A Discussion with Alvaro Ramazzini, Bishop of San Marcos, Guatemala

With: Alvaro Ramazzini

January 30, 2009

Background: Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of the Diocese of San Marcos in Guatemala highlights the many challenges facing contemporary Guatemala through the prism of his experience in the rural agricultural district of San Marcos. These challenges include barriers that keep the poor from owning land; drug trafficking and organized crime; violent crime; child malnutrition; and a marginalized indigenous population. Bishop Ramazzini sees these challenges stemming from a crisis of coherence in the country's political and religious landscapes, in which leaders fail to act according to their ascribed ethical and moral values.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey?

My name is Álvaro Ramazzini. I was born here in Guatemala, though regrettably not in this lovely and ancient city of Antigua. I very much appreciate your invitation to be here, but sadly, I cannot stay long because I am participating in an international meeting near here on immigration. That's also an important meeting, especially as we look to the future.

I have been the bishop of the diocese of San Marcos for 20 years. Before that, all my work was as a professor at the national seminary and, from there, I also taught at the Institute of Religion of La Salle, in the spirit of the Christian Brothers' philosophy.

All my life I had wanted to do direct pastoral work; that was my motivation when I entered the seminary. But life took an opposite direction, and for many years I was part of the academic life, working as a professor, teaching various theological subjects. But after 16 years of this work, and after I had specialized in various topics, I had the chance to be the pastor in an indigenous community, Cachiquel, that is not far from here. It was a very large parish with a totally indigenous population. And there I saw clearly the diversity of our small, very diverse country. I am myself what we call “Ladino,” or a mixture of races. I have some Indian ancestry.

And so I went to live there among those people. And what Oscar [Azmitia] said earlier is quite true: what proved to be for me one of the most significant aspects of the experience was the spontaneity in the religious practice of these people. Thus, sometimes I was walking down the street, and because they knew that I was the parish priest, they suddenly needed for me to say something. And suddenly, in the middle of the street they stopped me and said, “Look, I need you to speak to me.” And they knelt there in front of me in the middle of the street.

This kind of happening was a bit strange for me at first, but I realized that it was that vital synthesis, that there is no separation between faith and life. At one level, that is indeed true. But then, through the country's socioeconomic structures, we ourselves have helped to create a polarization or a dualism in our practice and in our failure to understand the patterns of life.

I went there as a priest but only stayed one year. I was very happy there.

And then I was named bishop for the diocese of San Marcos. The diocese of San Marcos is about 250 kilometers from here. We are along the Mexican border with Chiapas, but far from all the conflict that has occurred there. We are good neighbors, most of all with the city of Tapachula. We are indeed a border crossing point. We have over the years seen hundreds and hundreds of immigrants who are trying to get north.

I often say, while preaching in my diocese, that San Marcos is a mirror of Guatemala's situation. That is to say, a situation where poverty is increasing steadily, to a point where it is tempting to ask, "Well, what we are achieving with all our development efforts? What are the results? What impact are we having?” Because the efforts involved are substantial, as we all know, and they have called for difficult decisions and tough measures. But there remain serious structural problems, at least here in Guatemala. We need to reflect on the topic.

So, to reiterate, all Guatemala's problems and challenges are concentrated in San Marcos, starting with increasing impoverishment. The Department of Homeland Security in the United States sends many emigrants away. Hundreds and hundreds of people from San Marcos are now in various states of the United States and are now facing the prospect of deportation. Many families are fearful that family members living in the United States will indeed be deported. Last year, the number of Guatemalans deported from the United States was 28,000, which is the equivalent of an entire city.

Don't forget that remittances are the second among Guatemala's income sources. That represents a real problem whose effects we are beginning to feel as part of the global economic problems. They have not really hit us in Guatemala yet, but the analysts say we will soon feel the impact.

And why do we send so many emigrants away? Because San Marcos reflects one of Guatemala's most serious structural problems, which turns around land tenure and land use. San Marcos has large plantations that are devoted to coffee cultivation and, more recently, palm oil and banana plantations. And the highlands of San Marcos, where PRODESA works (the organization that Brother Oscar Azmitia is part of), is a Mam and Sipacapense indigenous area with small holdings. There, land scarcity is a problem, and land conflicts are causing serious tensions. And serious problems are emerging there around water, because scarcities are beginning to be felt. And, unfortunately, gold was recently discovered in this region, so now we have both gold and silver. We now have in our midst a mining company, Montana, a subsidiary of Goldcorp, which is the world's third largest producer of gold and silver. They have a project which we are opposing openly for various reasons that I can summarize quickly.

But what I want to underline for you is that San Marcos has a serious structural problem in land tenure and use. And seeing Brother Oscar here reminds me of a Christian Brother, a member of Oscar's congregation, Brother Sebastian, who had very clear and firm ideas. He fought hard for justice and died because of the tensions around agriculture. Thus we face serious land issues in San Marcos.

The end result of this situation is grave. I am pleased that Dr. [Zilda] Arns [Neumann] and Sister Anita [Frantz] are here with us. Sister Anita works with me in San Marcos on the first program in Guatemala that brings the Childhood Pastoral program from Brazil. Guatemala has high levels of child malnutrition. As a Guatemalan, I am ashamed to say it, but whenever I have a chance I do draw attention to it. We have 49 percent of our children 1 to 5 years old who are chronically malnourished and 59 percent of children 1 to 5 years old in the indigenous areas that are chronically malnourished. The bishops of Guatemala have always stressed that there are two major sectors in this country that have been excluded from the nation's development, human and otherwise—the peasants and the indigenous peoples. So we face a challenge for everything that concerns our human development programs, to make more progress, even if it is a drop of water in a big ocean. We must work to change this situation. So in San Marcos we have these problems, overlaid on more traditional and chronic underdevelopment issues.

We are now here in the historic city of Antigua. The first bishop of Guatemala was Francisco Marroquín. Among his papers was found a letter he wrote to the king of Spain (I cannot recall who it was at the time) during the early seventeenth century. He asked the king to prohibit the Indians from the highlands from moving down to the coast of Guatemala. Here, we are in the highlands, in a valley, but not far from here is the coastal plain, Escuintla, and today that whole area grows sugarcane and produces lots of sugar. Bishop Marroquín asked the king to ban the Indians from moving because, for every two or three Indians who moved down, one was killed and another returned home sick. When I arrived in San Marcos I was impressed that, even 500 years later, the same thing is happening. That is, there is a huge exodus of Indians who go down to the coffee farms to pick coffee during the harvest season for miserable wages.

Now there's a lively discussion today here in Guatemala because the present government decided to raise the minimum wage, which was 35 quetzales a day in the countryside—we are talking about four or five dollars a day—to 52 quetzales. It is a small increase but nevertheless significant. The reaction has been, among the employers, that this will force them to fire workers because they will be unable to pay the minimum wage. So, in San Marcos, we are seeing coffee estates where people cannot find work or where they are offered work and told, “If you want to work for 20 quetzales a day”—20 quetzales is $2.50—“you can work on those terms, but otherwise, there is no work.” So we have this phenomenon in the San Marcos region of workers who come down to the coast with their whole family, children and wife, which also creates problems with school attendance since the children do not go to school regularly. This phenomenon has diminished somewhat because of development programs like those of PRODESA or those supported by the Catholic Church. World Vision also has some programs, as well as other organizations. But the problem is still a grave one.

Thus, San Marcos reflects a broader and fundamental problem of this country—that there has never been comprehensive agrarian reform. Whenever we talk of land reform, the response has been that we are communists, because there are still people who recall the attempts at agrarian reform under President Arbenz, who was overthrown with the support of the CIA in 1954.

It is significant that this historical memory is still used to dredge up the argument that religion was used there to support proposals that went against the interests of the poor. You should be aware that here in Guatemala people are very much attached to a very famous shrine (on the border with Honduras) to Santo Cristo de Esquipulas.

Under a flag of “liberation,” there were those who came to “free” the country from an incursion of Marxism and communism. And thus the attempt at agrarian reform was scotched. Sadly, like all historical processes of change, there was violence; there is always death. And there comes a breeding ground for revenge and resentment that people take advantage of to harm others.

But there has simply never been a comprehensive agrarian reform. And to this day when we talk of reform, the first argument people give is, “So, how do you want to divide up the land?” We respond we are not talking about a land reform that would take land away from some to give it to others. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace carried out a very interesting study on land reform, and it makes clear that land reform is not simply about taking land from some and spreading ownership among others. It is much more complete and integrated. We cannot deny that here in Guatemala there are large estates of vacant land, but here the right to private property is an absolute right. We do not recognize the role of property rights in that same way that we see them in the Church's social doctrine.

In San Marcos today we face, besides all the problems around extractive industries and gold and silver mining, the problem of drug trafficking, a problem that is bringing Guatemala to its knees. Here we are truly at the mercy of drug dealers; we are at the mercy of those who are part of organized crime, as they are united. And today there is the aggravating factor that many young people are using now drugs—17-year-olds, also 16-year-olds being used as hitmen for the organization, part of planned targeted killings. The statistics are most alarming.

The problem of violence today in Guatemala is very serious. Last year, according to government statistics, there were more than 6,000 killings: murders, not people who died from illness, but murders. This concerns us, and we are alarmed because, especially in Guatemala City, many people now live with the psychosis of insecurity.

But we connect this insecurity with the structural problems; the lack of bold policies to change the situation of poverty; the lack of opportunity for many young people; family disintegration, which also is the result of migration; migration, which is the result of poverty; poverty, which is the result of injustice. It all forms part of the challenge and the need for change. We need to look for places where we can find the strength to cut the change and bring change.

In San Marcos, unfortunately, there is a region near the Tajumlco volcano where the Mam indigenous farmers are involved in planting and cultivating poppy. Poppy produces heroin. They become involved as drug dealers come and offer the farmers more money than they have ever received in their lives. They are offered 100,000 quetzales or 60,000 quetzales just to care for the plantations. The government, collaborating with the DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency], has made some inroads there, but even so they have made little real progress. They have not found development policies that will assure that the farmers are not trapped into temptation, the temptation to plant drugs in order to make big money.

And then, we are in a border area. We have the normal problems of a border, but they are sharply accentuated by the dramas of increasing migration and deportation.

So, we face the structural problem of unresolved land conflicts, which in a sense reflects the problem of the entire country. We have indigenous people who are marginalized and excluded. We face serious problems of child malnutrition. We face a broad inertia of the state because of its bureaucracy. This morning I read in the newspaper that the Constitutional Court has stated that the first lady's program, called "Mi Familia Progresa," has been declared unconstitutional because it acts in ways it should not. One observer, not taking sides, said, “If an action is being done for the people, why is the court now seeking to work against it?” They will surely find ways to resolve the impasse, but in all likelihood it will not be the best way.

Here, we live with the reality that everything is politicized. Everything is politics at the level of party politics. One party needs to attack the other, or it is the other one that attacks. Thus, there is no moral conscience, no ethical grounding. I see myself in a country that indeed has a national unity but no ethical compass or sense of direction, as a result of its history, of the marginalization that indigenous peoples have lived, and the failure to integrate the rural populations, which are in fact the majority of the people.

I serve today as bishop in this diocese. I wanted to make a point of and touch on the negative things. There are also, of course, very positive aspects. There are, for example, extraordinary efforts to develop human resources. Take, for example, the Church program for early childhood development and programs that increase access to education for young people. There are advocacy efforts to strengthen the indigenous organizations, the peasant organizations. They have won in labor struggles in favor of farmers. There have been negotiations. There are groups that have access to land. But in the end, on balance, I wanted to identify and highlight the challenges we still have before us, because they are challenges for the entire country, not only for the region of San Marcos. 

But what is my own interest in all this? I will summarize it briefly. My concern is that I find that, at this point, the vast majority of Guatemalans are seeking to link their faith to practice, to relate their faith to their lives. And it is something that is still far away. So I think that the crisis of Christianity in this country is that we have forgotten the essence of Christianity, which can be boiled down to just two things: to love God and to love your neighbor. That is being a Christian. Because we are believing Christians, 98 percent in this country are Christians. That is, if you ask any Guatemalan, “Do you believe in God?” he will say, “Yes, I believe in God.” “What is your religion?” They will say, “I'm a Christian.” Today we do face the problem of aggressive proselytizing fundamentalists, who work from the notion that, “We are going to win more customers for our evangelical denominations.” This is not about the historic churches, not Lutheran, not Methodists, not Presbyterians, but all the rest.

The crisis that I see is, above all, a crisis of coherence. Last week, in a press communiqué, we [the Catholic bishops of Guatemala] stated that we saw the essence of the Guatemalan problem as ethical incoherence. We were speaking of ethical values, which is above all about the fact that those who have economic power in this country, or who have power because they hold positions in the government, or for whatever other reason, forget the moral values of justice, truth, solidarity, of sharing, of truly understanding that you have principles and you have to live according to those principles. So there is a lack of faith in the political class. Everything that has happened this past year in Congress, the large amounts of money that were lost, the attitudes of corrupt officials, judges who allow themselves to be bribed, businessmen for whom nothing matters but business, business, profit, profit. All this we have discussed and analyzed, and we come back to the conclusion that it is the product of a basic moral failing, the inconsistency between moral and ethical practice.

If we raise this to a religious level, then the problem becomes still more serious. What I see, as I reflect on our country's religious landscape, is a scenario where the Christian religion, which most Guatemalans believe in, has been transformed, as Oscar said so well, into a weapon of confrontation and not of unity, where what prevails is the desire to win customers. And we use a contemporary phrase: that Guatemalan society has become an active religious market, as if religion were a supermarket, where everyone can find what he likes. But you cannot find in this environment the essence of Christianity.

Which takes me to the preferential option for the poor. This has led me to engage in a radical way, with a passion, as I have heard it called, to transform this society. I believe that this is the crisis of Christianity in this country, a crisis of inconsistency between what one says about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and then how one tries to live.

Unfortunately, there are influential sources in various quarters, relying heavily on Old Testament theology, who are advancing what we call a "gospel of prosperity." That is, if you have great wealth, it is because God has blessed you, but if you are poor it is because God has cursed you. The theological proposition then is, “We will teach you how to act so that you will be blessed by God and succeed in your business. If you do well in business, it is because you really are doing what God wants, but if it goes wrong it is clearly because you are doing something that God does not approve of.” This theology of prosperity is very dangerous, especially in a country that is so poor and so beleaguered and beaten down by violence. Truly the almost 40 years of violence that we lived through during the armed conflict has left its mark on our country. I firmly believe that much of the violence that we face today is the legacy of the time of violence and repression, which was brutal.

We undertook a project that we called the “Recovery of Historical Memory” to explore what indeed was the sequence of events, the history, actors, victims, perpetrators, methods, etc. The result was that one of our bishops, who was behind the effort, was assassinated. The bishop, Juan Gerardi, was killed only two days after submitting the report, which was called “Guatemala, Never Again.” We experienced an era of very harsh and very deep repression that has left a deep mark.

I believe that in this country we have lost the ability to solve our problems through dialogue. And if we add to this the state's inefficiency, if we add to its individualistic interests, the picture becomes quite clear. It is a sad picture of attacks along roads, lynchings, and savage and brutal violence that scarcely seems possible. I have been affected directly by it in the region where I live. I am struck that the people are very friendly, smiling, and seemingly relaxed. But in an instant they can be transformed into a violence that one could scarcely imagine. The kind that shouts, “Burn, throw gasoline,” and so on. We are all in this together.

I underline this because it is central to the topic. I am most grateful to Katherine [Marshall] for inviting me to be with you for awhile. Long ago we were [at the 2000 Millennium Summit of Religious Leaders at the United Nations] in New York with many religious leaders. And there it was interesting to see what we were living here at on a much smaller scale, as there was an argument and a struggle there among the religious leaders. Instead of taking that opportunity to look towards a peaceful common horizon for humanity, with respect for all, they argued. It was incredible. On one of the panels where I participated, the discussion took the form of one religion attacking another, then the other defended and came back to attack the other. Perhaps it is part of being human, as we are all marked by sin and weakness, and we always have a need to be strengthened.

Finally, I want, for several reasons, to talk about the issue of the battle we are waging against the gold and silver mining activity. First, we have a Guatemalan law on the subject that needs to be fundamentally reformed, and deputies have not acted on it. Secondly, the law sets standards for assessing environmental impact that are very low and therefore increases the risk of permanent damage, given what we know about the dangers of acid mine drainage. Third, the law allows companies to be exempt from taxes for their first seven years of operation—they pay no taxes of any kind during that period. And then, they have the right to use all the water they need, whatever they say they need, and this in a region where people do not even have water for their crops.

And finally, there is also the requirement for consulting indigenous peoples, under the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, that is not respected because they say there is no specific regulation and therefore the provision does not apply, although Guatemala has ratified the convention. Apart from the tensions that we can see this produces in the affected communities, this is a national economic issue, in that Guatemala still receives only 1 percent in royalties. All these factors have led us to say, “No, gentlemen, Guatemala is not for the extractive industries of gold and silver.” Guatemala has other development alternatives, because in the end this type of industry is only about making money and winning; that's what matters. So that is why we have become involved in the issue.

I would like to conclude by saying that, for me personally as well as for the bishops' conference, we want to be truly consistent on all that involves the body of teaching and social doctrine of the Church. That is especially true for the most recent general bishops' conference documents, which have special importance. They begin with the Medellin Declaration, followed by the Puebla Document, then the Document of Santo Domingo, and finally the fifth conference we held recently, in Aparecida, Brazil. Here we reaffirm once again the commitment to a preferential option for the poor and excluded.

And we used a phrase that I think is important to share with you, because it reflects the way that we see the situation. It is no longer adequate to talk only about those who are “excluded.” We must talk about people who are not even within the society, or outside the society, but simply do not exist. In the Aparecida Document we use a phrase "disposable" to refer to those who are seen as worthless. Worthless because they are not competitive, because they are not productive, and so on. Thus, in the latter part of the Aparecida Document we highlight the vital need and the importance of renewing our social mission, in a structured and organized fashion; to renew and revitalize ourselves, including inter-agency partnerships, with groups or organizations, whether they are Catholic or non-Catholics, Christians or non-Catholics, who share the same ideals of solidarity and promotion of human justice.

The final part of the document highlights very clearly that we see a profound interrelationship between evangelization and human promotion. We are aware that there can be no true and integral evangelization without human development. That's what we said at the fourth conference when we stated that human development is an integral part of the new evangelization. And thus we face the challenge of making our own Catholics appreciate that you cannot be truly Catholic if you do not agree about the need to transform reality on the ground. That's where I see how the mentality that prevails in many non-Catholic Christian groups; those we term “evangelicals” who are not part of the historic churches, have a very dichotomized mentality and way of thinking that separates clearly the body and the spirit.

We can take this a bit further. You can look at what we see in the villages in these terms, especially the worldly—worldly not in the biblical sense of the term, the Gospel of St. John for example, but “world” in the sense of a total dichotomy. Thus the profane in the world is of the devil. That which is not profane, the religious, is of God—thus what is of God is sacred. And this is quite influential in many indigenous communities where, as I indicated to you, there is a spontaneous linking of faith and life. But there they are also subject to all the propaganda that comes via the radio. The media is another topic of concern here in Guatemala. The media are not channels of communication that act in the service of integral human development; rather, they are in the service of business in the negative sense of the word, or they are at the service of Christian fundamentalist groups. In this country we have 400 pirate, non-licensed evangelical radio stations. There are 100 unauthorized Catholic stations. That is not good. It shows that there's a vacuum of authority that is doing damage to the country. If you listen to the radio stations here, and you should try it, you will find at any moment that they are broadcasting “Christian” (in quotation marks) music and “Christian” messages. But these have little or nothing to do with real life.

So I applaud the efforts that you are making here, trying to heighten consciousness and awareness that life and faith come together and must do so. We dream of a world where all members feel that they truly belong to the same planet and religion, instead of feeling separate, where we have mutual respect, and where religion is truly an instrument for unity and change

So again, thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with you today. I genuinely regret not being able to stay. And tomorrow we have the ordination of a new bishop to the east in the Diocese of Zacapa. I must be there, because otherwise I would have liked to remain here, because it is a topic that interests and excites me greatly, because that is where I must put all my efforts, is it not so?

Just last night, I was talking with Dr. Arns, because she was asking me about the stance of the bishops' conference and whether it would be involved in efforts of the Church for early childhood programs. And I said yes, we made that commitment some years ago. Now we are trying to be more concrete, because the commitment was only in words, but we are trying to change that. That is why Sister Anita is there now as the coordinator of the program in San Marcos, because we want to demonstrate to our Catholic congregants that being Catholic does not mean a Catholic practice of religion, as consoling as that is to me, but it is as Alejandro [Bilbao] said so well, being with poor people and sharing their joys and their hopes.

So we still have much work to do in this country. But I believe these initiatives will go a long way to help. I can say this confidently at least for the Guatemala Episcopal Conference, and the same is being said elsewhere in the world. Here when we speak of faith and social commitment, we always hear two adjectives in criticism, “You are political and politicized. Instead of doing all that you should, you are simply trying to ensure that Catholics are not lost to the evangelical groups.” That's the first thing they say to us. And the second is that, “You are communists; you are Marxists.” These two epithets are what we are always called, even within Catholic communities. “And you, bishop, why are you meddling in this matter that is my business? What you should be doing is to stay there in the Cathedral of San Marco and see that people do not leave.”

It is difficult, then, to shine the light on the social implications of religious practice. I wish you an excellent seminar, and I sincerely thank you, Katherine, for inviting me to be with you. And I genuinely regret that I cannot stay because I have much more I would like to share.

We will continue our discussions without you, I fear, but one way or another we will be in touch with you!

And especially right now, because we are all concerned with these issues, as we are working towards a comprehensive immigration reform. This is an issue that concerns not only us, here, but also bishops in the United States and Mexico. We are meeting here, because as you know we have an estimated one and a half million Guatemalans in the United States. We are 12 million here, I say if they decide to return here in a single swoop... I do not know what would happen. Thank you so much for the invitation. I appreciate it and wish you an excellent meeting.

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