Saturday, May 31, 2008

puzzling it out

The blue and green plastic bottle tops had been compacted into the soil over time. They reminded me of an exhibition I saw last year in Centro Cultural Borges. Blue, green, white bottle tops scattered over the gallery walls, curving and swirling, and cut into flower shapes. Who knew rubbish could be so pretty?

But there was nothing beautiful about this place. The ash from the burning rubbish tasted sour and I was glad Arturo had told us to be quick. We were visiting an after-school project supported by MEDH in Villa Itatí, just outside the city of Buenos Aires. Since it was Saturday, there were no kids about, but a volunteer told us how the one-room building next to the sorting barn offered space for local children to do their homework and chat over milk and rolls.

Villa Itatí is a large villa (shanty town) of over 50,000 people (2001 figures). People began settling in the area when the autopista (motorway) was constructed several decades ago. The excavations for the motorway left an empty valley into which came the poor. At the bottom, Arturo tells us, are those who are the poorest of all. They live at a level that is at constant risk of flooding. Many cartoneros live and work there. They gather recyclable material from the city's bins and haul it back to be sorted. Their roughly constructed homes sit cheek-by-jowl with the rubbish. All the children, Arturo tells us, have respiratory problems, and their arms are often covered in sores.

If I leave my flat I will see cartoneros searching through the large bins on the street corner. They pull their carts themselves now; when I first arrived tatty ponies trotted along the capital's streets at night, the carts stacked higher and higher behind them. I usually try to catch the eye of those cartoneros I pass on the street, say a brief buenos or hola but I'm not sure it that makes them (or me) feel better or worse. How can I begin to imagine there is a connection between us? That we share enough in common for us to share greetings? They live off my waste.

The barn and after-school club are at the edge of Villa Itatí, just visible as we passed over the rim of the crater. A line of clothes gathered from the rubbish hung drying in the smoke. We weaved through bales of cardboard and flattened plastic, ready to be sold on. With the support of MEDH and other organizations, the cartoneros of this sector of the villa formed a cooperative Asociación de Cartoneros de Villa Itatí, about which a documentary was filmed in 2003. They get a better price selling 100 bales of cardboard than 10 bales individually.

Saturday lunch-time and a calm had settled over the villa. A child was showing off a new puppy, clasped tightly in his arms. In the sunshine outside the barn, six young men lent against plastic bales of sorted rubbish. I felt embarrassed to be there, walking past them, talking in English. We said hola, and it felt awkward. As we left we said goodbye chau, gracias, chau gente. For once I was standing on their ground. This was their barrio and I was the intruder, allowed in for a brief few minutes.

As we left, the young men resumed their conversations. A couple of them were leafing through magazines, salvaged from the day's findings. And one was relaxing in the Saturday afternoon sun with a word-search puzzle. Figure that out.

Image of cartoneros via this article but originally from here.

Image of bottle tops design by Fran Crowe - read more about her work on BBC.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rio Negro massacre convictions

The BBC reports
A court in Guatemala has sentenced five former paramilitaries each to 780 years in prison for the 1982 murder of 26 indigenous Mayan villagers.

They received the maximum sentence of 30 years for each of the murders which took place during an infamous massacre of 177 women and children in Rio Negro.

The victims died refusing to move from the site of a new hydroelectric dam.

The church-led report Guatemala, Nunca Más has been published in English in summary form. The report of the UN sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) is available online in English in summary.

26 lives taken; 26 years waiting for justice.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

three glad moments

1. Running into the amazing and beautiful Ana Inés on the doorstep of ISEDET.
2. Spotting a neat box of maracuyas at the grocers, and buying three of them.
3. Hugo waving a letter for me - an invitation to James' baptism.


Friday, May 23, 2008

¡hasta la fotocopia, siempre!

Ah, the photocopier. Not very exciting.

But what if photocopying led to the revelation of those involved in human rights abuses? What if mindless photocopying became an act of civil disobedience, a revolutionary act?

I re-encountered a story I'd heard a while back this week, about a secret operation to record military abuses during the Brazilian dictatorship (1964- 1985). Like many Latin American regimes of the time, torture became a standard means of control. In 1979 both political prisoners and state security agents were granted amnesty, preventing investigation into torture and detentions. The law, however, did allow lawyers to see official court records and even take away individual files for up to 24 hours. The records included detailed accounts of torture, including the witness statements of victims, who were often then returned into the hands of their torturers by the military judges.

A presbyterian minister and the Archbishop of São Paulo together spotted an opportunity to exploit the law. With funding from the World Council of Churches (smuggled into Brazil by individuals carriers) they hired a small group of lawyers. The lawyers began accessing the military records under the pretense of preparing amnesty submissions. Each file was formally checked out of the military archives and taken to a small office in the centre of Brasilia, equipped with three photocopiers. The team worked ten hours a day, seven days a week, to copy the records in time to return them without suspicion the next day. The photocopies were backed up on microfilms and smuggled out of Brazil to the World Council of Churches offices in Geneva. For three years volunteers and lawyers worked in secret, until the entire archive of one million pages had been copied.

At the same time, the team had begun to process the information, producing a seven thousand page report into state violence. Two journalists were employed to write a popular version of the report. On July 15th 1985, without any advance publicity, copies of the book, Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil, Never Again) began surfacing in shops throughout Brazil. The military at first attempted to ban the book, but soon discovered the book was about to be published in the USA and that a complete backup of the archive existed in Geneva.

Nunca Mais proved conclusively that torture was fully part of the military justice system. Some months after its publication, a list of more than four hundred people responsible for the torture was made public, leading to the torturers removal from state office. In 1999 Brazilian medical associations began hearings to revoke the medical licenses of doctors who took part in the torture of political prisoners between 1964 and 1985.

We are called to be truth-tellers, peace-makers, justice-bearers. Our chances to do such work may be limited to the dull and routine, but they are there, waiting for us to take them up.

Much of the text describing the process in Brazil is taken from the Oxford Research Group's booklet on peace-making, available for free download on their site.

Harper, Charles R. (2006) O Acompanhamento – Ecumenical Action for Human Rights in Latin America 1970 -1990 Geneva: WCC Publications

See also Lawrence Weschler’s account of the Nunca Mais project, A Miracle, a Universe - Settling Accounts with Torturers (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Monday, May 19, 2008

William Cavanaugh - Torture and Eucharist

To participate in the Eucharist is to live inside God’s imagination. It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ. As human persons, body and soul, are incorportated into the performance of Christ’s corpus verumm, they resist the state’s ability to define what is real through the mechanism of torture. (Cavanaugh 1998: 279)

Although William Cavanaugh's book is now ten years old, and concerned with events of the 1970s and 1980s, abduction and torture are not yet consigned to Latin America's history. At the beginning of this month, human rights activist Juan Puthod was kidnapped in Buenos Aires Province. Puthod was due to testify against military officials accused of crimes carried out during the dictatorship. He was the third witness to be abducted in the past three years (Julio Lopez disappeared September 2006 and has still not been found; Luis Gerez, also abducted 2006, was found after 48 hours).

Fortunately, Puthod was found in little over a day following a massive police hunt. This was not the first time he had been illegally detained and, as before, he was blindfolded and beaten by his captors, who told him, ‘buddy, you don’t understand that we still have your life in our hands. Even after 32 years, your life still belongs to us.'

In such times, Cavanaugh argues that the Eucharist can function as a method of resisting violence, fear and torture. Being part of a Eucharistic community should shape believers according to Christian virtues of peace, justice, hope, love and forgiveness. It should make visible an alternative way of living, based on mutual relationship rather than control.

But if fails to do that, the Eucharist can also function as a method of discipline, through the act of excommunication. Cavanaugh traces the use of excommunication by the Chilean Roman Catholic Church. He notes that as early as 1626, the Synod of Santiago excommunicated slave traders. Promising, I thought. But he goes on to list a whole range of instances in which the church uses excommunication to protect its position in politics or the law etc, or to reinforce "traditional" morality (outlawing abortion and divorce). The church in Chile at various times excommunicated both those who joined the Communist Party, and rich patrons who didn't pay their workers a just wage.

During Pinochet's rule, Catholic bishops issued two decrees of excommunication against the regime. One was against the security agents who harassed several bishops at Santiago airport on their return from a pastoral conference in Ecuador. Cavanaugh suggests this instance did not go much beyond traditional concerns over protecting the standing of the church hierarchy. Indeed the bishops were able to draw directly on canon law, which explicitly names violence towards bishops as a reason for excommunication.

The second instance was in December 1980 when seven bishops issued a degree of excommunication against all those involved directly in torture and those who authorized its use. Again, Cavanaugh argues the force of the degree was weakened by the lack of willingness to name names.

New to me (but not to the church who developed this belief early on) is the idea that excommunication, far from being a cutting off, is actually ‘an invitation to rejoin the flock.’ By pointing out to the guilty party that their actions have placed them outside the church community, they can begin to take the necessary steps to return.
Excommunication is the formal offering of reconciliation in the hope that even the most hardened offender will be saved...The only point to disciplining the individual sinner is to reconcile her to the body of Christ, for without incorporation into Christ’s body, salvation is jeopardized. (Cavanaugh 1998: 240-44)

Finally, by naming what is outside the church, excommunication also acts to make visible the true body of Christ. It is therefore an act of witness to the wider society; a proclamation of what it is (and is not) to be a Christian.

Both these functions of excommunication - to witness and to reconcile - appeal. But what concerns me is that excommunication has generally been used to enforce conservative private morality or to protect the political standing of the church. Much less frequently has the church excommunicated in order to reveal injustice, challenge violent regimes, or protect the poor.

I have a whole list at my fingertips of actions over which I would love to issue a few well-worded degrees of excommunication. But until we learn together what it means to be the body of Christ, there will still be confusion over what actions place a member outside the community.

I don't believe there is room for all in the church. But I do believe that every rejection should also be an offer of reconciliation, a hand that holds at arms length but holds, waiting for the one sent away to return.

Cavanaugh, William T. (1998) Torture and Eucharist Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Sunday, May 18, 2008

escuela sin gas

On my bus route home yesterday, it was all about the petrol stations. Not my usual focus (usually I peer into ice-cream parlours or watch kids playing in the street on a lazy Saturday afternoon) but I was doing research. Actually, by the time I'd decided to do a non-scientific survey of the petrol stations along bus route 44, we were half-way home. But we passed three - the first had a sign saying 'No oil or gas'; the second was out of diesel; and the third had tape wrapped round its petrol pumps.

But it was when I got off the bus that something really caught my eye. As I walked the few blocks home, the local school had a new banner hanging over the gate. 'This school,' it said, 'doesn't have any gas.'

It's been a warm weekend so the lack of heating in college hasn't bothered me. But winter is on its way and the shortage of oil is going to be a problem.

Argentina has to buy in oil from neighbouring countries like Brazil and Bolivia. Last year rising prices and rising demand led to the government rationing oil supplies to certain companies. Unofficially, it also seemed that there was some rationing of oil to homes. That, or just another excuse from college for why the radiators weren't turned on.

In all this it will be the poor, elderly and vulnerable who are most affected. I wonder who made the sign outside the school, and what they hope to achieve. The banner makes visible the current economic crisis and how it directly impacts on people's lives. It makes me look beyond the school gate and into the unheated classrooms. My part of Flores isn't a poor area, so if schools here are struggling, those in the villas and poor barrios are facing an even tougher winter.