Political Travel between NYC and DC with a Guatemalan- Part 1

Gloria at the White House

Gloria at the White House

This is a look from the ground at issues from home that matter to a traveler and the sights that must not be missed. It’s a political/social combo.

This past March I accompanied a Catholic sister from Guatemala, Gloria, on a speaking and listening tour between New York and Washington, DC. Besides being a travel blogger, I’m a Catholic sister myself and I was on the committee that invited Gloria and arranged her itinerary. Gloria’s community in Guatemala, Holy Family, and mine in the US, Loretto, are sister communities.

I have to put in a note here that my Spanish is not very good and Gloria speaks French and her indigenous language but no English. Part of my planning included arranging hospitality with fluent Spanish speakers and finding interpreters for all events. I should also note at the beginning that Loretto has co-members as well as sisters. I’m not going to try to distinguish among them in this blog. They are all Loretto Community members. Finally, I knew Gloria from a trip I had made to Guatemala and we were both looking forward to traveling together.

Gloria landed at JFK in New York on March 15, met by Mary Peter, a bilingual teacher of English as a second language who lives in El Paso, Sally who staffs our UN office, and Rosa who is bilingual and also works at the UN.Gloria toured New York with Mary Peter over the weekend. They walked all day Saturday, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to the Museum of Modern Art, down 5th Avenue to SoHo. On Sunday they went to a Spanish Mass and to the Macy’s flower show. They had lunch and supper both days with friends of Mary Peter’s.

On Monday, March 19 and Tuesday, March 20, she attended the United Nations hearing on Guatemala’s commitment to the Human Rights Convention that Guatemala has signed. The hearing was in Spanish. I got to New York from St. Louis on Tuesday night.

Wednesday, Gloria and Mary Peter traveled with me to Washington, DC. We took a “Chinatown” bus for about $20 apiece from the lower east side. In DC we caught a cab and went directly to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), the same one that had provided testimony to the UN. The whole conversation was in Spanish, but it was about U.S. aid, the rise once again of the Guatemalan military, immigration, growing poverty. This was Spanish I could understand and I was getting my sea legs.

Gloria and I stayed with Anabel who is Bolivian and teaches Spanish for the State Department and Mary Peter stayed with Jeannine who works at New Ways Ministries, addressing both the spiritual and the human rights needs of gays and lesbians. You’ll see later that Gloria addressed questions on abortion and birth control in Guatemala but my Spanish is not good enough to explain New Ways Ministries to her.

Thursday morning Gloria, Mary Peter, the GHRC program director and I met with staff from the offices of Senator Carl Levin, chair, and Senator Claire McCaskill, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Representative Richard Larson, WA, member of the House Armed Services Committee.When I had made the contact with GHRC, Kathryn Johnson asked me about my background and when I told her I’d done work tracking and challenging the U.S. military budget, she suggested this visit to Congress. We had made the appointments in advance.

Here’s the problem. The United States sends about $150 million in military aid to Guatemala and less than $15 million in humanitarian aid. Most simply, we would like to see those figures reversed.

We would like to see training in community policing, not military use of force. Training of foreign armies has proved over and over to be the gift that keeps on giving as soldiers leave the army to provide security for drug lords and terrorists. We know that this is happening in Guatemala.In 2009, the DOD stopped reporting on training operations, though WikiLeaks gave us some information. But basically, we don’t know how that $150 million is being spent this year. So we asked for transparency.

Gloria described to these staff members of our Congress how insecure the people are. She sees soldiers marching past the school were she teaches. They were acting with civilians and local police but now, more and more, they are acting alone. Further, guns are more readily available to young men. Criminal violence is on the rise.

One of the congressional aides we met with explained that secrecy on military operations training in Latin America is heightened because there is an Al-Quaeda threat there. He said we were not going to find out how that $150 million is being spent. Nonetheless, he said he would ask and he suggested we ask through the Foreign Relations Committee as well as Armed Services. It is an important issue, he said, even though the war in Afghanistan takes most of the attention.

Afterwards we went to see the cherry blossoms. I have been to DC a lot, but never when the cherries were in bloom. What I hadn’t understood is the enormity of the show. Cherry trees line the basin where the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials stand. There are thousands of trees, all flowering. From there, we walked to the Martin Luther King Memorial and them home.Friday morning Gloria spoke to Anabel Landa’s State Department Spanish Class in Arlington, VA, answering lots of questions about life and politics in Guatemala.

Next, we met with the Center on International Environmental Law to discuss Goldcorp’s mine in San Marcos. Goldcorp, a Canadian company, owns and operates the Marlin Gold Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala.

The land was bought for a pittance, parcel by parcel, beginning in 2002 by men who said they were going to establish an orchid-growing operation and provide good local jobs. In about 2004 they gave a dinner for the community, asking everyone to sign in. The bishop and the local parish priest were among the attendees who signed in. Later it turned out the company used these signatures as evidence they had the approval of the local community for the gold mine.

The mining operation uses sulfuric acid and other chemicals to clean the gold. Debris and contaminants are theoretically put into closed wells the company drilled into the mountain, but people who wash in the river get body sores and other illnesses are appearing in the community.The final insult is that, as best a Tufts study has been able to figure, Goldcorp takes 85% of the profit, leaving Guatemala with only 15%. No doubt a few government leaders received a payoff for this gift to Goldcorp, but the money has not been traced.

A shareholder resolution was considered at the Goldcorp annual meeting, It called for $49 million in financial surety to cover the costs of clean-up and closure when the ore runs out and disclosure of the company’s clean-up and closure plans. And it called for community consultation. It did not get 50% of the vote of the shareholders.

Currently Goldcorp has posted a one million dollar surety bond.The Marlin Mine is near Ixchiguan in San Marcos where Gloria’s community, Holy Family, do pastoral work.After the Environmental Law meeting, we went to see the White House, the American Indian Museum, and the Mall. That evening we went to a party with Loretto volunteers and members at one of their homes. There Gloria led us in a Mayan service that touched everyone.

In Guatemala  there are more than twenty-two indigenous  groups, each with its own traditional language, customs and dress. However, what they all have in common is the Mayan ancestry.The ancient Mayans were good
observers of space. They studied the movement of the planets and the stars. They invented various calendars to measure time. The calendar than dominated is called “la gran historia,” The Great History. It measured out 5125 years.

This Mayan calendar completes its cycle in 2012. Some people think that with the end of this Mayan calendar signifies the end of the world. (At this point in Gloria’s presentation, which she gives in Spanish and an interpreter translates, many in the audience laugh nervously.)

But on the contrary, in accord with the Mayan culture, in the course of this time, the earth and humanity will be renewed. Instead of destruction, there will be renewal. The Mayans see the date December 21, 2012 as a triumph of the sun over the darkness of the night.

The completion of the calendar is compared to the rebirth of a new sun and the beginning of a new era. This date is a significant spiritual event and symbolic for all of humanity. The Mayans believe that this new age will
bring justice, transparency, and a greater understanding of the spiritual world.

The new Mayan cycle is a time to initiate or begin a renewal and to live with the hope of a better world. This is Gloria’s teaching and in myself and in the groups we are with, I feel a sense of hope that we can make a new beginning.

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