by Pope John Paul II at a racetrack near Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.)