The voice of the people

by Annalee Giesbrecht

This week on our blog, we want to share a repost from MCC LACA, originally published on December 23, 2019.

In June 2019, I moved to Mexico from Haiti to take on a new job as the Context Analyst and Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for MCC Latin America and the Caribbean. As the name implies, I spend a lot of time reading and analyzing the historical and political context of MCC’s work in Latin America. Quite a bit has happened in Latin America since I started in June. While 2018 saw significant protests in Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, in the latter half of 2019, protests have swept through the region—Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Puerto Rico. And it’s not just Latin America—people have been taking to the streets in Hong Kong, France, Spain, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, all over the world.

While all of these protests are unique to their context, the thing that seems to unite many of them is not simply a demand for the resignation of a president or the reform of a labor policy. While these demands may have provided the impetus for a given protest, increasingly, people are decrying an entire broken system that has allowed increasingly extravagant lifestyles for the already rich at the expense of those who are already struggling to get by. All over the world, people aren’t asking for a small change within the existing system—they’re asking for something completely new.

Members of the Anabaptist Mennonite Christian Church of Ecuador participate in protests in Quito in October 2019. (Photo courtesy of Quito Mennonite Church.)

A few weeks ago, I called a colleague in Haiti to ask him, in my increasingly rusty Creole, what he thought about the upheaval that was taking place there. Protests against government corruption and a collapsing economy have been going on since 2018, but they reached a new level of intensity in the fall of 2019. Schools closed for months, some of them having barely opened, and offices and activities throughout the country ground to a halt. Thousands of Haitians took to the streets demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise, who has been implicated in an enormous corruption scandal and has stubbornly refused to step down. As in so many other places throughout the world, these protests have swelled to encompass almost everything at one time or another—labor conditions in various sectors, human rights, the role of the international community.

As unrest continued and it became clear that the government either couldn’t or wouldn’t respond, powerful armed gangs and other shadowy figures began taking advantage of the chaos for their own ends. For those already living on the brink, life is becoming unbearable: analysts warn that an economic and humanitarian crisis is just over the horizon. My colleague, who has lived through a dictatorship, coups, military juntas, and the devastating 2010 earthquake, told me it was the most chaotic, complicated situation he had ever seen in his country.

“Is there any hope?” I asked, my heart sinking.

“Well yes, of course we have hope,” he said. “We have hope because we know things can’t continue like this—something has to change. And as we say in Haiti, vwa pep la se vwa Bondye. The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

Protests in Chile. (MCC photo/Guido Coppa)

Before I moved to Haiti, I worked as the worship coordinator at an Anglican church in Winnipeg. I’m no biblical scholar, but over the years I worked at the church, I got familiar with many of the readings encouraging the church to be patient, to wait, and prepare. For example, there’s this reading from Isaiah 40: 3-5,

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

Or this reading, from James 5:7,

“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.”

I’m about as much of a farmer as I am a biblical scholar, but after having visited quite a few farms in the course of my work, what I’ve observed is that “waiting for the early and the late rains” involves quite a lot of work: maybe it means walking a long way to find water, or collecting manure and spreading it among the plants, or picking pesky little bugs off the leaves one by one.

Marcelin Pierre-Fritz in his garden near St Jean du Sud, Haiti. (MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht)

We often think of waiting as the opposite of action; passive, a non-activity. But when I think about what “peace on earth” might mean—a peace that requires justice, a peace here and now on this earth—it seems to me like what we’re being asked to do is to actively prepare for and participate in creating the conditions that make a new world possible. And I think the people who are taking to the streets of their cities all over the world, demanding something better than what the rich and the powerful have given them, are trying to do exactly that.

I don’t want to be too romantic about all this. Large-scale mobilizations come with a lot of problems: they can be appropriated by power-hungry opposition leaders or infiltrated by violent actors. Innocent people get hurt in the general chaos, and already fragile livelihoods take a serious hit when the daily life of an economy is brought to a halt. Polarization filters into homes and workplaces, driving family and friends apart, making genuine and thoughtful conversations feel almost impossible. And of course, protests themselves aren’t the end goal of social change: a lot of hard work is taking place behind the scenes, and hard work will continue in the weeks, months, years after people leave the streets.

But when I see photos of millions of Chileans in the streets, crowds of Haitians peacefully waving leafy green branches, Colombians on their balconies banging pots and pans—I hear the voice of the people crying out for a new world, one where the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things, and I can’t help but hope that one day, despite all the obstacles, we’ll get it (just about) right.

Annalee Giesbrecht is the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for MCC in Latin America and the Caribbean. As protests and violence continue around the world today, she shares her reflections on waiting for and participating in social change.

To learn more about MCC’s work and to find out how you can get involved in creating a better world for all, visit our website here.

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