Reflections on the visit of Padre Melo

By Miriam Lopez-Villegas

The strength and the modesty of Fr Melo are both indisputable. A question I have often pondered is how can we transmit our message to those who do not work in “our sector” or share our point of view? I was taken by Melo’s ability to do so and received a crash course in how to convey a message to a wide range of audiences with equal parts resolution and diplomacy. It was his ability to build bridges over quicksand.

Fr Melo’s testimony puts front and centre the debt Canadians have to the youth and the environment of Honduras. In his words, “Canada is the name that is most closely associated with the degradation of the natural resources in Honduras.” Something else I found remarkable: even though the two topics he is most asked about are the extraction industry and the persecution of journalists, he made sure that he also spoke about the conditions at the maquiladoras (sweat factories) and the impact these have especially on young women who drop out of school to start work. “Canadian companies not only extract minerals but also sweat: they squeeze the health from the maquiladora workers.”

He is right in saying Canada has not stood by Honduras. But why haven’t we? I do not consider this to be due to lack of empathy, but rather lack of information and of courage (which are intimately related). We need to be better informed in order to defend what we believe in. We feel the weakness of ignorance and fear that our voice will be easily refuted. We also need to acknowledge our limitations. Even if we have a corazón partido (broken heart) and are moved and have the best of the intentions, we receive very little information from Central America, and even less from Honduras. A first step is to give voice to those who know.

Padre Melo speaking in Toronto on 15 August 2016 (Photo: CJI)

Padre Melo speaking in Toronto on 15 August 2016
(Photo: CJI)

In conversation, I told Padre Melo that the news from Honduras seems to come only at critical times for his country (Hurricane Mitch, the 2009 coup, the murder of Berta Cáceres …). For our dialogue, it was also important to say that Canada has undergone pivotal events that are linked to Honduras’ well-being. For example, the merging of Canada’s international assistance with its trade severely compromised the reach of our work overseas. I told him that after years of funding cuts and priority reshuffling, this year the federal government called a nation-wide consultation to re-examine the role of Canada in the world. Canadian Jesuits International participated in this consultation and, as with many other agencies, we have high expectations of the outcome. Only by firmly maintaining professional standards and holding onto optimism can we articulate our recommendations on Sustainable Development Goals to the international cooperation community. We are committed, but the time it takes for us to revisit our positions or begin on a new draft of our international work is too long for those who are affected in the Global South. Some agencies have not been reticent to engage. But I am referring to the vast majority of us: when our attention is divided, we too readily accept the status quo on too many important issues. Do we succumb to the pressure over holding mining companies accountable in the same way that we accept that the hands of the government are tied when selling military vehicles to Gulf countries? What is the wise course of action? Berta Cáceres’s words were clear: ┬íDespertemos Humanidad! ┬íYa no hay tiempo! (“Let’s wake humanity! There’s no time to lose!”).

Padre Melo recognized that Canadians do have a social justice conscience. We are, in his view, aware, interested, critical, analytical and in solidarity. Yet, for us, Honduras is mostly a non-existent country. He noted this detachment, even among the most politically active Canadian people and organizations. “You have been present in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, but too many skip Honduras.” It is true. It must be hard for him to see this. It reminds me of the feeling I had in Haiti, of passing through downtown Jacmel to bring construction materials to Lamontagne. We did not have a permit to build in “Zone 2” where Jacmel is located, and where rural communities badly needed shelter. Yet these are the dilemmas that we should not ignore. True, we do have limited capacity and no agency will ever be able to respond to all crises. But this makes it all the more important to make referrals, and to engage in movements and advocacy to accompany direct assistance programs. We live in a global community and, to use an Ignatian term, our examen should be: are our actions promoting human rights and protecting the environment? If we allow ourselves to fall short of minimum standards in the production and consumption of our food, goods and services, we are perpetuating global inequality. If, on the other hand, we are bold in our corporate social responsibility and insist that every project be aligned with humanitarian principles (that’s in my job description!), we are building a better world for all. This, I believe.

As Padre Melo was talking, I thought that our minds need to work like the lens of a camera. We must zoom in to appreciate details and zoom out to see the panorama. Very regrettably, much of what Padre Melo said about Honduras, about the conditions that have induced the state of crisis in Honduras, are also present in my country of origin, Mexico. How much do we talk in humanitarian circles about better build-back or investing in early-warning systems or disaster risk management? Would hurricane straps and evacuation routes be considered alarmist? Can we learn from the experiences of one Latin American country to mitigate the risks another is facing? I support trade, and I support trade agreements; however, for several decades negotiations have included fine-print conditions. When governments comply with these conditions, the very high cost to people is passed over – a cost as high as life itself.

Padre Melo stressed the damage the neoliberal agenda has done, as Latin American governments flaunt an image of progress and readiness to compete in each of their countries, but advances in industry, technology and the educational system actually reach only a minority, mostly concentrated in cities, and neglect rural and poor people. Canada welcomes opportunities for investment and collaboration. But are we being too naïve? Do we lack information or is this information too uncomfortable? If we agree to play a major role in other countries, how can we conciliate opportunity with responsibility? What is our corporate examen at the end of the day?

"The voice that is with you" – Radio Progreso sign (Photo: L. Hansen SJ)

“The voice that is with you” – Radio Progreso sign
(Photo: L. Hansen SJ)

After offering a clear summary of the context, Padre Melo provided specific ideas for supporting Radio Progreso. I had the honour to be “on air” with Melo and other supporters at the end of the day, debriefing about his talk and enjoying Ecuadorian, Mexican and Honduran music. His most urgent call was to help expand Radio Progreso’s audience, as this is the best protection we can provide. Figuratively and literally, this protection is matter of life and death for the radio station and for Padre Melo and many on his team.

This week I was in the presence of a person that exudes deep reflection and experience and who knows how to work in collaboration. This was all the more evident when he summarized the Jesuit strategy in Honduras, which includes a large base of lay women and men promoting the recovery of their country. This strategy is comprehensive and its components could be guidelines for social justice elsewhere. It encompasses crucially important actions: the collection of information by consulting people and leaders directly; capacity building and discussions around governance; integration of the media; promotion of cultural, artistic and sport activities for youth; and finally, addressing serious flaws in the electoral and political systems.

Among these actions, there are two that I don’t think we can emphasize enough. The first, the use of media to promote social justice, is a must. We have to properly weigh the value of radio and social media and invest in independent productions and independent channels to ensure quality. To get the attention of those we have not yet reached, alternative voices cannot be seen as amateur or lacking in professional rigour. For general audiences, it is no longer merely a question of being informed or of ignoring what is happening. Rather it is being shielded or manipulated by well-funded mainstream productions. Alternative voices are competing against these. They need our support to be heard more loudly and widely.

The second action is promoting programs for youth. This is not a luxury; arts and sports are not superfluous. We cannot neglect young people. Attending to their needs is quite possibly the most efficient (including cost-efficient) way to resolve conflicts and build peace. It is one of the best investments a society can make. The world needs more kindness, tolerance and courage, and youth are so good at exercising them!

Miriam Lopez-Villegas is International Programs Coordinator at Canadian Jesuits International.