Soon after my return to Canada from my first visit to the Dominican Republic in 1983, I saw Peter Weir’s brilliant film, In a Year of Living Dangerously. As a socialist option in Indonesia collapses through local intrigue and U.S. intervention, Linda Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, asks obsessively: “What is to be done?”
In the wake of my encounters with Haitian cane-cutters and Dominican and Haitian activists, it became my question too.
Billy Kwan’s question alludes to Lenin’s 1902 manifesto that called for a new vanguard organization that would be dedicated to taking power. Lenin took his title from two earlier works by Russian authors. In 1863, Nicholas Chernyshevsky issued a manifesto that imagined a new social order. Twenty years later, Leo Tolstoy took the same title to offer a vision of the renewal of individual moral responsibility.
But the question actually comes from the Bible. In Luke 3:10—part of the lectionary readings in many churches this Sunday, Dec. 5, the second Sunday of Advent—the people ask John the Baptist: “What are we to do?” And John answered, “If you have two coats, give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, do the same.”
Later, in Luke 12:16-21, the question appears in Jesus’ story about the rich fool: “There was a rich man and his land had produced a good harvest.He thought: ‘What shall I do? For I am short of room to store my harvest.’So this is what he planned: ‘I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones to store all this grain, which is my wealth. Then I may say to myself: My friend, you have a lot of good things put by for many years. Rest, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’ But God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be taken from you; tell me who shall get all you have put aside?’ This is the lot of the one who stores up riches instead of amassing for God.”
Life is too short for the poor to wait for wealth to trickle across the greatest breach between rich and poor that this planet has ever known. While some of us in the North think we have the luxury of sitting back to see how things go—except that climate change seems to have finally got our attention—the impoverished must always take risks and try something new.
Since the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 and despite the coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet three years later, the left in power in Latin America has tried to govern according to the rules of liberal democracy, arguably without sufficient regard for the roles of money, foreign interference and private media companies.
Confronted by poverty, after “lost decades” of development, social movements in Latin America began to develop alternative policy approaches in the 1990s. Smart politicians paid attention and in one country after another—imperfectly, with lots of mistakes—the “formal democracies” of old began to be transformed.
That “pink wave” did not last. A military coups in Honduras and Bolivia, parliamentary coups (or “lawfare”) in Paraguay and Brazil, devastating impacts of U.S.-led (backed by Canada) sanctions in Venezuela, the power of money in Ecuador and petty corruption all weakened the drive for lasting change.
A second progressive wave?
In October 2020, voters in Bolivia restored the “Movement for Socialism” (MAS) party to power just a year after the coup. In June, voters in Peru elected a rural teacher, Pedro Castillo, to be their president. In November, Venezuela’s ruling PSUV party won almost all state-governor races, and in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega was re-elected largely because of policies that favour the impoverished majority. Later in November, voters in Honduras chose Xiomara Castro, whose husband Mel Zelaya had been overthrown in a coup backed by the United States and Canada in 2009, to be their new president.
The next test comes in Chile on Dec. 19, when a Pinochet-loyalist, José Antonio Kast, faces a centre-left candidate, Gabriel Boric, in a second-round run-off vote.
No country is the same as another, and specific issues pertain to each of the elections noted above. But the big loser in most of these votes is the United States, together with ever more deferential Canada. Latin Americans are again choosing leaders who do not have the interests of the United States at heart.
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.
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.
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.