Less Clarity, More Aliens

So, even less clarity? Cool. Cool, cool, cool.

Reading about the U.S. election results while in Guatemala has been an exercise in frustration. The Democrats won… the House! The Republicans won… the Senate! Pro-Trump zealots won their races, unless they lost them.

The good news? Greater diversity in your elected representatives: In Colorado, the first openly gay governor. In Massachusetts, the state’s first black congresswoman. Two Muslim women were elected to Congress for the first time ever, as well as two Native American women! (About damn time, too. According to Huffington Post: “more than 10,000 people have served in the House and more than 1,300 have served in the Senate since the first Congress met in 1789. Not a single one of those people was a Native American woman.”)

The bad news? We (and I’m speaking presumptuously on behalf of the rest of the world, here) were hoping for a clearer and more decisive rejection of Trump’s nationalistic, xenophobic, racist, misogynist, divisive, short-sighted, ill-advised, inconsistent, and often-incoherent policies.

Now it appears that the political divide has grown deeper, the split more severe.

Even before the elections, trying to understand U.S. policy in Guatemala by observing the actions of the Embassy, the State Department, and the Tweeter-in-Chief was an exercise in futility. Call it dissociative identity disorder as foreign policy. Split personality politics, if you will.

I can’t help but wonder what will happen when Trump & Co., as well as the Democratic opposition, simultaneously claim that the election results are a clear mandate for their political platform.

“If you thought U.S. foreign policy was already poorly communicated, just wait until the next Congress, when the White House and House Democrats will be miles apart on critical issues.”

— Benjamin Gedan, National Security Council director for South America during the Obama administration
Latin America ponders new order with Democrats in charge of House and GOP Senate

More Illegal Aliens?

Of course, all this might end up being much ado about nothing if a recent report by astronomers at Harvard is to be believed.

A mysterious cigar-shaped object spotted tumbling through our solar system last year may have been an alien spacecraft sent to investigate Earth, astronomers from Harvard University have suggested.

The object, nicknamed ‘Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger that reaches out from the distant past” in Hawaiian, was discovered in October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii.

A new paper by researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics raises the possibility that the elongated dark-red object, which is 10 times as long as it is wide and traveling at speeds of 196,000 mph, might have an “artificial origin.”

“‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” they wrote.

You know that at this moment, on some golf course cocktail napkin, Donald Trump is drawing up plans for “the biggest, most beautiful Space Wall ever. It’ll be huge. And the Martians will pay for it. Believe me.”

space alien
My nephew John, as an alien

Transitions & Borders

Transitions

It’s an unusually drizzly and gray day here in Guatemala City.

Which, upon further reflection, seems right. We’re at a crossroads, a time of change. The rainy season is coming to a slow end. The next six months will be almost completely free of rain. No need to lug around the umbrella anymore.

Since Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday (bonus points for remembering that it is also celebrated in Canada, albeit in October), in Guatemala there is no break between the All Saint’s Day celebrations and Christmas. It’s one quick, slippery slope to Santa Claus.

Do I exaggerate? Yesterday, while sitting in my favorite Guatemalan coffee shop, Roque Rosito, the playlist abruptly transitioned from Dean Martin singing “Volare” (oh oh oh oh) to Dean Martin singing “White Christmas” (oh no no no!)

When I gestured to one of the waiters about the choice of holiday tunes, he simply rolled his eyes as if to say “yes, this will be my personal hell… having to listen to two months straight of geographically-inappropriate songs about snow in Guatemala.”

The year is quickly coming to a close.

Borders

Immigrants are made in the image and likeness of God and deserve to be treated with respect grounded in the dignity of our shared humanity. Words against immigrants matter, and hate speech has dangerous consequences. They stir the darkest forces of nativism, white supremacy and prejudice — often times masquerading as patriotism.

The greater danger for our country is the normalization of this hate, which reinforces an “us vs. them” mentality that further polarizes communities.

Immigrants are not the problem, and the caravan does not present a crisis or a national emergency. Root causes for contemporary responses deserve deeper exploration. Unjust and unequal trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA are detrimental to the survival of those who are impoverished.

Decades of U.S. interventions in Central American countries supporting oppressive regimes and corrupt governments helped foster ongoing cycles of violence. Migrants and refugees flee their homelands in search of a sustainable life for their families beyond the reach of drug cartels, poverty and the negative effects of climate change.

Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas, National Catholic Reporter
The immigrant caravan is a wave of hope for America

Pain

On March 7, 2017 a group of teenage girls attempted to escape from a state-run shelter near Guatemala City. The shelter, ironically-named Hogar Seguro (“Safe Home”), was actually an overcrowded, prison-like place where the girls suffered verbal and physical abuse, as well as rape and forced prostitution.

After being rounded up by the National Police, 56 teenage girls were caged like animals for nearly 7 hours in a tiny room, no larger than 23ft x 23ft. There was no bathroom.

At 8:45am the following morning a fire broke out in the confined space. Despite the screams and pleas of the girls, the police officers refused to unlock the door. 41 girls died nightmarish deaths in the flames; only 15 survived. Of those, many suffered terrible burns resulting in emotional and physical scarring, as well as the loss of fingers, toes, ears, and limbs.

The tragedy occurred on March 8th : International Women’s Day.

The families of the dead, as well as the girls who survived, now face the interminable task of healing and trying to rebuild their lives. Bringing to justice those responsible for this heinous crime is part of that process.

The funeral of Carlota (c) Stef Areaga
The funeral of Carlota (c) Stef Areaga

But Guatemala can be a cruel and unforgiving place. This past week served as a reminder that the Hogar Seguro tragedy occurred in a context of poverty, marginalization, crime, and violence.

On October 26th Carlota Paz Siquin, the sister Yemmi, of one of the victims of the “Safe Home” fire, disappeared from her home. Her body was found shortly thereafter. She had been stabbed to death and left in a sewage ditch. She was 13 years old.

The Paz Siquin family, still reeling from Yemmi’s brutal death, now must cope with another unimaginable loss. (The Human Rights Defenders Project helped cover Carlota’s funeral costs, in solidarity with the suffering family.)

A Note to Donald Trump

When the families in the migrant caravan say they are fleeing from conditions of terrible inequality and insecurity in their countries of origin… they are not exaggerating.

Poor communities have been battered by crime for so long that many are past the breaking point. Extortion and kidnapping by gangs are gouging the economy, while fragile justice systems are overwhelmed as reports of violence continue to pour in. According to the Wilson Center, some 95 percent of reported crimes currently go unpunished in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

These countries need more assistance, more courtrooms, more judges, more prosecutors, more vetted and trained police, more child welfare authorities, more rape crisis centers, more witness protection, and more community assistance for victims.

These migrants are so desperate that they are willing to leave their own countries to walk more than a thousand miles for safety.

These mass caravans are going to be the future of Central America if the justice systems there are not reformed to more effectively protect citizens and restrain and deter predators.

By Gary Haugen, contibuter to The Hill
Sending aid is key to solving the Central American migrant crisis

 

All Saints Day

The Walking Dead

Yesterday Guatemala City seemed like a scene from a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. The streets where I live were completely deserted… well, except for the house-to-house shoe repairman and myself.

Day of the Dead

The rest of the residents were visiting departed family members in cemeteries throughout the country in celebration of All Saints Day, or the Day of the Dead. Or perhaps they had returned home to enjoy a plate of fiambre, a national plate consisting of a thousand ingredients (slight exaggeration) including: cold cuts, sausages, chicken, baby corn, cheese, olives, beets, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, onions, peas, capers, asparagus, etc.

A subtle flavor? No, not remotely. Delicious? Oh my, yes.

Puente

Today should be another quiet day. (I wince as write those easily-cursed words.) Since yesterday’s holiday fell on a Thursday, many businesses are offering Friday off as a “puente” day… literally, a bridge to the weekend. Those of us without the bridge will wade through the day like so many migrants crossing the border rivers in their trek northward.

Speaking of Which

Donald Trump’s latest threats against immigrants include:

  1. Denying any possibility of asylum to migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally.
  2. Sending between 5,200 and 15,000 troops to the border
  3. Detaining migrants in tent cities indefinitely
  4. Denying citizenship a right to those born in the United States
  5. The use of lethal force if migrants throw rocks in protest

Someone should read “The New Colossus” poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty to Trump. (Probably while explaining the big words to him.)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

If I were France, I would request the return of Lady Liberty. “if you’re not using it, you might as well send it back.”

If you dare

If you’ve read this far, there’s a chance you might have a more nuanced and critical assessment of the push/pull factors which drive Central American immigration to the United States. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that U.S. policy, politics, and actions have greatly impaired the growth of real democracy and genuine development in the region. If you’re nodding yes, then you’ll be richly rewarded by reading this fantastic article:

How US Policy Created the Refugee Crisis in Central America

United Fruit Company

Silence is complicity


I’ll admit it. I’m guilty.

I’ve tried to please too many people. To not make waves. To forgive and forget. To be a nice guy.

So I’ve held my tongue. Watched my words. Kept a low profile.

Like Rodney King’s wailing lament, I’ve asked “can’t we all just get along?” Those who consider themselves to be good-hearted people would probably agree with the sentiment. There must be a common ground… we’re more alike than different… surely we can compromise?

But recently I’ve begun to question my belief that non-confrontation is the best route to dialogue. That being nonjudgmental is the key to avoid offending others. That quiet righteous indignation is preferable to constructive criticism.

What if my self-imposed silence is actually fear? What if my caution is actually cowardice?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” words attributed to Edmund Burke, remind me of the tremendous cost of not standing up, of not speaking out.

A wall of truth in Guatemala City

It is happening right now. As those of us who hope to be good… to be nice… to just get along remain silent, evil gains ground. And I don’t use that term lightly or easily. I mean evil.  Bold-faced, underscored evil.

An evil that manifests itself in ignorance, division, hatred, populism, nationalism, fanaticism, racism, sexism, classicism, homophobia, slander, lies, greed, poverty, corruption, militarization, criminalization, injustice, threats, violence and murder. (etc.)

My silence makes me complicit in that evil.

I confess that I am afraid. Truth-telling is not without risk, not without cost. To raise your voice is to risk the response of those dedicated to maintaining the status quo. To speak out is to challenge those who practice evil and benefit from evil.

Whatever the cost to be paid, however, it is nothing compared to what I would stand to lose in being silent and complicit.

Back in Guatemala… mostly.


After nearly six months in New York, I’m finally back in Guatemala.

Leaving my family was heartbreaking. It always is. You’d think that, maybe, after almost 30 years of traveling between NY home and Guatemala home, I’d be used to it.

Nope. I was as sad and anxious, stressed and depressed this time as I was during my first trip in 1989. (My first visit to Guatemala was in 1988, with a Habitat for Humanity workcamp. I didn’t start living there, though, until the following year.)

I often feel that my return to Guatemala happens in three stages:

1.  My tired body arrives in-country, complete with plane-face and aching luggage-shoulders.

2.  In the following days my mind catches up, finally allowing me to form complete (and semi-coherent) sentences in Spanish.

3.  The last to appear is my heart. I’m not sure how it travels (United Airlines, perhaps?), but it always arrives beaten, bruised and incomplete. It always takes a while to heal.

During these times of transition, I wonder: “why do I keep doing this to myself?!?”

(When I have the answer, I’ll be sure to share it with you.)