Still 'Presente'?: U.S. Catholics should reconnect with Latin America.

Since August, several workers formerly employed by General Motors in Colombia have been protesting unsafe working conditions and demanding compensation after being fired following injuries sustained on the job. Some of the protestors have launched hunger strikes, sewing their mouths shut and declaring that they are prepared to die if G.M. does not agree to a fair resolution of the conflict. The protest has received coverage in major newspapers and has expanded to include demonstrations at G.M. locations around the United States, including the corporate headquarters in Detroit and the home of G.M.’s chief executive officer outside Washington, D.C.

A number of human rights organizations and faith groups in the United States have spoken in support of the workers and organized to pressure G.M., but none of the most vocal advocates have been representatives of the U.S. Catholic community. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not made any official statement concerning the protests. This conspicuous absence is no one-time phenomenon. Rather, it highlights a shift that has occurred in the U.S. Catholic community over the past two decades.


During the 1980s and early 1990s, great portions of the U.S. Catholic community were heavily engaged in various forms of outreach and expressions of solidarity with the people of Latin America—the land of Archbishop Oscar Romero, liberation theology and death squads. This included delegations of Americans who traveled to Nicaragua, El Salvador or other places and the establishment of sister-parish relationships between U.S. and Central American congregations. According to Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, more than 100,000 U.S. citizens traveled to Nicaragua during this time “to observe its revolution firsthand.” At home, the sanctuary movement saw faith communities sheltering political refugees from Latin America, often illegally. Countless Catholics joined in advocacy efforts to reshape U.S. policies in Central America, the movement to close what was then the School of the Americas in Georgia being a prominent example. The growing use of Spanish songs and prayers in U.S. liturgies originated largely in the spirit of solidarity that flourished in this era.

But since the 1980s and early 1990s, this widespread and intense commitment to Latin America has waned. The annual School of the Americas protest continues (the S.O.A. is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), but the event is now as much an annual convocation of progressive Catholics as a targeted advocacy effort. Whereas Latin America was once a central preoccupation for the U.S. Catholic Church, it now appears to be a dwindling niche concern for a handful of aging diehards.

Should we expect that Latin America will remain a relative non-issue in the American church? Do U.S. Catholics still care about Latin America?

Shifting Priorities

The gradual eclipse of Latin America on the agenda of many U.S. Catholics has much to do with changes in geo-political dynamics and the U.S. government’s foreign policy agenda. In particular, the end of the cold war and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have had enormous consequences in shaping U.S. objectives abroad. Soviet Communism has been replaced by Islamist terrorism as the nation’s primary perceived enemy, and the corresponding “battlegrounds” have shifted as well. No longer do U.S. covert interventions and overt wars aim to stop the spread of communism, but rather to disrupt the operations of Al Qaeda and other terrorist threats. Central America figured prominently in the old struggle, but the Middle East has taken center stage in the new one. During this fall’s presidential debate on foreign policy, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney mentioned a single Latin American country by name. As the currents of global politics have changed, the projects of global activists have evolved as well. Catholics who once protested wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador now find themselves focused on countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.

This shift has coincided with a growing perception that the economic and political crises that once called for urgent attention in Latin America have abated. The civil wars that ravaged El Salvador and Nicaragua ended more than 20 years ago. Jess Hunter-Bowman, associate director of the Latin America solidarity organization Witness for Peace, believes that this has contributed to diminished interest in Latin America. “When there isn’t that front-page issue,” he says, “people turn their focus to whatever new crisis needs to be addressed.” Also, globalization is steadily, if unevenly, delivering many benefits of economic growth to Latin America. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, between 2000 and 2010, gross domestic product per capita in Latin American countries grew at nearly six times the rate that it had over the previous two decades. Only a naïf could believe that Latin America is entirely liberated from its struggles, but one is no longer besieged by the horrific reports of the kind that used to emanate regularly from Latin American countries in decades past.

But despite some positive developments in Latin America, poverty, inequality, corruption and social instability remain wide-spread. Mexico has been terrorized over the last several years by the brutality of the international drug trade and scandalized by the government’s ineffectual response. In Colombia, similarly, a U.S.-led “war on drugs” bears a share of responsibility for violence, displacement and devastation of agricultural communities. In Honduras violence and impunity have spiraled out of control since the 2009 coup that overthrew that country’s democratically elected president. According to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras, a leading Honduran human rights organization, more than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses by state security forces have been filed in the last three years. In early 2012 the United Nations called Honduras the world’s most dangerous nation. Responsibility for this crisis falls partly on the United States, given the Obama administration’s decision to more or less accept the outcome of the coup.

Moving North

But if violence in Latin America has by no means disappeared, something has changed since the days when dictators and death squads were on everyone’s radar. Central America—the entire globe, in fact—has witnessed a transformation that can be described as the economization of violence. The brute-force politics of the 1980s have yielded to the economic warfare of neoliberal economic policies.

Free trade agreements and “structural adjustment” policies have undermined local economies, weakened governments at the national, state and municipal level and left millions of people struggling to survive in the new world economy. Poverty, exploitation and displacement are no longer considered human rights abuses; they are now part of the “creative destruction” effected by a globalizing capitalism. Economic violence is all the more difficult to resist because its perpetrators are harder to identify. During the years of the contra war in Nicaragua, one could easily “follow the dollars” in military aid flowing from the U.S. government to the militias responsible for murders, rapes and other human rights violations. Now, the policies that wreak havoc on poor families and communities are entangled with sincere, if problematic, efforts to promote development. Even though many countries have enjoyed significant economic growth, a report released this year by the Latin American Center for Rural Development identified the region as the most inequitable in the world.

Economics have also contributed to a more visible change that has affected the relationships of U.S. Catholics to Central America—namely, migration. Over the past two decades, many of the vulnerable people who captured the attention of the Catholic community in the United States are no longer in Central America—they have moved North. Solidarity with Latinos requires us to look no farther than our own parish neighborhoods.

As trade liberalization has lowered barriers to the mobility of capital, goods and services, many workers have been forced to become mobile as well. Countless mothers, fathers and even children have left their homes, families and communities in search of work and economic security. Daniel Groody, C.S.C., an associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, notes that migration has much to do with the economic struggles that plague Latin American countries. “People have an economic gun to their backs,” he says. “That’s why they leave.”

Immigration from Latin America has also changed the U.S. church. According to the Pew Research Center, more than one-third of U.S. Catholics are now Latinos, and that number will likely increase to at least 40 percent by 2030. Churches and faith-based organizations are working more than ever to accompany arriving migrants and support immigrant communities in the United States. This work is especially important, given the frequent demonization and scapegoating of immigrants.

Re-committing ‘From Below’

Despite these shifts in political dynamics and activist attention, there remain important reasons for the U.S. church to retain its focus on Latin America and for U.S. Catholics to remain engaged with the region. The poverty, violence and oppression that stirred Americans’ consciences in past decades have not disappeared. Many people living in Latin America continue to face extraordinarily dire circumstances, and people of faith in the United States need to be aware of these realities and committed to addressing this great human need.

The United States looms large over Latin America and continues to exert an outsized influence over the region. Since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States has never shied from its self-appointed role as protector of the Western hemisphere. Neoliberal economics and the ill-conceived war on drugs are two examples of present-day U.S. policies that play important roles in shaping the political, economic and social landscapes of Latin America. Jean Stokan, director of the Sisters of Mercy Institute Justice Team, says that U.S. involvement in the region raises questions. “Our sisters in Latin America have asked us, ‘Why does your country spend so much money militarizing our region? Why not put it into economic development?’” Particularly in a climate of budget-cutting at home, Catholics in the United States should be asking these questions too.

Because of the ever-increasing significance of immigration in U.S. politics and society, Americans must be attentive to the root causes of migration. To understand and address immigration in the United States, one must look at the “push factors” that compel people to leave their homes and communities in search of work. This new focus would enrich public discourse about immigration. The U.S. bishops have consistently raised the issue of root causes; and in 2003 they issued with the Catholic bishops of Mexico a joint pastoral letter that called for long-term solutions to address economic inequality in migrant “sending countries.” The U.S. church is already, and must remain, in the forefront of fostering a more comprehensive conversation about immigration and just how deeply the United States is interconnected with the nations of Latin America.

The relative proximity of Latin America to the United States, along with the high number of Catholics living in that region, means that there are rich and varied possibilities for making connections and building solidarity, a unique potential for engagement on a personal level. Many churches and schools are already able to make delegation trips to Latin America, and many host delegations from Latin America as well. The Rev. Juan Molina, director of the Church in Latin America for the U.S.C.C.B., notes that parish-level relationships with communities in Latin America are flourishing, but they have changed over the years. “Those connections are no longer focused on policy issues alone, such as human rights or conflict in a particular country,” he says. “Instead, they are focused on the relationships among the participants themselves. Faith is being shared and lived in community—the global community.” These person-to-person encounters are critical for enhancing understanding and transforming U.S. communities. Whereas a visit to Iran may be impractical for many reasons, a pilgrimage to Mexico or Guatemala is within the reach of many U.S. Catholics.

In an interview in 1987, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a social ethicist now at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, named Latin America as one of the four top issues that the U.S. bishops had been active on. (The others were nuclear arms control, economic justice and abortion.) Much has changed in the intervening 25 years, but there is a lesson in the experience of the 1980s that applies to the present day. Father Hehir, in his interview, said that whereas it was the bishops’ own initiative that accounted for the other prominent issues on the church’s agenda, it was an impetus “from below” that brought Latin America to the forefront. The U.S. Catholic Church became a leading voice for justice in Latin America in large part because of connections and commitments on the grassroots level among the faithful.

At a moment when Latin America no longer receives the attention from American Catholics that it once did, but when there remains as much need for justice in that region as ever, people of faith in the United States need not wait for a pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops to take action. Latin America has changed since the 1980s, as has the U.S. church, but as in those days, it can be people in the pews who lead the church to engage in this vital work of liberation.

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John Donaghy
6 years ago
As a lay missionary in western Honduras, I'm grateful for your article, especially the emphasis on the economic issues here. I think that the economic issues are harder for US Catholics to deal with, especially the social and political aspects of these issues which involve US trade policy and the actions of major corporations. Thus solidarity is taking on different forms - and may be neglecting some of the critical justice dimensions and political questions. I am involved in two sister parish relationships. People do seek relationships and the sharing of faith, but without some careful analysis this can become another way for US Catholics to be "good" neighbors, emphasizing the personal and not really facing the fact that the neighborhood needs to be changed, and that US policy has negative effects on the neighborhood. Another issue is the changing face of the Central American church. There are not many dioceses that promote base communities and even many of these base communities are not those of the 19870s and 1980s which incorporated a strong social analysis. The hierarchy and the clergy are generally much less inclined to speak out forthrightly against the issues. There are exceptions, of course, including several Guatemalan bishops. Here in Honduras, the one outspoken bishop who had a clear option for the poor recently retired and it still remains to be seen how his replacement will ultimately respond to a diocese where most of the clergy and many of the laity supported the bishop in his opposition to mining interests and in the diocesan opposition to the 2009 coup. Even one archbishop considered liberal internationally is much more connected with political and economic elites than with the poor, despite his statements. It's probably the difference between a "liberal" church and a "liberationist" approach. Yet, is spite of this, I see small signs of hope, mostly from the base, from the poor who, thanks to some consciousness-raising by groups like the Santa Rosa diocese Caritas and the Jesuit-supported ERIC-SJ program in northern Honduras. In the long-term, more needs to be discussed, researched, and done. It won't be like the 1980s solidarity - nor should it be. But I do believe that a liberation approach, that recognizes and encourages the participation of the poor in the church and the nations, is critical for real change to happen. That will have to happen here as well in the US. How that is to be done I'm still trying to discern.


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