LIMA, Oct 28 (IPS) – Catholic priest Marco Arana, who is also a social and environmental activist, has not yet officially decided to run in Peru’s next presidential elections, but he is already facing opposition from the highest-level Catholic Church officials in the country.
Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani told Arana publicly that he would have to renounce the priesthood if he wants to run for president in 2011, and the president of the bishops’ conference, Monsignor Miguel Cabrejos, challenged him to make up his mind, saying "You can’t have one foot in a political party and the other in the Church."
Ignoring the warnings, the activist priest continues to forge ahead with his new Land and Liberty political movement that is weaving alliances with political groupings with a view to standing in the next elections, which would make him the first Catholic priest to compete for the presidency in this South American country.
Arana, a native of Cajamarca, the biggest city in northern Peru, holds a theology degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate in sociology, and was ordained in 1990.
He has made a name for himself – he was included on Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment 2009 list, published in September – working with the poor in the most impoverished parts of the rugged Andean region of Cajamarca over the last 20 years, and defending their rights from mining companies operating there.
His activism has put him at loggerheads with powerful foreign mining companies, especially the U.S.-based Newmont Mining corporation, which is the majority stakeholder in the Yanacocha mine, the largest open-pit gold mine in South America.
In December 2008, Arana himself seized a young man who was filming him, and turned him over to the police. He was found to be working for Forza, a private security company that was providing services to Yanacocha.
The surveillance plan targeting Arana and other activists working with local peasants was code-named "Operation Devil".
Forza and Yanacocha denied that they were spying on Arana and the others.
However, independent reports by the United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the rights of peoples to self-determination and by Oxfam America recommended that the authorities investigate the harassment and persecution of Arana, who has been dubbed "the red priest" by media outlets financed by the mining industry.
Arana is co-founder of Grufides, an Oxfam partner organisation based in Cajamarca that provides advice and support to rural indigenous communities in conflicts with mining companies over pollution and human rights violations.
The priest also won the top Peruvian human rights prize in 2004, awarded by the National Coordinator of Human Rights, an umbrella group of human rights organisations.
"Cardinal Cipriani is as much involved in politics as I am, only that in my case, it’s in favour of the poor," Arana says in this interview with IPS.
IPS: Will you give up the priesthood after Cardinal Cipriani’s warning?
MARCO ARANA: Cipriani forms part of the ultraconservative wing of the Catholic Church. What he has expressed is concern over the fact that democratic and social forces are becoming a political actor that he considers detrimental to the economic line that he defends.
IPS: But will you leave the priesthood to get involved in politics?
MA: That’s something I will discuss with the archbishop of Cajamarca, not Cardinal Cipriani.
IPS: But Cipriani has been explicit with respect to your aim to run for the presidency.
MA: Cipriani is a passionately political cardinal and a passionate defender of the neoliberal policies of the last governments of (Alberto) Fujimori (1990-2000) and (Alejandro) Toledo (2001-2006).
IPS: If Cipriani represents the ultraconservative currents in the Church, are you a reflection of the leftist, progressive sectors?
MA: I represent the tradition of a Church that since its founding has been at the service of the poor and of justice and peace.
IPS: Has the experience of Bishop Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, who had to abandon the priesthood and is today president of that country, been an inspiration for the Land and Liberty movement and your eventual candidacy?
MA: Not directly. I didn’t know who Lugo was until the last election campaign began in Paraguay.
What has been inspiring for Land and Liberty and for my own decisions has to do with much more profound issues, like the impunity with which peasant leaders and activists are treated as criminals and the increase in violence and persecution in cases of mining conflicts in Majaz, Combayo or Cajamarca.
In these cases, those who defend the land or water are denounced, imprisoned or even killed, while those who damage the water or land or violate human rights enjoy impunity.
IPS: The government of Alan García says there has been foreign meddling in the conflicts that you mentioned, insinuating that your NGO, Grufides, has received funding from abroad. What is the aim of your movement?
MA: To make Peru a land free of oppression and inequality based on class, race or gender, free of exploitation and exclusion, free of abuses by its leaders and the elites. Free of persecution of defenders of human rights and the environment. Free of authoritarian business leaders. Free of corruption.
IPS: Isn’t it a priest’s obligation to dedicate himself to his flock rather than become actively involved in politics?
MA: There is a teaching in the Church that came from Pope Leo XIII and the social encyclicals, and that Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) took up: the denunciation of savage capitalism that widens the gap between rich and poor. As a priest, I follow that teaching.
IPS: What does the official decision about your candidacy depend on?
MA: Next year, Land and Liberty will hold its first congress, and that is when the presidential candidacy will be decided.
IPS: In the meantime, other potential candidates are leading the polls, like Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda and Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the ex-president who is now in jail for corruption and human rights violations. You are not even mentioned.
MA: They are not honourable candidates. Castañeda has a lot to answer for with respect to public works, but he prefers to remain silent. And in the case of Fujimori, her only interest is to win in order to release her father from prison.
IPS: You travel all around the country presenting Land and Liberty. Do you have any time left over to say mass?
MA: Yes, every Sunday, I never miss one.
IPS: Are you antimining?
MA: No, I’m not. What we are seeking is a balance between making use of our resources, meeting the needs of local populations, and respecting their socio-environmental conditions. Local residents are opposed to mining when their rights are violated.
IPS: The law requires 145,000 signatures to register a political movement. How many have you collected so far?
MA: Many people, especially in rural areas, have expressed support for our movement, which is why we believe we will surpass the necessary minimum. We have been making good progress.
IPS: Is an alliance with (former presidential candidate) Ollanta Humala’s Nationalist Party in your plans?
MA: No. Land and Liberty has a profile of its own. Our proposal focuses on social justice and ecological rights, which a broader platform than the one offered by the Nationalist Party. Our cornerstone is democratisation and respect for human rights, which also differentiates us from Humala’s party.
IPS: Have you held talks with Humala?
MA: Yes, we have talked, and I took advantage of the occasion to express my points of view about his movement. For example, the need to democratise decision-making and avoid a "caudillo" (political boss) from controlling the organisation.
IPS: You’re aware that you could be kicked out of the Catholic Church?
MA: I wouldn’t be the first to be expelled for acting according to my conscience.