Talking about peace when there is no peace*

Jim Hodgson, May 23, 2023

Peace is a pre-condition for any possibility of transforming the global economy for the sake of humanity and the Earth – or, more modestly, achieving those elusive Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

In the weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I added my voice to those of others who pleaded for peace talks. In recent weeks, new efforts from church leaders and global South political leaders are underway to bring the sides together. But peace initiatives are either ignored or disdained by most media and “Western” leaders.

Headlines and images from Mexico’s La Jornada and Argentina’s Página 12 newspapers. On the left, Lula asks that a new Cold War between China and the United States be avoided and defends the use for currencies other than the U.S. dollar for international trade. On the right, from top: Zelensky asks for support from G7 powers; G7 leaders create new sanctions against Russia and debated in Hiroshima the nuclear arsenals of other countries; The Vatican makes its peace effort official so as to end the war in Ukraine.

Case in point: the participation at the recent G7 meeting in Hiroshima of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Indian Prime Minister Narendra ModiFinancial Times dismissed Lula and Modi as Russian President Vladimir “Putin’s apologists.” Their participation was eclipsed by that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who did meet with Modi, but blamed scheduling conflicts for not meeting Lula – and then joked with reporters that Lula was more disappointed than he was. 

Well, yes. Lula’s interest in peace has everything to do with funds diverted to war and away from efforts for authentic development that could help alleviate the other crises of climate change and migration. (Lula also said that Zelensky did not show up for a meeting they had scheduled.)

In Hiroshima,  Lula criticized the division (or re-division) of countries into two antagonistic blocs and abandonment of a multipolar world that seemed to be emerging in the wake of the pre-1991 Cold War.

Meanwhile, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was not even invited. But he and other African leaders are involved in a peace initiative to end the war in Ukraine. In a news conference May 17, he said he had had “separate telephone calls” with Putin and Zelensky over the weekend, where he presented an initiative drawn up by Zambia, Senegal, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Egypt and South Africa. Leaders of the six countries say they plan to travel to Russia and Ukraine “as soon as is possible.”

In his weekly newsletter on May 15, Ramaphosa said South Africa would not be drawn “into a contest between global powers” despite having faced “extraordinary pressure” to do so.

“We do not accept that our non-aligned position favours Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries,” Ramaphosa said.

During the same week, Chinese envoy Li Hui visited Moscow, his first stop in a European tour that would also take him to Kyiv, to develop a 12-point plan proposed by Beijing on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. 

Last September, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for establishment of a Commission for Dialogue and Peace that would facilitate the search for a solution through negotiations. 

Nobody has a “magical formula to achieve peace,” writes Juan Pablo DuchLa Jornada’s Moscow correspondent. “But [proponents of peace] hope that Russia and Ukraine would establish a ceasefire and sit down to negotiate their conditions with the objective of putting an end to the bloodshed and devastation. All that is lacking is that Moscow and Kiev by open to making concessions – the first not wanting to cede Ukrainians regions already annexed and the latter refusing to lose territory – but without concessions, it does not seem possible to open a path toward peace in a war that, say what you will, only brings calamities.”

WCC delegation with Ukrainian church leaders in Kyiv on May 11 (WCC photo); Patriarch Kirill with WCC general secretary in Moscow on May 17 (ROC photo).

Meanwhile, the World Council of Church and Pope Francis have both renewed their efforts for peace. 

In mid-May, a delegation led by WCC general secretary Jerry Pillay visited church and government leaders in Kyiv and Moscow. In Kyiv, the WCC delegation met with senior leaders of both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, two churches whose dispute has intensified since the Russian invasion. In Moscow, they met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and widely viewed as a supporter of President Putin.

For his part, Pope Francis has given Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi the task of leading a mission in hopes it can “ease tensions” in the Ukraine war and lead to a path of peace. The pope has said has said he would go to Kyiv if such a journey would help bring peace, but said that could happen only if he could also visit Moscow.

* The phrase “peace, peace, when there is no peace” is found in Jeremiah 6:14 and later at 8:11. It is also found in Ezekiel 13:10 and 16. The direct criticism is of those who build flimsy walls and smear them with whitewash: a makeshift solution to a problem. The metaphor then and now is points to poor leadership. In our time, we can think of leaders who promise that war will lead to peace. “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly,” writes the prophet Jeremiah, “saying ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

War Never Again – Westerplatte, Gdansk, Poland (site of the first battle of World War II in 1939).

Of elections and other fables: Guatemala today

by Jim Hodgson

My recent sojourn in Guatemala coincided with the formal launch of Guatemala’s 2023 election campaigns in March. But not everyone who wants to run will be allowed on ballots.

Voters will head to the polls on June 25 to elect a new president, vice-president, 160 congress members, 20 seats in the Central American Parliament, and mayors and counsellors in 340 municipalities. 

Leading the list of those banned from running is Thelma Cabrera, a 52-year-old Indigenous farm-worker who was to be the candidate of the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP). 

She is blocked because her running mate, Jordán Rodas, could not present a letter stating there are no corruption cases open against him—even though other politicians with pending cases were allowed to register. From 2017 until last year, Rodas served as a human rights prosecutor, but he was forced to leave Guatemala because he had allied himself with anti-corruption efforts. Several times this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has warned that new prosecutors are using the judicial system to harass and prosecute justice officials who previously investigated crimes of corruption.

The MLP emerged before the last election four years ago as the “political arm of a social movement”—the Comité de Desarrollo Campesino (CODECA, the Farmworkers Development Committee). 

“We are seeking to transform the country, after all the injustices we have suffered,” Cabrera told Associated Press recently. The MLP’s main objectives are the nationalization of basic services; promotion of a Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly to build a plurinational state from the Indigenous’ autonomies and territories; and recovery of land and water for cultivation and consumption.

But you know who IS allowed to run? Zury Ríos, the daughter of the former military dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the 1982 coup and who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide. The constitution bans close family members of coup organizers from running for office, but in the case of Ríos, the law is simply overlooked.

Campaign posters abound, mounted by a vast array of political parties. 
For about 20 days in March, I was in Guatemala in the company of people from the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking The Silence Network (BTS) and the Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA, Highlands Committee of Small Farmers). You can read about our specific activities with regard to Indigenous land rights and fair-trade coffee on the BTS site.

As I set out to write about these elections, I struggled with how we think about corruption, democracy and, yet again, notions of development. I mean, why should I pick on Guatemala for its apparent failures? Scores of countries seem unable or unwilling to quash corruption or expand democratic participation, much less advance policies to promote the common good (“vivir bien”) or to “rule by obeying” the people (“mandar obedeciendo,” as the Zapatistas in Chiapas have been doing in their communities for almost 30 years now). 

In writing in these blogposts about development, I have tried to emphasize the importance of good political choices in shaping development priorities. This is true weather protecting the greenbelt around Toronto from urban sprawl or creating conditions in Guatemala that might allow people to remain in their homes instead of migrating northward. 

A lot of what gets talked about in Guatemala is corruption–sometimes defined as use of public office for private gain and sometimes as a problem of opacity: “how much do things really cost?” And it’s real: judges, prosecutors, police; government officials (congress members, civil servants). 

But I am uncomfortable using the term without broader context. Sometimes, discourse about corruption is linked to the problem of under-development in ways that make the rich northern countries seem innocent. But please think of debates in the United States, for example, over campaign financing and gerrymandering of voter districts, or in Canada of the coziness of real estate developers with the government of Ontario or of mining companies with their reluctant regulators

Discourse about corruption in Guatemala and elsewhere needs to be examined for bias. I can’t do a complete lit review in this blog space, but here’s an essay (2001) that deconstructs the way the World Bank has used the term. Another researcher (2006) looks at ways “the anti-corruption consensus” leads to omissions that then fail to engage the “core problems of politics and ethics.” People in wealthier countries should examine their own polities—take the log out of their own eyes before remarking on the specks in the eyes of others (Matthew 7:3-5).

Discourse about democracy can also be problematic. Countries of the global North seem content that others observe formal democracy: fairly regular elections, multiple parties, etc.—but put up obstacles when governments in the global South try to change their essential, existential problem: poverty. 

In the face of that overwhelming reality, talk of formal democracy remains unconvincing. People no longer expect “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité” or “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” or even “Peace, Order and Good Government” to trickle down from the Western democracies. Indeed, liberal democracies these days are leaving doors wide open to fascism because liberals are more interested in unrestrained capitalism and in protecting private property than in easing the problems of poverty and growing inequality faced by the wretched of the earth (Frantz Fanon) or even taking on the more focused challenge of addressing root causes of migration while more than 100 million people are on the move.

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].”