A Discussion with Eduardo Magermans, Christian Radio Producer

January 5, 2016

Background: Eduardo Magermans occupies a unique vantage position at the convergence of public policy and Christian life in Guatemala. As an evangelical, he engages religious communities through radio and TV outlets to promote civic participation among evangelical churches; as an independent consultant to various faith-based social projects and organizations, he has first-hand exposure to the challenges faith-inspired organizations face in their social work. Mr. Magermans sees significant progress, after decades of reluctance, in evangelical engagement with politics and civic life, especially among young church members, in Guatemala. Eduardo Magermans met with Carlos Martinez Ruiz in Guatemala City on January 5, 2016, as part of the fieldwork for the WFDD/Berkley Center mapping project on religion and development in Guatemala.

Could you tell me about your personal and professional background?

I am 42 years old and was born in Costa Rica, but a Guatemalan family adopted me at a very young age and I grew up in Guatemala. I am a marketer—I have experience in social marketing, certification in community development from a program in Japan, and a certification in management in social projects development. I’m also the host of a civic political radio program on a Christian radio station. As an independent consultant, I am providing counsel to International Justice Mission (IJM). I’m also the director of the campaign We Are Not Moving Backwards (No Retrocedemos), which is an advocacy campaign that aims to influence governmental decisions in favor of good practices and against impunity in cases of sexual violence within the justice system in Guatemala.

Could you first explain to me your work with IJM and the work you do independently, on the radio, and with your other consultations?

With IJM, my job is to influence the three entities of the justice system, including the National Civil Police and the Public Ministry. And I work with the decision-makers like those in the Congress of the Republic and the executive branch. In my professional and private life, I represent D-twelve Productions (D-doce Producciones), which raises awareness within the community about participation in public politics. I think we have somewhat forgotten that the moment we turn 18 and become adult citizens, we begin to have rights, but at the same time, obligations. A lot of times we only see the rights that we need, but not the obligations. Therefore, part of our work is to train and influence people so that they become responsible citizens.

And your focus is on Christian citizens?

Precisely. Logically, because of my platform on the Christian radio station where I have the civic political program Let’s go Guate (Vamos Guate), we gear ourselves towards that group. When we speak of Christians, we mean Catholics and evangelicals. In our work in rural areas or in the communities, we are greeted with different religious beliefs. We do not look to impose our beliefs, but instead we work through testimony from the Judeo-Christian traditions that we represent. It has helped us a great deal that they do not see things from only the ecclesiastical religious perspective, but that they also see that a citizen respects the beliefs, customs, and cultures of others. And that has been beneficial for the sustainable development of the communities where we’ve worked.

When you started with that work, what was the relationship or attitude of Christians towards the public administration?

It’s important to differentiate between two things. One is that, without a doubt, the evangelical Protestant Church has not wanted to directly involve itself in participation in public politics. But on the other hand it does interact, despite it being veiled, because the pastors have a relationship with members of the local government. For example, if they are going to build a church, they have to request permits, speak with the mayor, and build relationships. Thus, there are a lot of pastors that have relationships with political actors. They get to know each other, they talk, and sometimes they can even request certain benefits; not personal ones, but for the local government. They are already having an impact, but they don’t want to take responsibility as members of the church, so they leave it off to the side in order to be able to say that they don't take part in politics. But at the end of the day, they are indeed participating.

How are evangelicals involved in party politics?

There are many deputies, mayors, Community Councils of Urban and Rural Development (Consejos Comunitarios de Desarollo Urbano y Rural, COCODES) leaders, and community organization leaders that participate in politics. Guatemala has had a negative experience with two ex-presidents who openly said they were evangelical Christians, ex-president Ríos Montt, who is being arraigned right now, and Jorge Serrano Elías, who executed a self-coup d’état. We saw a third attempt with pastor Harold Caballeros, from the El Shaddai, but he wasn’t successful in reaching the presidency. Thus, the evangelical church has had its reservations about supporting evangelical candidates. If you are evangelical and you want to be partisan, it is preferred that you don’t mention your association with the church.

So evangelical communities reject political involvement because those who have participated have misrepresented them?

Yes, a monumental example is that of ex-president Jorge Serrano Elías, who had his picture taken leaving a strip club in New York. His second mistake was executing a self-coup, by which he wanted to remain in power but also eliminate the Congress of the Republic.

And when he was president did he present himself as an evangelical leader or simply as an evangelical adherent?

Just as an evangelical adherent, but it was found that the evangelical community supported him in the elections, which was very similar to what happened in 2015 with the presidential candidate Jimmy Morales, who was not the election favorite, but eventually the electorate rejected the other candidates. So we have two ex-presidents who have openly confessed to being evangelical Christians. One is being charged with genocide, and the other has made political and moral gaffes. That makes the evangelical church distance itself from party politics.

But now something different is emerging, perhaps since three or four years ago, where the young people of Guatemala have been getting involved in different social organizations, like the organization A Roof for my Country (Un Techo para mi País), which builds houses for the needy. Let’s Wake Up 2012 (Despertemos 2012), an organization that works in rural areas, had an event where 11,000 people held each other’s hands and climbed the Volcán de Agua volcano to protest domestic violence. Now with the phenomenon of Jimmy Morales, the new president, the evangelical churches are already starting to get involved; since April, they have held prayer sessions in the central park every Saturday at six in the morning.

And what are they praying for?

They are praying for change. There is a new project called I Am Samuel (Yo Soy Samuel), which includes prayer, fasting, and vows. It’s organized by Pastors of the Next Generation (Pastores de la Próxima Generación), who are young pastors that are starting to get involved in public politics issues. In addition, a forum was organized with the 14 presidential candidates, which I participated in as a moderator. Now the old guard of the evangelical church, which didn’t want to involve itself in politics in the past, is seeking a level of closeness. Young people who were not incentivized by the church to get involved in politics before are now participating in politics outside of the church.

Do these young evangelicals have any political affiliation in particular?

They don’t really have a political philosophy. I think the church needs to take the reins on what philosophy they can follow. For example, in the Bible, Jesus performs acts that could in part be interpreted as socialist, but in Proverbs it says that everyone who doesn’t work becomes poor and doesn’t eat, which could be considered a more capitalist view. On the other hand, it says that he who has must give. Therefore, in the Bible there is room for interpretation, political thoughts, and diverse philosophies.

Do young Christians need leadership from the church?

From a social point of view, there are no leaders in these movements. But from an ecclesiastical point of view, we do need leaders or role models. For instance, if I was appointed as a congressman, I would be an example for young Christians. My role within Congress would be based on my principles and values so that I could exercise leadership towards young people with my testimony.

Is there a tension between an elected representative espousing personal faith in a secular state, according to the constitution?

The state is secular, but I am referring to giving testimony with principles and values. Christians have already witnessed the church’s involvement. What’s incredible is that with this movement, we are seeing young Christian leaders who are starting to participate in party politics. Before, they went to church, but participated behind closed doors, and now, they are becoming well-known and they present themselves as Christians. This started with the Pray for Guatemala (Oremos por Guatemala) campaign, which was a prayer movement in the park that was promoted on social media, secular radio, and Christian radio. No ecclesiastical institution raised any flags about this. That means that society influenced the church when it should have been the opposite. From a citizen’s point of view, I don’t think that young people are going to move backwards. As a unit, as citizens, they’re already heavily critiquing their society.

What is the relationship of the evangelical church with other churches in terms of political involvement?

Despite belonging to the G4 group, which includes the Catholic Church, the evangelical church, the Office of Civil Rights, and San Carlos University of Guatemala, the evangelical church has not had a strong pull in that group. The leaders are the human rights attorney, the archbishop of Guatemala, and the dean of the university; the president of the Evangelical Alliance does not have much influence in the group. Something I find interesting is that the evangelical church organized the last forum with the presidential candidates in the 2015 election, so the church is already a bit more visible in political matters.

And how was the presidential debate justified, how was it presented, and how was the idea to create that forum born?

I think a big part of it could have been that Jimmy Morales confessed to having Christian principles. I don’t know if the church would have dared to organize the same debate if it had just been about the other candidates, Sandra Torres and Manuel Baldizón.

In terms of your professional work, can you describe your activities? What were the attitudes of the Christians you work with regarding public institutions and what is the evolution that you have seen?

I started walking in the communities in late 2009. You see the effects of poverty in Guatemala wherever you go, no matter what neighborhood. You see a stark contrast between the houses worth $1.5 million and the houses three or four blocks away that are not even worth $40. It’s a latent poverty, but since people live in a bubble, they turn a blind eye to the issue. When I was invited to participate and walk in the communities on the southern coast, I saw the way children grow up and lack opportunities. That’s when I realized that I could have ended up as one of those children if my adoptive parents hadn’t given me a chance. I also don’t want my son to grow up without opportunities in Guatemala and have to emigrate. So that’s when I began to get involved in social work. I wanted to learn more about the issues, so I started to read, and I learned that Costa Rica has the best education system in Central America—that it’s among the 10 best in Latin America--and that Cuba is number one. I learned that Colombia has created a nice synergy within the business sector and they’ve done private-public projects with education. I learned that Chile leads in nutrition. Thus, I decided to visit Costa Rica, but when they received me at the Ministry of Health they said to me, “We are going to teach you how we educate, but first comes nutrition.” The week after, I visited the Ministry of Education to learn about its programs and schools. Afterwards, I met with the Cuban Embassy and I brought them to the project I was doing in Retalhuleu. I learned from them about community pedagogy, which involves empowering teachers in community development. Then I formed an alliance with Promigas en Colombia. They sent me literature on how they united the public and private sectors in education. Then I approached the Chilean Embassy and they told me about how they tackled malnutrition in Chile. With all of this knowledge, I went to Japan and studied community development, and finally, with this wide variety of experiences, I created a model I call Arumonosagashi (finding the present), which is a Japanese word.

What is Arumonosagashi in the context of Guatemala?

We work with four development themes—human development, community development, local development, and territorial development. Community development comes from the Latin comunitas (community or common). A community respects the common good for the progress of all. I respect the parks, the highways, and roads—I respect, respect, and respect. Community development brings you to do projects for the common good. It doesn’t matter if you’re John or I’m Paul—both of us work to better our community.

Then comes local development, where John and Paul work to become more productive. If we already participated in the first phase, where we work together, it is going to be much easier to work on local development, like in co-ops. Territorial development is when we invite the local government to participate in our development. If we don’t participate in phases one and two, and we still ask the government to participate in our development, we are just asking for charity. But if we do phase one and phase two together, then we are just asking the government to contribute what it should—roads, drinking water, light, and municipal consideration.

Human development is working on ourselves as people. If we don’t work on ourselves, none of the other developments are brought about. Thus, what we do is break the behavioral barrier through testimony and identity within the communities.

What do you mean by testimony?

At D-twelve Productions we practice what we preach. I can’t speak as an entrepreneur if I don’t act as an entrepreneur. So what we do is we start to break the paradigms that exist within them as they form identities. We do this through workshops and projects, working with children and parents in rural and urban communities. The organization is secular and the majority of its members have Judeo-Christian principles.

How does D-twelve Productions initially reach the communities?

Does it have the support of the church? We're an organization that offers counsel to non-profit organizations. We have a corporate division that offers courses and training for companies as well as fairly priced counsel, which is based on the ability of the organization to pay. This is one of our greatest sources of income.

How do you view the role, impact, and actions of the churches or the faith-based NGOs in society?

I see that international organizations have the greatest influence in rural areas. Many of the local organizations, despite starting off as nationalists, end up asking the big international organizations for money. I’ve had the opportunity to go to communities where these organizations have intervened for many years, and when they leave, the communities can no longer survive without their support.

Is this lack of long-term sustainability very common?

Yes. For example, there’s a local organization that has a lot of money that comes and teaches how to grow decorative plants and how to sew textiles for exportation. Then they leave, but they don't give them the market; they taught them to use a sewing machine and they didn’t leave them the machines. So you have experts in sewing and experts in decorative plants but they don't have a market to sell their products. We think that if you come to contribute to local development, you have to do a feasibility study for the market and help them understand it. These are people who have never gone to school. Everyone who wants to become an entrepreneur needs to analyze the market and look at economic variability, or in other words, see if it’s feasible. They need to learn what the market price would be if the price and cost are high. There are other organizations that disguise themselves and ask people to produce an item for them, maybe for $0.50 cents, and then they turn around and sell it abroad for $9.

Now there are other locals who do receive higher earnings, but their surroundings don’t change because the organizations don’t care about their surroundings. They still have latrines and problems with diarrhea. There’s malnutrition in the family. They just have more money. So you see why development needs to be comprehensive.

Do these problems also occur with churches that have social programs?

I can’t say that the evangelical church really has a social branch like that. I think it offers charity more often. There are no programs. There is more assistentialism. In this day and age, there are churches that collect tons of rice and beans, yet children are still dying of malnutrition. Our concept of it is so twisted that if there’s a natural disaster, like what happened with the recent landslide in Cambray, people come and give out powdered milk and instant noodles when there is no drinking water. There are also international organizations that donate containers of expired medicine.

Does the state regulate the NGOs or the short-term missions in any way?

I’ve found so many North American organizations that do that and some of them do an excellent job. For example, Gateway Church brings an army of 60 people, but they don’t just leave the work, they also invest. They have very well developed logistics, and a good relationship with the tourism sector. I’ve seen good practices just as I’ve seen bad practices. I’ve seen containers filled with expired food and medicine. I’ve seen missions that come to impose what they think is necessary for the community. The community, which is needy, accepts it, but then later abandons it. When international NGOs come, we have to be well groomed and put on a show. On the other hand, there are local organizations that follow the money. So today they take care of the elderly, but tomorrow when USAID says it’s going to work on crime prevention, they switch their focus to crime prevention. If another organization says tomorrow that it wants to help the disabled, then they move towards that. There are bad practices. Here in Guatemala, we suffered a lot when international organizations decided that the greatest malnutrition problem was in the west and they stopped aid to the southern coast.

So the southern coast has been abandoned?

It’s the most industrialized part, and it seems like it doesn’t have problems. I can tell you that the southern coast is where the most jobs are created. Sugarcane, rubber, and African palm are produced there. But there is also a lot of need in the region.

Can you tell me about your radio program that tries to educate Christian communities on basic public administration concepts?

What we have done with the Let’s Go Guatemala (Vamos Guate) program, which is the first civic political program on Christian radio, is talk openly about politics. We believe in the seven spheres of transformation of a nation, which are: education, family, church, government, arts, media, and the business sector. Therefore, we invite leaders to discuss matters that favor the development of Guatemala. We try to create a positive mix of national current events based on Judeo-Christian principles. During these seven years that we have worked with the citizens, we have seen that there are conversations and phone calls to the studio taking place—they are more proactive now.

Finally, what is the outlook for the future of religious communities’ involvement in public matters?

There is a new awakening. About four months ago, we got together with various members of academia that invited me to participate in building the first school for citizen training, where training in public politics will be offered to members of the ecclesiastical communities.

This is the result of a forum, and includes training in public administration and political theory and practices. One of the advantages of this school is that it won’t just be taught in theory of administration or management. The idea is to reach the community, listen to their problems, and look for solutions. If someone wants to be a deputy, mayor, or expert on public politics, we try to guide them towards resources that will prepare them through the Citizen Training School (Escuela de Formación Ciudadana, EFC).

Opens in a new window