Bearing Witness in 2014

December 2014 171What has been will be again,

What has been done will be done again;

There is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

None of what the insightful and passionate contributors to this blog have written about this year has come up out of nowhere.  Of course there have been issues and incidents that have hit the main-stream news – elections in six Latin American countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panamá), the worst drought in decades affecting Central America, the surge in child migrants from the “Northern Triangle” (Honduras-El Salvador-Guatemala) heading towards the U.S., and the brutal massacre of 43 students in Mexico.

But the news surfaces from the everyday realities of the communities and organizations that we as MCC have had the enormous privilege of connecting with and walking beside.  These stories are rooted in the conditions and contradictions that we live with across Latin America all of the time.  The micro and macro social, political and economic forces at work haven’t gone away just because their manifestations stop making headlines.  So we will continue to bear witness to them, even though they are not new.

  • Security based on militarization and right to have big guns, instead of restoration of right relationships.
  • Economic “development” based on exploitation and exportation, leaving local communities empty handed.
  • UN troops in a country without a war, bringing cholera instead of peace
  • Rapid adjustments to policy and practice when “crises” arise, without addressing root causes of issues like migration, “natural” disasters and social conflict.
  • Election campaigns inflated with precarious promises.

At the end of the day, many of these issues stem from the dominant assumption that people, nature and all of the Earth’s resources are factors in a big economic equation where a few master players manage to achieve the greatest personal economic and political gain at any cost for the rest.

Shall we feel overwhelmed and discouraged by these systems beyond our control?  Do we really have no control?  Or can we daily choose to realign our assumptions and “Remember our Creator” (Ecclesiastes 12:1) – remember that all of Creation has been made with great worth and profound dignity for us to celebrate and care for day to day.  We can keep stepping outside of the dominant assumption by recognizing that it is false, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).

In 2015, we will continue to uphold the many people and communities who have raised their voice with the good news of alternative ways of living throughout this past year.  I will name a few, but I truly celebrate the many…

  • Jorge Montes and the Mountain Communities in El Carmen, Bolivia (Colombia) who have chosen forgiveness and nonviolence in the face of threats and imprisonment. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of God.
  • The Ocos community in San Marcos, Guatemala, who have repeatedly sought dialogue with those who are destroying their land and water sources, and who recognize the need to respect and care for Creation. Blessed are the gentle for they will inherit the earth.
  • The Haitian Collective for the Defense of the Right to Housing and community members in Vilaj Mozayik and Canaan who boldly affirm everyone’s right to a home with dignity. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
  • The family members and community in Nogales that persistently remembers the death of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. In a context where many have been killed, they remind us that each life taken matters.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Ex-combatants like Don Mario who are actively part of building a culture of peace and promoting reconciliation today, not waiting for the future. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.

-Bonnie Klassen is the MCC Area Director for South America and Mexico

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Bike Reflections

Godswill Muzarabani is from from Zimbabwe and is serving with the Seed program in Cali, Colombia. This post was originally published on the Seed Colombia blog

I am glad my friend introduced to me to one of Cali’s best craftsmen. In just a couple of hours, I witnessed him, carefully selecting pieces of dismembered scrap bicycle parts. It seems as though he was assembling a jigsaw puzzle as he double checked every piece.  Finally from his personal 3 metre scrap pile, he assembled an entire rainbow bicycle in the form of an artistic fusion of old and newish parts. Unfortunately, I had to come back the next morning to pick up the master piece, as he insisted that he had to “clothe it,” which meant spray painting the bicycle.

Gods bike-2Since then bike riding is my most fruitful hobby. I get to reflect a lot whilst I’m cycling. Recently I realised that my bicycle resembles my neighbourhood. Aguablanca has a rare beauty, a mix of different infrastructures, some neighbourhoods have new buildings and paved streets, some have old abandoned flats with dusty roads, some sites are always under construction, and there are a lot of illegal neighbourhoods (these are areas that have massive squatter camps were homeless people camp in overnight). Above all, the cultural diversity, music and smiles spray paint away all the scrap and underlying problems.

To me the social injustice is apparent as the inconsistency of living standards is clearly visible. Just a few blocks away from my neighbourhood is a squatter camp, which is full of homeless people. They spend the day dodging the police, going through the trash for recyclable materials to earn themselves a living, whilst some dine on drug concoctions. This is the scenario that has been a huge challenge to me. What is supposed to be my stance as a Christian? How do we serve in an environment with so many social indifferences? I feel as though there is little I can do.

I imagined scores of displaced people, drug addicts, and victims of the system, questioning Jesus. He would be their advocate and he would directly confront the authorities with wit and sincerity. Jesus did far much more than advocacy, he touched a man that he knew would be illegal to touch (Matthew 8:1-3). Jesus even reached out to the gentiles at that time these were the untouchables and by society believed to be unclean (John 4). He advocated for the poor (Mathew 25:31-46). Though it seems like an impossible task I think it is our social responsibility, these are type of steps we should take.

Gods bike-3In Zimbabwe we have a popular phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” the direct translation would be “A person’s humanity is the peoples,” this phrase is used to explain our role as individuals in our societies. This means that we should not give a cold shoulder to any injustice or problems that we see in our communities. Christian service does not end in within the Sunday service, neither is it for members only; hence advocacyis a form of service which Christians could adopt. The Acronym below is quoted from Dr. James E. Read’s[i] book “Jesus Justice.” It illustrates a form in which Christians could advocate. Though I still struggle with the reality of my community I still keep my hope in Jesus Christ the prince of peace.


Addresses issues of injustice

Designs strategies to alter systems

Values vulnerable people as agents of change

Offers expertise to implement objectives

Convinces power structures to alter policies

Accesses like-minded people to join the cause

Changes policies, practices and perceptions

Yearns for justice that leads to sustainability

Gods bike-1


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November 2014 141

By Anna Vogt, a service worker in MCC Colombia currently working with Justapaz, a Mennonite organization working for justice, peace and non-violent action in Colombia. Originally posted at:

On street corners and under shade trees, functionaries from  Bogota held court almost everyday in Mampujan. Dressed in vests proclaiming their identity as members of the Unidad de Victimas, or the Organization of the American States, or the Sena or universities or whatever, they passed out attendance sheets and lectured the community on how to live life. Some were helpful. Most were not. Whatever the case, the community continued to attempt to live their normal lives into between all of the interruptions, but it was hard, especially for community leaders.

November 2014 072_2The day after the especially traumatic commemoration of 2012, multiple community members asked me why the leaders had failed at organizing the activity. “If only more people from outside had been involved, it would have been a success,” everyone proclaimed. As much as I tried to tell people that the majority of the disaster was because outside organizations had taken control from the leaders, not given it to them, it took the community a long time to regain trust in their leadership. The constant arrival of outsiders had reiterated the belief that Mampujan was simply not capable of doing things on their own.

Last week, I was cruising down the San Juan River in Choco. We drifted past a billboard proclaiming the birthday celebration of a FARC commander: a few kilometres downstream, a building on the bank was adorned in bold black spray paint proclaiming “ELN: 50 years of resistance.”  We stepped out of a church service in the community of Bebedo, to find that an armed actor of the ELN had handed out pamphlets proclaiming a 48 hour armed strike starting at midnight the next day, paralyzing the entire San Juan region. Anyone found travelling would have their vehicle burnt or worse.

November 2014 196

Yet the next morning, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of a massacre that partially displaced the community and left 10 dead, local women from a traditional Afro-Colombian singing group were up at five am to greet the day with songs. As we walked through the community singing, pausing for prayer and remembrance in front of each house that lost a loved one, community members lit the candles of each person who joined the march. With traditional dances, poetry and more songs, Bebedo remembered violence, yet celebrated life and hope for the future. The community demanded state attention and reparations, while recognizing their own abilities to move forward, even in the middle of a difficult context.

November 2014 175I found it hard,however, to enjoy the beauty of the moment and the hope of the community in the midst of conflict, because I was filled with shame.  I was doing something I swore that I would never do: entering a community I did not know, trying to control a local event, and leaving.  For a number of different reasons, I felt like my presence was disempowering local leadership, not helping, even though the event was technically a success.

November 2014 519The day before, we had stopped to accompany a children’s activity in the upriver community of Andagoya. Just across the river from the church where the activity was held, the giant fuel tanks of the mine that used to control the region. Run by a US gold mining company, the mine dominated the life of Andagoya from the 1920s until the late 70s. Along with removing most of the gold from the region, the mine also created an apartheid system in the community: whites, with their hospital and english school resided on one side of the river, while  local Afro-Colombians, the majority mine labourers, lived in poverty on the other side. (Today, Canadian and Brazilian companies are increasingly taking over the mining activities in the region.)

November 2014 036_2As the mothers left the activity with their children, they turned to thank me for everything I had done. I had done nothing and was not ever sure why I was actually included in the activity. But my presence, and the colour of skin, ensured that I received the credit, not the actual organizers: the community members.

For two years, while organizations entered and left Mampujan everyday, I stayed. I worked with a local organization, Sembrandopaz, and local community leaders. I don’t think I did anything remarkable, but I was there and did not try to control the community. Instead, I documented and learnt about life from the inside, not the outside. It was the only thing I could do, yet it allowed me to understand community dynamics and complexities in a way no one from outside could. I was able to share that information with other members of MCC that did not live on a local level to help complement our organizational understanding of the community and therefore, our approach.

November 2014 260Yet life within the community also made me extremely hesitant about doing anything, especially on my own, because I saw the ramifications lived out in families and local leadership everyday, in a way that people from outside could not.

Both the Montes de Maria and Choco are complicated situations with a long history of outside intervention. Any attempt to come in and “help,” especially from outside, can have serious undertones of colonization, especially when combined with western power dynamics, structures and money,and without an understanding of actual community dynamics. In an area dominated by armed groups, outsiders and their activities can also place communities at risk.

November 2014 245-2This doesn’t mean never going to communities; rather, I want my sense of shame to propel me to examine how to truly accompany in a way that empowers the community, not myself. Communities have agency and remarkable resilience; my activities should be supporting those abilities, including combating structural injustices at home, rather than making life more challenging for locals than it already is.

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Weekly Round-Up: December 12

November 2014 058_2

Photo: Anna Vogt

Debating the School of the Americas

Should the School of the Americas be closed? To its critics, the school, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in 2001, is an institution smeared in blood, a place of torture training and coup plotting. How much of this perception of the School of the Americas (SOA) is fair?

People’s Summit in Lima Envisions Bottom-Up Movement for Global Climate Justice

Social movements and civil societies from around the world are gathered in Lima, Peru this week with an ambitious goal: to “develop an alternative form of development, one that respects the limits and regenerative capacities of Mother Earth and tackles the structural causes of climate change.”

On International Human Rights Day, the Fight for Indigenous Land and Autonomy in Honduras

A fierce social movement, composed of many sectors, is pushing back to protect democracy, lives, and political rights. Indigenous peoples, including Garifuna, Lenca, Pech, Miskito, Maya Chortí, and Tolupan, are asserting their human right to autonomy, territory, and cultural survival.

Elections on hold in Haiti: stability versus democracy

Democracy in Haiti is again at risk, as a fierce political battle has erupted, preventing the scheduling of new elections. The United Nations (UN), the Organization of American States (OAS), along with the U.S. and French governments have all called for the adoption of a new electoral law, which would allow the elections to go forward. However, given the deeply flawed nature of the present Haitian political system, it is far from clear if just holding elections will accomplish much.

Bolivian women fight back against climate of violence

The women of María Auxiliadora have joined together to support each other in liberating themselves from gender violence and to gain independence. But their unity has also resulted in a community that responds to climate change by drawing on their resilience and developing new economic and social systems that promote sustainability and justice – for example by  growing and preserving their own food,  sharing communal tasks, and working to conserve resources. The experiences of María Auxiliadora can inspire us to build alternatives – ones which not only respond to unjust climate impacts but also to the violence and discrimination that women face in other areas of their lives.

Bolivia after the floods: ‘the climate is changing; we are living that change’

Bolivia’s worst floods in 60 years submerged villages, ruined crops and destroyed homes. Some indigenous communities in the jungle are adapting to a more resilient way of living; others are forced out to the cities

Climate change in Nicaragua pushes farmers into uncertain world

“Large-scale agriculture isn’t the answer,” argues Rafael Henríquez, a spokesman for Oxfam Nicaragua. “Ironically, it’s the poorest farmers that are closest to the agro-ecological model, although it’s more through necessity than environmental conviction.”

Guatemala Increases Mining Royalties on Transnational Companies

The Guatemalan government has modified a 20-year-old mining law to raise the royalties from from 1 percent to 10 percent. Leaders from the Guatemala’s Chamber of Commerce have announced that they seek to legally challenge the 2015 budget, which was approved by the Guatemalan lawmakers last month. Under the details of the new budget heavier taxes will be imposed on several private sector industries including mining companies in order to boost government revenue.

Black Lives Matter in Colombia

As thousands across the United States emptied into the streets demanding an end to police brutality and state violence in the wake of a grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in late November, a group of twenty-two black women from northern Cauca in Colombia were marching on foot to the nation’s capital of Bogotá to assert that black lives also matter in Colombia.

Drug Trafficking as a “Connected Political Crime”

This week’s debate raised a question that remains unsettled in Colombia, where for decades illegal armed groups with political goals have supported themselves by participating in the drug trade. When it comes time for these groups’ members to demobilize, how should the legal system deal with their drug trafficking crimes? Can they be considered “connected” to the political crime of rebellion, or must they be considered separately as criminal offenses?

Mexican students: first murder victim identified amid continued protests

Mora came from the village of El Pericón in the municipality of Tecuanapa. Six others also came from the same municipality. Omar Chavez, a doctoral student from Mexico City who was in the march and has family in the town, said a wake for was being held for Mora in Tecuanapa on Saturday night, “but it is a symbolic wake, because there is no body”. Chavez said he expected the identification of the remains to intensify the already acute levels of tension between local communities and the authorities in the area.


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Fooling The Sun, Not Fooling The Rain

On Monday, November 24, the MCC U.S. Washington Office hosted a conference entitled “Fooling the Sun, Not Fooling the Rain: Housing and Shelter in Haiti 5 Years After the Earthquake.” The event was held at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, where MCC partnered with Church World Service to bring together Haitian activists, officials, and academics for dialogue around the current housing crisis in Haiti and possible solutions.  Four panels discussed a range of issues during the course of the day.  Ruth Keidel Clemens, MCC U.S. program director, provided opening remarks.

Dr. Robert Maguire of GWU’s Elliott School began by outlining the numerous problems with housing in Haiti.  More than 1.5 million people were rendered homeless by the January 2010 earthquake, which destroyed 20 percent of the houses in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and largest city.  More than 85,000 people are still living in displacement camps now, five years later, despite the work of a large number of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Haitian government.

The first panel featured two MCC partners, Jackson Doliscar of FRAKKA (Force for Reflection and Action on the Cause of Housing) and Patrice Florvilus of Defenders of the Oppressed (DOP).  The panel discussed the problems that Haitians living in temporary housing face and repeatedly criticized the government for its role in these problems.  They pointed out that while these people face many challenges, the government has exacerbated their difficult lives by brutally evicting people from temporary housing camps.  After presenting several specific instances of these abuses, Mr. Florivus stated that this was rarely presented to the outside world by the government or the media.  He, along with many other panelists, also pointed out that the Haitian constitution recognizes the right of its people to have decent housing in Article 22.

Haiti Housing

The later panels discussed and debated a number of different issues relating to the housing crisis in Haiti.  A common theme that emerged was that poor planning and communication has resulted in a shortage of housing or inadequate housing, something that Milo Milfort of Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) detailed extensively.  Another MCC partner, Claudette Werleigh of ITECA (Institute of Technology and Animation) noted that the NGOs who provided immediate results received priority over those with long term solutions.  Her thoughts were echoed by Dr. Mark Schuller of Northern Illinois University in the following panel, who discussed how some NGOs are ultimately not accountable to people in Haiti.  This, he said, was a key problem in the foreign aid work being done in Haiti.  He believes that the best model is one where foreign NGOs partner with local communities and place a high value on their concerns and feedback.

While the Haitian government’s policies took some withering criticism during the day, Haitian government officials participated in two of the four panels, as well as in the discussions that followed after each of the four panels’ presentations. It was also noted that burden of accountability was placed on all actors in the housing crisis, including international donors and NGOs. We all must take a hard look at the model that has been used in Haiti and learn from the mistakes. France Francois of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) complimented MCC and CWS on having such a wide range of organizations working in Haiti present at one conference, something she says is unfortunately rarely accomplished.

Originally Published on the MCC Washington Memo

For more information, visit one of the resources created at the conference, Housing and Shelter in Haiti, a site full of  informational documents, as well as powerpoint presentations and videos from the conference.

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Weekly Round-Up December 5, 2014

Quibdo, Colombia. "Our desire for peace can never be kidnapped." Photo by Anna Vogt

Quibdo, Colombia. “Our will for peace can never be kidnapped.” Photo by Anna Vogt

Mining for smartphone minerals is eating up farmland

The problem for many food-producing communities in developing countries is that extraction industries can encroach on lands that they rely on, but don’t always hold legal titles for. Female farmers, pastoralists and those who rely on forests are all particularly vulnerable.

How Organized Crime & Corruption Intersect in LatAm

However, ranking corruption within a country based on the power of organized crime groups may result in a very different list. It is one thing to have officials asking for bribes to get permits granted, make speeding tickets disappear and secure government contracts. It is something else to have entire municipal police forces on the payroll of drug cartels, as in Mexico; to have money from drugs traffickers or illegal gold miners fund political campaigns on a massive scale, as in Peru; or to bribe and intimidate an entire Constituent Assembly to outlaw extradition, as Pablo Escobar did in Colombia.

Women Occupy 48% of Incoming Legislative Seats in Bolivia

Bolivia is reportedly the second country in the world to reach this level of representation of women in national legislative body.

Haiti’s Political Crisis Is About to Get Worse

No elections, an empty Senate, violent protests on the streets of Port-au-Prince — and Haiti’s unrest is just getting started.

‘We want to start a new Mexico': How the disappearance of 43 students has sparked a movement that could bring down the president

Having consulted several trusted sources after the students disappeared, Father Solalinde was the first person to announce that they had been murdered and incinerated – weeks before the government admitted this was the most likely outcome. Since then, he has been the loudest dissenter in a nation that has suddenly found its voice.

Mexico approves constitutional change banning street protests

Legislators and police may be able to control what’s happening on Mexico’s streets. But they haven’t been able to impose their will on any protester who has access to social media. Already taking the law as a given, Mexicans have taken to Facebook and Twitter, which are ablaze with commentary and clever, acerbic new memes. Among them is a series of photos upon which text is superimposed, asking “What? Taking to the streets to [celebrate sports wins/make the pilgrimage to the Virgin of Guadalupe/run a marathon] will also be a crime? Or is it only when we say what we think?”

Gildan workers in Haiti, Honduras complain of harassment, pay too meagre to live on

Many workers are driven into debilitating debt, borrowing from co-workers or street lenders at high interest rates. One former worker at the Genesis plant is 32-year-old Marie-Bénie Clerjo, a mother of three sons who lives in Solino, a slum of tottering shacks and crumbling apartment blocks. Clerjo’s home is one small room where she and her children sleep on two beds. There’s no kitchen, toilet or sink, and she is two months behind in her rent. “We are not treated like humans, we are treated like animals,” she says. “I am living a miserable life.”

Unit to Monitor Journalists’ Safety Set up in Guatemala

While Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world, journalism is among the country’s most dangerous professions. With this recently-announced initiative, Guatemala will become the third country in the region to create a specific unit for the safety of journalist, following Colombia (2000) and Mexico (2012).

As Talks Resume, “De-escalation” Is on the Table

Either way, though, verifiable de-escalation of the conflict would be a positive step at this stage in the talks. It would allow them to go forward in an environment of reduced tensions. It would build public support for the negotiations as Colombians feel the first real benefit of the Havana process: an increase in their own security. De-escalation would also offer formal recognition of some de facto conditions for talks to proceed, like “it is prohibited to capture a general.”

Colombia y México: el dolor sabe a lo mismo

This Spanish article is well worth the read: a comparison between the 43 disappeared students in Mexico, and 43 disappeared in Colombia. “Este relato es apenas un pincelazo de la lucha por los 43 desaparecidos de Ayotzinapa y los 43 desaparecidos de Pueblo Bello. Resume el amor inagotable que los padres les profesan a sus hijos, y la herida honda que se forma en el alma de la gente buena cuando el Estado deja de estar de su lado y se convierte en su enemigo.”

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Peace is Possible, but it is a Choice

IMG_0268_thumb2Kevin and Cassie Zonnefeld are MCCers serving in Nicaragua, as Culture of Peace Educators. In their Conflict Transformation course, they asked students to interview someone who was involved in the revolution of 1979 and the disarmament and peace process that followed, using the following questions: What does national reconciliation mean? What have been the successes and challenges in Nicaragua from the perspective of those who were involved? How did the armed conflict impact individuals and what did does this impact look like today? How can we improve our understanding of the peace building process here in Nicaragua?

Here is Jessica Azucena Valdivia Montenegro´s assignment, taken from Kevin and Cassie’s private blog, News from Nicaragua. 

“This oral history interview was very interesting for me because I had never before talked about the theme of reconciliation in Nicaragua with someone who participated in the war and the process that followed. To be face to face with someone and imagine all of the pain, fear and anxiety that one lived through and then later adjust to a life without war was very meaningful for me.

I interviewed Don Mario Rocha Gutierrez, a gentleman with a relaxed appearance, who is 57 years old and lives in the Belen Neighborhood in the city of Estelí. He participated in the armed conflict on the side of the National Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) and was responsible for training soldiers for combat (physical training, assemble and disarmament of weapons).

To understand the relationship between the interview and conflict transformation, we need to start from the lived experience of the person. The feelings of guilt and rage that marked his life and his felt helplessness in overcoming these and the point in his life where he realized these memories may last a lifetime. Don Mario described the war and conflict as a place that causes many emotions for him, including anger, as well as vulnerability, fear, intimacy and hope.

Don Mario recounts that when he began his service, a superior warned him that he would need to turn in his weapons if the negotiations with the Contra began to bring successful results. For Don Mario, this was excellent news as he “did not want to know anything more about war.” The first step in the process of conflict transformation is the desire to change violent actions into peaceful behavior. One of the Beatitudes of Reconciliation states, “Blessed are those who are willing to enter the process of healing, because they will become leaders.” Don Mario was willing to enter into this process and when the demobilization process was initiated, he became an advocate in his community for the turning in of weapons, placing an emphasis on the importance of leaving behind the ways of the past and working towards new times of peace, and the importance of building peace together.

Transforming our destructive conflicts into constructive experiences is an important task in the reconciliation process. Don Mario shares, that setting aside negative aspects that had occurred in the conflict and reaffirming certain values such as loyalty, discipline, brotherhood, love and family are integral in this process. Conflict transformation is therefore a process of engagement of relationships, interests, debates, expressing one’s lived experiences and learning how to be more loving.

When I asked Don Mario what the word reconciliation means to him, he said that it involves forgiveness and reconstruction. If we want to better understand the processing of the conflict, we need to understand ones thoughts, emotions, self-esteem and personal perceptions that were impacted by the conflict. Don Mario shares that there was a time when he did not want to talk about what he experienced during the armed conflict, until later when he realized that this was not healthy in his processing of the event and his healing.

While the armed conflict was very destructive in the life of Don Mario and many others, he shares that the spirit of the conflict on the side of the FSLN was to achieve social change for the wider population and bring about common good. This encouraged him in his work towards reconciliation because he believes that while the armed conflict was devastating, what followed provided a collective opportunity for growth and change. He affirms that healthy conflict creates life and thanks to conflict we are able to respond, innovate and change. Conflict can be understood as an engine for social change, which is alive, sincere and sensitive to a community’s needs and aspirations.

Don Mario is also grateful for the contribution of the church in the process of reconciliation, which served as a mediator in many of the negotiations, accompanied the signing of the peace treaty and helped survivors of the conflict.

Don Mario is as a product of the reconciliation process. He is no longer afraid of war. He is grateful for improved economic stability, foreign investment, employment opportunities and continued hope for a better future. Don Mario does not consider a future culture of peace as a possibility for Nicaragua; he says that it is already happening.”

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SPU to Ayoztinapa: Fitting in where I Don’t Belong


A personal reflection on the disapperance of the 43 Mexican students by Katie Geluso, a Salter currently serving in Mexico City. This post was adapted from her personal blog

In late September, the mayor of Iguala’s wife was about to take the stage for a campaign speech. At the same time, 100 university student teachers from Ayotzinapa were on their way to protest her candidacy for her husband’s title.  When the couple heard of their impending arrival, they ordered for the students to be “taught a lesson.”  Police officers shot at the bus full of students.  Some students were tortured so badly they were only recognizable by the clothes they were wearing. Another 43 disappeared all together.

Now, a month and a half later, the mayor and his wife have been arrested, some of the bodies have been recovered from plastic bags in a river, and it is known that the police handed over the students to a drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos.

The citizens of Mexico are rightly outraged and grieved over this entire ordeal. Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero (where Ayotzinapa and Iguala are) has been the cite of violent protests and attacks on government buildings and there have been several marches to the presidential palace in Mexico City as well as all over the country.

Since my arrival in August I’ve witnessed a few marches in D.F. I can’t help but get choked up as I read powerful statements on cardstock and unified voices of university students chanting loudly for justice and peace. It’s quite the experience to watch thousands of people unite in person to grieve transgressions and demand justice from the government.

I cried as I watched hundreds of college students lay down on the street for a “die in” as they counted to 43, to represent the 43 missing students. Counting to 43 takes an awful lot of time. 43 missing students is an awful lot of pain for families, friends, and an entire country. Keep in mind: this is on top of 22,000 other “missing” people under the current and previous president.

A friend from home has been trying to read up on the situation from Seattle. She asked me on Monday, “What’s going on from a local’s view?” I couldn’t tell her. I’m not a local, nor can I speak for them.

It’s been my experience that living in a culture where you have a loose grasp of the language feels like there’s a thin curtain between you and everyone else. I think I understand a coworker when they give me instructions for an assignment, but maybe I missed a key phrase and they’re really telling me something completely different. When anyone talks for more than 30 seconds or so, I get totally lost. So in work meetings, at conferences, or when someone is explaining something to me without checking in on my comprehension, I have no idea what’s going on right in front of me. When paired with not knowing much about a country’s history, especially when it comes to politics, I have a hard time grasping the events in Iguala and the heartache of Mexicans, which goes much deeper than this one incidence.

When reflecting on my inability to connect and grieve with my Mexican friends, I was reminded of my reaction to the shooting this spring at my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. I wrote about my reaction to the tragic event on my blog, which you can read here.

After the event at SPU, I had a desire to feel connected to my friends who had not yet graduated, my professors, and even the students I didn’t know.  SPU, a place that meant so much to me a year previously, felt incredibly distant and close at the same time. I wanted to feel my community’s pain and walk alongside them, but I did not share their experience.

Nothing in my power could help me understand their hurt, their fear, their anger.  I didn’t belong – It wasn’t my pain.

I’m struggling the same way in Mexico.  How do I comprehend and connect with the pain of a people whose history of political violence I know so little about?  How ignorant would I be to assume I might be able to understand their outrage and utter despair?  My coworkers and host family care deeply about seeking peace and justice. They’re hurting right next to me, but I feel so far away, hidden behind my curtain of language and cultural illiteracy. I don’t belong – this isn’t my pain.

I was hoping that writing this would sort my thoughts and end in a nice conclusion.  It succeeded in helping me connect my SPU story to Ayoztinapa, but I guess the latter goal will be a work-in-progress.

What have been your struggles and successes with accompaniment and fitting in where you don’t belong?

For more context and analysis about what is currently taking place:

Mexico reels, and the U.S. looks away

To understand the historical significance — and the moral and political gravity — of what is occurring, think of 9/11, of Sandy Hook, of the day JFK was assassinated. Mexico is a nation in shock — horrified, pained, bewildered.

Crisis in Mexico: The Protests for the Missing Forty-Three

Father Solalinde believes that the movement that emerges from the tragedy of Ayotzinapa will discredit the traditional parties and bring about a regeneration of civil society, with new leaders. Others predict—and this does not necessarily contradict Solalinde’s view—that the outraged protesters in Guerrero and other states will soon fill the streets of Mexico City to demand real change. Others have been focussing on a clause in the Mexican Constitution that may offer a legal way to force the President to step down, clearing the way for new elections. Indeed, there are elections in Mexico next June. Five hundred seats of the lower house of the Federal Congress will be up for grabs, which means that there is opportunity for change in Mexico, both through civil disobedience and through the ballot box. On Sunday, a young protester from the Ayotzinapa Normal School told a newspaper reporter, “This is just beginning.” He may be right.

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Weekly Roundup November 14

Foto 1 Fuente Anna Vogt

In Guatemala, indigenous communities prevail against Monsanto

Late in the afternoon of September 4, after nearly 10 days of protests by a coalition of labor, indigenous rights groups and farmers, the indigenous peoples and campesinosof Guatemala won are rare victory. Under the pressure of massive mobilizations, the Guatemala legislature repealed Decree 19-2014, commonly referred to as the “Monsanto Law,” which would have given the transnational chemical and seed producer a foot hold into the country’s seed market.

The Disappeared

So, what has happened to the thousands of people who have gone missing during the course of the country’s drug war? And what is the government doing to end the crisis?Fault Lines travels to Mexico to investigate one of the worst humanitarian crises of disappearances in Latin America and its impact on families searching for their loved ones, for answers, and for a justice that never seems to arrive.

Mexico protesters torch state assembly

Anger has intensified in Mexico since Attorney General Jesus Murillo said last week that evidence suggests 43 missing trainee teachers were murdered by gangsters, incinerated in a bonfire at a garbage dump and their ashes thrown in a river.

Peru now has a ‘licence to kill’ environmental protesters

The controversial law was highlighted by the FLD in a report published this month titled “Environmental Rights Defenders at Risk in Peru.” What that report makes clear is that if you’re Peruvian and you publicly express concern about the environmental and social impacts of mining operations you can expect the following: death threats, rape threats, physical and electronic surveillance, smears and stigmatization by national mainstream media, police acting as “private security” for mining companies, confiscation or theft of equipment, “excessive use of force by police” during protests, arrest, or detention, and prosecution on charges of “rebellion, terrorism, violence, usurpation, trespassing, disobedience or resistance to an official order, obstructing public officers, abduction, outrage to national symbols, criminal damage, causing injury, coercion, disturbance or other public order offences.”

Honduras seeks billions from U.S. to curb child migration

Honduras President Juan Hernandez wants the United States to invest billions of dollars to help curb the flow of illegal migrants from Central America, and said it will take much longer to stem the crisis without Washington’s help. “If we have to do it alone, it will take us more time. But if we can do it together, it can be quicker and better for everyone.” 

Blood for Gold: The Human Cost of Canada’s ‘Free Trade’ With Honduras

In the rural municipality of La Unión, Copán, in western Honduras, communities are being gradually displaced by Toronto-based Aura Minerals’ San Andres gold mine. Earlier this year the army was sent in to quell protests related to the relocation of the local cemetery in Azacualpa, a village in La Unión. This is part of the human cost of an expanding mining industry in Honduras.

For Central America’s migrant women, life can change in a second

According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, approximately 200,000 migrant women from Central America like Brizuela attempt to enter the U.S. each year. The reasons for their journeys are many; but making the decision to migrate, embarking on the trek, and the experience of arriving or being deported all have an enormous impact on the lives of these women.

El Salvador takes steps to tackle scourge of femicide

UN Women says femicide is a growing phenomenon across Latin America. Half of the countries worldwide with very high femicide rates are in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Jamaica, according to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey. To tackle the violence, Costa Rica in 2007 became the first country in Latin America to pass a law which defines and punishes femicide as a specific crime. Seven other countries in the region have followed, most recently El Salvador where a law on femicide came into effect in 2012.

FARC-Colombia Talks Advance in Havana

The path that is being crafted now in Havana will shape the future of peace and reconciliation in Colombia. It will determine the way the legacies of war will be addressed, the future options of any ex-combatants and militants who choose to lay down their arms, and the willingness of the international community to back the peace accords. In the meantime, Colombia is setting new precedents for peace processes around the globe.

Haiti’s fight for gay rights

Haiti’s LGBT community, which has long existed in relative secrecy, has faced greater criticism since the deadly earthquake that struck the island nation in 2010. From the pulpit and on the radio, evangelists, some inspired by American sponsors and mentors, have blamed the earthquake on the sins of the country’s gay population. Gay Haitians living in tent camps after the disaster reported “corrective” rape and increased harassment as a result of the greater exposure of displacement and flimsy shelters.


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Haiti doesn’t need another occupation

The name Haiti conjures images of earthquake damage, people struggling to survive or memories of a service trip to help build houses or bring medical care. Most do not associate it with military occupation.

zehr-hershbergerHaitians know better. They remember a tumultuous history as an enslaved colony and infant nation undermined by repeated attempts at recolonization and foreign occupation. In the last century, Haiti has endured three military occupations: two by the U.S. (1915-34 and 1990-94) and the most recent under the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH.

MINUSTAH has been in Haiti since 2004, invited by Haiti’s transitional government to quell violence after a coup against former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The U.N. Security Council decides annually whether to renew MINUSTAH’s mandate, and each year it has done so with broad support from the international community, many citing civil unrest.

Mennonite Central Committee’s civil society partners in Haiti share a different view, saying MINUSTAH should leave immediately.

Camille Chal­mers, director of the Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development, said all other U.N. peacekeeping missions exist because of an armed conflict resulting in an enforceable peace treaty. Not so for Haiti.

Pierre Esperance, director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, said Haiti is “not at war. We can live without [MINUSTAH].” The U.N. Stabilization Mission has only served to destabilize Haiti. MINUSTAH troops and associated actors have been implicated or involved with killing innocent people, sexual abuse, abandoning children and, most notoriously, importing cholera.

The 2010 cholera epidemic began when MINUSTAH negligently introduced waste water from Nepalese troops infected by cholera in their home country into Haiti’s main water source. The U.N. continues to deny responsibility for the contamination, which has claimed the lives of 8,584 people and infected 706,291 others. As earthquake reconstruction funds in Haiti diminish, the annual budget for MINUSTAH in 2014-15 is set at $500 million, an amount that could pay for nearly a quarter of the U.N.’s fledgling $2.2 billion Cholera Elimination Plan.

Not only is MINUSTAH’s occupation unnecessary, it is an egregious waste. MCC’s partner organizations point out that machine gun-toting troops and roving armed vehicles run counter to Haiti’s true needs: the construction of durable and decentralized housing, community-based economic development, and water and sanitation infrastructure improvements. MCC collaborates on these projects with Haitian partners. According to the Platform for Human Rights Organizers in Haiti, MCC is the only international organization that completely supports their exact position on MINUSTAH presence — a complete and immediate withdrawal.

Our Anabaptist faith calls us to oppose military intervention and to work for a peaceful and just resolution. As the U.N. Security Council considers MINUSTAH’s mandate again this month, our advocacy offices are working and praying for such a resolution.

Charissa Zehr and Vanessa Hershberger work at the MCC U.S. Washington Office and the MCC United Nations Office, respectively. Article written with contributions from Jenn Wiebe of MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office and Ted Oswald of MCC Haiti.

Originally Published in Mennonite World Review on October 27, 2014.

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