Latin American Concerns Committee Report to Pacific Yearly Meeting Annual Session 2016

In 1997, PYM annual session established a standing Latin America Concerns Committee to gather and disseminate information to Pacific and other Yearly Meetings regarding Friends groups and service projects in Latin America. The intention is to support rather than replace spirit-led projects already supported by Monthly Meetings, Worship Groups and individual Friends.

LACC has met three times since last annual session. This Annual Session we are assisting Robert Broz, Director of El Salvador Projects in attending. He will be presenting an Interest Group to inform PYM about conditions in El Salvador and his work there.

LACC and Peace and Social Order Committee brought a minute to PYM Annual Session in 2015 which was supported by Annual Session as follows:

“  This year six monthly meetings in Pacific Yearly Meeting have approved minutes of concern for refugee children crossing the border from Latin America. A special subcommittee of the Latin American Concerns Committee, Child Refugees and Migration, was formed to address this concern. Many Friends have taken action from visiting elected officials, accompanying a local child refugee through the legal processes, to traveling to Texas to be in solidarity with these children and their families. Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Annual Session supports the efforts of the LACC and numerous other Friends who are seeking justice and showing compassion toward those who are fleeing the violence in their home countries and need a place of refuge in our country. We encourage monthly meetings and individual Friends to read the attached minutes and take them to heart. We also encourage Friends to support the efforts of AFSC and FCNL to promote just and compassionate policies toward immigrants.” 

Reports of the subcommittee and service projects follow:

Child Refugee and Migration Subcommittee

We have been meeting regularly, tracking and reporting on the work of some monthly meetings, collecting and sending on information and information sources about child and family asylum seekers coming from Central America, adding to the resource list on the PYM website and following political changes and challenges regarding these refugees. We have planned an Interest Group for 2016 Annual Session presented by Rev. Deborah Lee. She is the Director of Immigration-Northern California at the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity in Oakland. She will be speaking about her bay area interfaith immigration work as well as the People of Faith-Root Causes-Delegation to Central American that she led last August to Honduras and Guatemala.

In the minutes of our meetings we have discussed and shared specifics about Johanna’s asylum-seeking (Redwood Forest), Sonia’s perseverance and status (Santa Barbara), the providing of sanctuary and assistance to a family (La Jolla), family detention challenges, new information about programs from various sources, reports on the East Bay Sanctuary visit to Central America, learned of and passed on ideas about how we can help even if not near the border, and provided encouragement and information to monthly meetings.

We want to do more educating of ourselves, advocacy and making presentations, and supporting meetings providing sanctuary. We are planning an Interest Group for Annual Session with the leader of the Bay Area Immigration Covenant as speaker.

Casa de los Amigos

Casa de los Amigos approaches yet another transition! This one is all good, and the Casa is in a good spot. There’s a board meeting this Saturday to, among other things, make a final decision about a new executive director. To all of you good Casa allies out there, here are three accurate 2016 Casa talking points you can use to talk to anybody in the world about Casa de los Amigos:

     1. 2016 is the Casa’s 60th anniversary year! There will be a celebration in October, and the Casa’s deep roots will be a present theme throughout the year. The celebration will also serve as a release date for a long-awaited book about Casa de los Amigos. Kickstarter campaign launches any minute now, when you hear about it please help spread the word!

     2. The Casa’s peace work is stronger than ever. You have to visit to truly get a sense of the dizzying array of projects and movements that the Casa is meaningfully involved in. But you should know that the Casa houses thousands annually in its peace guesthouse, provides emergency housing to migrants and refugees, central meeting space for dozens of NGOs, supports local small producers and solidarity economics, has a cool environmental concerns program, and is a social justice clearinghouse for movements and groups from around Mexico and the world. 

     3. Hayley Hathaway is sad to go but feels right in her decision to turn the page and leave the Casa after over six years of nonstop service. The good news is that the Casa today is on an excellent footing, a wide net has been cast and 60-some applications received for the director spot. The important things to know about bringing in a new person at this time is that the person will arrive to a firm foundation of partner-based programs running strong, financial support and institutional networks, and a dynamite on-the-ground team willing to work to help orient, train and support a new director.

El Salvador Projects

Carmen Broz started the El Salvador Projects in the context of a civil war so viciously destructive that it brought this smallest country in Central America to the world’s attention. Her initiatives in child care, maternal and child health, early education, community development, and ultimately support for higher education for young people from poor rural families were transformative, bringing hope and tangible improvements to many lives. That legacy continues today. The candles we light with your support do more than dispel some of the darkness for individuals, as important as that is. Every child whose dream is made real, every family that takes a significant step away from the desperation of poverty into a more secure future, every young adult whose path leads to a role of positive service and leadership in the community – each of these demonstrates to others that there are realistic alternatives to despair. In my reports I share my experiences and observations with you frankly, confident that you will realize that in times of adversity the assistance and opportunities we are able to offer together become even more important.

Reports on social and economic conditions in El Salvador by both domestic and international news agencies are overwhelmingly dismal these days, reflecting a toxic blend of human activities and forces of nature:

  • Allegations and investigations of political corruption at high levels.
  • Escalating warfare that pits Salvadoran gangs against the police and military.
  • A dramatic decline in visits by tourists and solidarity delegations due to fear of violent crime and health risks caused by serious new viruses – Chikungunya in 2015 and Zica fever in 2016 – which are spread by mosquitoes, like the dengue that preceded them, and are now common in the region.
  • A failing economy that is affected by all of the above factors.

Reforms to a 1959 anti-corruption law were passed in December of 2015 and put into effect in January of 2016. Since then, 29 investigations have been opened against past and current politicians and high-level government employees. These reforms were pushed through by the governing FMLN in alliance with other parties and opposed by the right-wing ARENA party, which expected the law to be used against former officials of the ARENA party who controlled the central government for more than 20 years with obvious corruption and no fear of criminal charges.

In practice, application of the law appears impartial. High-level politicians including three former presidents, one of them the immediate past president Mauricio Funes (FMLN), are being investigated to determine sources of financial gain during their terms in office. Current FMLN Vice-President Oscar Ortiz was accused of having had business ties in a local land development company since the early 2000’s with Salvadoran drug lord José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias Chepe Diablo, who was named years ago by the U.S. as the leader of El Salvador’s Texis drug cartel.

The dramatic news of allegations against Ortiz nearly made Salvadorans forget about Francisco Flores of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, President from 1999-2004, who was under house arrest for embezzling millions of dollars of a donation from Taiwan. Flores’s reported illness and death soon after being admitted to a private hospital is suspected by many of being a well-orchestrated trick to get him out of the country. They ask why no autopsy was performed and why the family held a low-profile, closed casket burial. Even in social media networks like Facebook, photos of the Flores family celebrating in the US were published shortly after the funeral. The now-famous Panama Papers reveal tax evasion by most of El Salvador’s larger companies as well.

Although currently we see few news reports like those of early 2015, when literally thousands of minors fled El Salvador and Honduras to escape the intense violence caused by gangs, the situation has hardly improved. Both countries are still listed as the most violent countries in the world where there is no war going on. In 2015 El Salvador surpassed Honduras in violent deaths per capita, and now leads the world in that grisly statistic.

I can foresee no quick fix for this complex situation, of course. Some of the newer programs at both local and central government levels may lead to long-term improvements, but even these can involve drastic tactics that impact the general population. No longer willing to negotiate with the leaders of internationally recognized organized crime groups, the government has combined police and military efforts to disable the high commands of the gangs. A recent initiative involved working with cell phone companies to block signals at the prisons, an imprecise process that usually causes residents of surrounding areas to lose their phone service. With many gang leaders operating from prison and a low-paid prison guard receiving up to $3000 per illegal phone introduced to the prison, little more could be done. Just days before the signal blocking was implemented, a cell phone with $20,000 in credit was decommissioned from one inmate. This was possible, apparently, because a new way to send money using cell phones was implemented by two of the larger telecommunication companies. It is assumed that these new ways to send money are now used to transfer illicit funds to the kingpins in prison.

As I write this report, a newly trained battalion of soldiers is scheduled to be on the streets by late April. These 600 elite soldiers will join 400 police attempting to catch gang members as they flee from one gang-ridden area to another just before a police operation, a practice that has been common for years and raises the suspicion that gangs have infiltrated the police and military. This new unit is very controversial, compared by right wing politicians and the local press in many cases to abuse of police and military forces in the 1970s and 1980s, but now controlled by the FMLN rather than by the military dictatorships of the past.

As I said earlier, Salvadorans are drastically affected by the country’s worsening economy. The U.S. State Department and many other foreign government websites list El Salvador as the most violent country in the world, with travel advisories that discourage travel to El Salvador because of the high level of violence and several dangerous mosquito-transmitted viruses. The result is an enormous decline in private travelers, as well as solidarity, religious, and educational delegations. Tourism, which had been considered until 2015 one of the fastest growing components of El Salvador’s economy, is now withering.

In just two groups I work with in addition to the El Salvador Projects of Palo Alto, I have seen more than 20 delegations cancel trips planned for 2016, causing non-profit organizations in both El Salvador and the U.S. to re-evaluate current budgets, reduce projected spending, let staff go, and in one case even close the local offices. If we combine this with the loss of income to small communities where project money is spent, and additional services like food services and transportation are taken into account, the lost income enters into to every aspect of the local economy, motivating Salvadorans both young and old to consider taking the dangerous trip to the north in search of the American Dream that more than three million Salvadorans already live.

On a much brighter side, some positive programs are in place around the country – better street lighting, full school days, sports and arts programs, vocational training programs, scholarships, seed and fertilizer programs to insure a decent production this season and income for the poor campesinos who continue to produce the majority of our local grains on small parcels of land. How different their lives are from those of the large sugar cane and coffee producers who form part of the wealthiest upper-class of Salvadoran society!

In the private sector, too, determined efforts continue for a new El Salvador with a positive future. Since the September 2015 death of my mother Carmen Broz, founder of our Projects and our university student loan program in El Salvador, and more recently the death of my good friend Frank Cummings, who was an attender of Atlanta Friends Meeting and founder of two other local scholarship programs, I have seen positive changes. Within the municipality of Suchitoto Frank was my “accomplice in Education,” as I used to say, for the last ten years. Frank and I worked for years to unite several educational programs and now, in 2016, we are moving very quickly to do just that in honor of his work.

We now hold monthly student meetings with around 90 university students supported by our own El Salvador Projects, the programs of Frank Cummings, and Santa Lucia Parish. I oversee a new scholarship program managed by a local non- profit called CORDES that has financial support from the City of Suchitoto. At our meeting in April when we asked for volunteers to form a new committee of scholarship students, nine stepped forward in just five minutes! The new committee met on April 10th to start work on planning this year’s University Fair, a task that Frank and I had done alone for the past nine years. As I write this report, students from the new committee will be visiting the six schools in Suchitoto that offer high school (secundaria) to promote the upcoming Fair, the several financial aid programs, and the opening of the entrance process at the National University to the 2016 graduating high school students in Suchitoto. The committee will also be responsible for all logistics of the Fair, and with some guidance will help with the selection of scholarship students for the different programs in 2017. A dream Frank and I shared is to one day have the programs not only managed by ex-beneficiaries, but even supported financially by the professionals we have helped to gain a college education. We are on the path!

You will probably not be surprised when I say that the months since our last newsletter have been a period of mourning and intense emotion for me. In addition to my own mother’s death and the death of my dear friend Frank, my work has involved situations of a kind that are all too common in El Salvador. I think the case that continues to be most unsettling to me is that of Erika, a young woman from a small, remote village in the rural northeast part of Suchitoto who started in our program in 2015. Erika contacted me late last year, telling me she would be unable to continue her studies in modern languages in 2016. Initially she said only that her decision was for personal reasons, but as I questioned her she told me her mother had given birth, had complications, and was admitted to the hospital. As the only daughter, Erika decided to drop out of school to bring up her new little sister. When I realized that this was the only realistic option for Erika and her family I cried, as I am now while writing this report, knowing there is little that I or our program can do to help. I have told Erika that we will help her in the future if she decides to go back to school, but as her mother continues to deal with serious health issues she does not see this as a possible future.

My work as Project Director has always involved difficult situations, and although this case was more severe and personally emotional than many others over the past eleven years, I always find peace and joy knowing our programs have made a difference and will continue to make El Salvador a better country. I see an example in one of our new students, Rosa Isabel, who is in her first year of medicine at the Salvadoran University Alberto Masferrer (USAM). Rosa Isabel is the oldest daughter of one of our past students, Rosa Orellana, who studied and is now a licensed teacher working at one of the rural schools in Suchitoto. Rosa Isabel tried to enter the National University where the medical program is one of the hardest to get into. When she did not make the cut she was still determined to follow her dream and study medicine. She also opted to join our coed student house in San Salvador, where 22 students from five different programs live. One of our continuing students in the house is a third-year student of medicine, and Rosa has already used this in-house resource for tutoring in this first year. Rosa Isabel was last on my list for new student candidates in 2016, but when Erika told me she would not be continuing her studies, we opened her spot for young Rosa Isabel. This late and final addition of Rosa Isabel to our list of new students in 2016 felt so right, and it brought a feeling of light and peace in this work that at times can be difficult.

Guatemala Friends Scholarship Program (PROGRESA)

PROGRESA has just celebrated its 43rd year providing an opportunity for education to rural, poor Mayans. We saw 17 of our students graduate in 2015. Their careers included teaching, law, nursing, natural resources, computer science and bookkeeping. In the 2016 school year, we have 75 new and continuing students. Most are women and they are studying at the university level.

Progresa’s Teaching English Experience has just completed its 7th year with 15 North Americans and 15 Progresa students sharing a fun-filled and rewarding week together in Antigua, Guatemala. Join us next year January 3-11, 2017.

In the 1990’s Progresa received funding for scholarships for refugees of the armed conflict from Casa de los Amigos when Casa laid down their Central American Refugee Program. We were invited to the community who received these scholarships, Primavera del Ixcan, for their annual meeting and celebration. It is in a remote area and it was an adventure getting there. We have 18 former and 2 current students from this community. In a meeting with our former students (many are teachers), we learned that this community has an educational system far superior to other communities in remote areas with 97% of their children finishing primary school. One of our former students was responsible for obtaining governmental approval for a high school in the community, a major achievement.

The new President of Guatemala just appointed one of our former students, Hector Canto, Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of rural education. Hector has asked to speak with our director, Miguel Costop, about Progresa’s work in rural education. We look forward to this collaboration.

Hector Canto was the keynote speaker at our Annual Student Conference where he sought in-put from our students and encouraged their participation in improving rural education. A Meeting for Worship was held and over 50 of our students joined the four North American Quakers present in a deeply moving spiritual experience.

For more information about the scholarship program or the Teaching English Experience next January, call Donna Smith (707)542-2874 or Harriet Lewis (707)526-1066 Co-Clerks of the program at Redwood Forest Meeting.

Submitted by Donna Smith, Co-Clerk