Neo-colonial inertia and development plans for Central America

The shopping mall model of development (Honduras, 2009)

In October 2008, in a classroom in Ciudad Juárez—one of the most violent cities on the planet but on the border with the richest country—an international ecumenical group considered the latest official development plan for Mexico and Central America.* 

After hearing from Raúl Moreno, an economist from El Salvador long active in the Hemispheric Social Alliance of groups that questioned free trade and other top-down, capital-intensive development schemes, I wrote in a report:

“When you look at the extreme violence occurring in Juárez, the de-population of rural Mexico, the official development plans in Central America (and consequent dislocation of rural populations), and the extreme violence carried out in Colombia to drive rural populations from their land, you come away with the impression of a development model that has been continuously applied since the days of the “wild, wild west” in the United States. The model is now extended all the way to Colombia and beyond: drive Indigenous peoples on to ever more marginal lands; destroy small farmers; insert mines and hydro-electric projects where convenient to the interests of large capital; and reward allies by granting them the lands of the displaced.”

I suppose it’s progress of a sort that the masters now see the need to incorporate ecological goals into their development plans.

But these plans have at their core a neoliberal notion of development: cut protection for workers, reinforce free trade agreements, and protect private-sector investment. 

The latest plan, promoted by President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, does not correspond to the real needs and aspirations of the people: land redistribution, legal reform, ecological justice, human rights, and for Indigenous peoples: full implementation of free, prior and informed consent.

On Monday, April 26, the same day that Harris held a video conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, the progressive Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada questioned the U.S. approach. During the U.S.-led Earth Day summit that was held a few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support. 

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on ejidos and other community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power between 1988 and 2018 in Mexico.

In her meeting with Giammattei, the Vice-president Harris announced $310 million in U.S. government support for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This is in addition to $4 billion announced by President Biden on the day of his inauguration that is intended to “address the root causes of migration” from Central America.

Graffiti in Honduras, 2009: “Long live the people in resistance.”

“Without strong collective action, this will mean MORE money for militarization and neoliberal economic policies that will continue to displace people from their lands and communities,” said a statement from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). CISPES, joined by other solidarity and religious groups, demanded an end to U.S. police and military assistance in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and an end to development policies that “promote climate change, privatize natural resources and public services, violate workers’ rights and destroy Indigenous and communal lands.”

One of the last people I met before the pandemic lockdown began in mid-March 2020 was Giovanni Batz (G’io B’atz), a U.S.-Guatemalan researcher. He was in Toronto for a two-day conference about Central American migrants and refugees at York University. In this essay, he denounces the latest U.S. plan and explains why it will fail. By supporting further militarization and neoliberal development in Central America, the United States contributes to displacement. “When discussing climate change, hunger, and poverty as causes of migration,” he writes, “land redistribution, reform, and rights must be discussed as solutions.” 

La Jornada’s editorial noted that Biden-Harris roll-out is through a series of bilateral meetings. “The White House has not accepted multilateral treatment of human displacement and the environmental crisis, the newspaper said. 

It reflects the historic preference of the White House to negotiate individually with each country, a terrain in which the superpower can more easily impose its terms and conditions. As it confronts the migration issue, we hope that the Democratic administration will go beyond the colonial inertia that shapes every foreign policy action from a position of advantage over and against the other, and that it will recognize that behind the migration flows there are economic and social components apart from climate change which must, nevertheless, be confronted with the same urgency as global warming.

* Plan Puebla Panamá had just given way that year to the Proyecto Mesoamérica (the Project for the Integration and Development of Mesoamerica), which would later become the Comprehensive Development Plan and then the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS).

A faith that does justice

The Risen Christ: Detail from the central mural of the Iglesia Santa Maria de los Angeles en el Barrio Riguero, Managua (Jim Hodgson, 1984)

Things that have been different in the past can be different again in the future.

If, like me, you are distressed by actions of religious extremists and their allies among Canada’s bishops against global partners of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P), then it is useful to remember how some forward-looking people were inspired by the Second Vatican Council and by social and political change in the global South to create the organization back in the 1960s.

Today I share with you the text of an interview I did in February 1989 with Bill Smith, a Scarboro Missions priest who had just finished 15 years of service as D&P’s Central America project officer. Bill died less than three months later, just after arriving in Brazil. 

I share Bill’s words to me that day in Montreal 32 years ago as a sign of what has been possible, and of what can be possible yet again. 

The interview was published in Scarboro Missions magazine, September 1989, pp. 4-7.

Bill: I was 50 years old last November, so I begin by saying this is quite a remarkable phenomenon to have lived so long in a world where the majority of people do not even attain early adolescence. It is not at all remarkable in the North American continent but it is very remarkable if set in the framework of what we traditionally refer to as the Third World.

To place in context where I am and the journey that I have made, we would have to go back almost 30 years to Vatican II. A revolutionary process was underway in Christianity by the early 1960s. Women and men in the Church had become identified and involved in life and death struggles of primarily peasant farm peoples with whom they had been working, and with the struggles of oppressed people. Out of this context emerges later on in history what they refer to as the theology of liberation. This theology denounces injustice and announces that the gospel is involved in bringing about change and justice. Vatican II was a moment in this century when the Catholic church which over a period of hundreds of years had distanced itself from the radical message of the gospel, got in touch with its roots again, and that has made a profound change throughout Christianity and throughout secular society as well. It certainly made a profound change in myself.

The articulation of that “new vision” of society and the now famous encyclical of Paul VI, The Progress of Peoples, state that the Church does not have economic answers, nor does the church have any particular model of society, but only suggests that men and women working together must build a society based on the logic of the poor majority. There was also the serious question of the absolute right to private property on which our North American society is based.

We witness this radical change in the thinking and the living of the gospel message because the Catholic Church is no long a white, middle-class Western and European church but is a peripheral church made up of men and women who are not attached to the status-quo of the present economic system that we see primarily in the West called Capitalism, but who are looking for and demanding, in the name of their faith, a radical change in the structures of society.

So today, I no long think that mission is primarily the proclamation of a message that is assented to in faith, but today it is an evangelization based on a faith that does justice. So mission is no longer considered as only the work of missionaries, who leave their country to proclaim the gospel in distant lands.

When I first went to Brazil, I thought that mission would be working in the Amazon. But what I had originally thought, in my simplicity, that there were frontiers and barriers between countries, was again part of a mythology. I discovered that there was a social, economic and ecological vision of men and women that was being imposed by the powerful over the weak. I have also witnessed a church that has done a self-critique and had realized that it does not own the gospel, and does not own the historical Jesus. I have seen the Magnificat lived in the sense of the ‘great’ being questioned and pushed to the wall by the ‘small’ who have been lifted up. I think that is amply illustrated in the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Despite literally millions of dollars per day being put into machines of death, the men and women of Nicaragua and El Salvador are building a society precisely that comes out of this new awareness of social justice. These are poor people, suffering people, who are the victims of an unjust and aggressive war. 

A different era of North-South cooperation: Bishop Bernard Hubert, Longueuil;  Fr. Bill Smith, SFM; Bishop Remi de Roo, Victoria; Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, São Paulo.

I would say that the major changes that I discovered in working in Central America over the last few years has been primarily a tremendous awareness of people, of men and women and peasant farmers who are capable of seeing very clearly what is going on. Where is the creativity taking place in the world today? Men and women in the Third World see clearly and understand that there is a structure that has been put in place. And that poor housing and lack of schools and lack of health facilities and lack of education is no indication of any kind of inferiority. But it is a provoked phenomenon. It is something that is determined. What I get very excited about is this tremendous creativity where poor people are looking a life and asking, Why can’t everybody have a decent life? Why can’t we build an economy in which people don’t have to be destroyed through pesticides? Why can we not build a society where justice applies to all, and where women are not chattels and objects but full human beings with all the rights that men have? And why cannot religion, instead of being something that suffocates and destroys creativity, be the source of new energy, integration and wholesomeness?

Growth takes place when people begin to come to grips with the real issues in society, when we get beyond the guilt of feeling responsible for what has happened in the Third World, to where we feel we are co-responsible for transforming our Third World here in Canada and all the other Third Worlds. People are coming together and trying to understand, moving beyond mythology to an understanding of society. That is what I see having happened in this period for the past 30 years.

I think that Development and Peace has fundamentally held on to this meaning of the encyclical The Progress of Peoples and realized quite prophetically that social change is fundamentally all about empowering people and not about technology or funds or even personnel, that transformation takes place when people begin to come together and share. Solidarity, so beautifully stated in Nicaragua, is the tenderness of peoples. So that if you are going to have social change then you have to have the empowerment of people who are going to bring about change.

Q: Who are the major actors to bring about change in society in Central America?

It is the majority of people who are the peasant farmers. Women and men involved in alternate forms of education for the ordinary people, since to be ‘educated’ has been primarily reserved to the elite. What Development and Peace does, and I think does well and with a great deal of respect is to accompany groups, communities and other popular organizations in Central America who are involved in the very democratic process of resolving their own problems through new forms of popular education. So we don’t tell them what to do. They present projects to Development and Peace for financial help. So that is one leg. Development and Peace walks on two legs. Its other leg is here in Canada because it has to be involved in what is happening here. If you are not, what kind of credibility can you have by being in another country? Thus, Development and Peace has to conscientize or educate us Canadians here in Canada. This happens by bringing peoples, spokespersons, men and women to be with us. It is those two legs or accompaniments that make for an exciting development journey.

We must note, however, that the people in the Third World are no longer talking about development. They are talking about liberation and they are talking about liberation in a broader context—social, economic, political and religious liberation. And so the evangelist goes out and ends up being evangelized. The teacher becomes the student. The Third World peoples do need us as we need them to walk together, to listen to each other, to be strengthened, to be empowered mutually, to bring about precisely this vast change that we need in our own Canadian society. St. Augustine says Hope had two beautiful daughters: one of them called Anger because of the way things are and the other called Courage to work to change things, to bring about change.

That is what I have learned, what the Third World has taught me, and I would hope that at the end of all of this, if indeed there are any titles left to be handed out, I and others would be entitled to the name Companion. I think that is what Development and Peace is, I think that is what Scarboro is and it is something that I aspire to as well.

Q: What did you do in Central America?

I was a bridge, a contact between farmers’ groups, unions, women’s groups, health groups, popular education groups, human rights groups and Canadians. Solidarity has to be personalized. I mean people have to sit down and break bread together. That is what Companion means, and that is when Jesus was recognized on the road to Emmaus. He walked with them, he talked with them but it was when they broke bread they knew Him.

What is important is the quality of life here and in the Third World and the exchanges and dialogue that takes place. I carry in my heart so many wonderful people and I think that is what is important. So much so that now I can go back to Brazil in a totally renewed, energized way and do exactly the same thing. Nothing but to be present, which is to accompany, and to come back to my own people once in a while and say, “You know folks there are really doing some tremendous things right now,” in São Paulo or wherever it is one happens to be.

Q: What were some of the successes you experienced?

Well, I think that the beautiful successes are the struggles of the people in Guatemala, people in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, people who have been faithful to their commitment to bring about social justice. Part of the work, it seems to me, is to bring people to another level of awareness that life is precious and that there are things that we can do. We are not helpless. Also at home, to denounce the violations of human rights; to open our borders to receive people who are driven from their homes; to be courageous enough to denounce international terrorism; to be courageous enough to make available sources of information so as to counter the lies that are put forward in the press. The important thing, I’ve learned, is that we are not helpless. And as Nicaraguans have taught us, those who struggle never die. They are always present. We will be remembered because we are part of a process. A process that did not begin with us, a process that does not end with us. The responsibility we have is handing on that mandate to others.

Q: What do you think Canadians can learn from your experience?

That we are not to be paralyzed or overcome with guilty but we must begin to work here. It is to the degree that we are involved in our own community here in Canada that we can understand what other people are doing. There is communion that is possible. We can understand each other because we have had the same experience. There is, and very much so, a new awareness and commitment in Canada to come to grips with the real issues in society, to repair the damage that has been done. So there is a great deal of hope, that is what’s so exciting.

Migration and the development prescription: Let’s do better

A new president is in office in Washington. For the sake of immigrants, LGBTIQ people, women, and racialized and religious minorities, one cannot help but be glad of this change, and of the opportunities that are re-opened for people who were excluded or attacked during his predecessor’s term. 

But once again, the notion of development is again prescribed as a remedy for whatever it is that drives migrants—notably and urgently, those from Central America—towards the southern border of the United States. 

On his first day in office, President Joseph Biden’s administration promised to invest $4 billion in the region to address issues of security and employment. A new immigration reform bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, was introduced. Aid and investment from the United States, it is hoped, will encourage people to stay home.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Jim Hodgson photo)

Two days later, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, spoke with Mr. Biden and concurred. “We believe that the causes of the migration phenomenon must receive attention. People do not abandon their families, their towns, their cultures, out of pleasure. They do it because of need. We want migration to be optional, not forced, that all the people of the Central American nations and our own have options, that they be able to get ahead where they were born, where their families are, where their cultures are. And for that, development cooperation is very important.”

With history as a guide, however, we can see some problems with the prescription. Two decades ago, another new president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, launched the Plan Puebla Panamá for regional economic development. The name has changed several times since then, depending on which countries were in and which were excluded because their citizens had made electoral choices that were unacceptable to donors. Airports were expanded, highways widened, mines dug and hydro-electric dams built, but still, people left by the thousands, tens of thousands, especially from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. 

Those large-scale projects enable the rich, expanding the divide between rich and poor within the region and indeed, everywhere. And no one is acknowledging that among the root causes are wounds left from US-sponsored coups and civil wars, along with deportations of alleged criminals into unstable systems—or rather, into systems whose only sector capable of their social integration is the criminal one.

We know what to do differently. Development assistance should always be focused on building “economies of solidarity”—innovative agriculture that respects ecology, local markets, cooperatives and credit unions, leadership by women, full consultation with communities and civil society organizations. Indigenous people and farmers should never be driven from their land by transnational corporations—a key consequence of a generation of free trade agreements in Mexico, Central America and Colombia and driver of migration—but rather trade and investment should benefit all people.

With this post (during International Development Week), I am reviving a blog I that I used while I worked with The United Church of Canada as its Latin America/Caribbean program coordinator. Please look here for more information about me.