Release date
September 12, 2009
Contact
Robyn Fieser
Regional Information Officer, Latin America and the Caribbean
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
011 (809) 567-1271

Hispanic Heritage Month: Raising Awareness

September 12, 2009, —

Based in Guatemala, Schuyler Thorup is Catholic Relief Services' regional director for

Latin America and the Caribbean—a region where CRS has programs and

partnerships in 16 countries. To mark Hispanic Heritage Month, he recently

answered questions about CRS' role in the region, our impact and the challenges

that lie ahead.

Schuyler Thorup

Schuyler Throrup, CRS' regional director for Latin American and the Caribbean. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

Robyn Fieser:

What is Catholic Relief Services' approach in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Schuyler Thorup:

Our approach is really three-pronged. First, we assist vulnerable people,

especially in the Caribbean and Central America, to respond to and prepare for

emergencies: principally droughts, hurricanes and earthquakes. Second, we work

with the rural poor and focus on food security, agro-enterprise, water and

sanitation, HIV and AIDS, and microfinance. Finally, Catholic Relief Services

supports local church advocacy to address some of the underlying causes of

poverty in the region, namely human rights violations, domestic violence and

human trafficking.

Fieser:

You mentioned that CRS has a unique opportunity in Latin America and the Caribbean

to support the Church in its efforts to bring about lasting change. Can you

elaborate?

Thorup:

Our

opportunity is unique for two reasons. First, the U.S. Catholic Church is becoming

increasingly Latino and as such offers a natural, influential constituency for

CRS to engage in awareness-building and advocacy—specific activities both in

the United States and in the region. Second, the Catholic Church in Latin

America, while understandably diverse across the array of its 33 countries, is particularly

well organized at a regional level. That allows CRS to construct common agendas

on issues such as migration, environmental degradation and emergency response.

For

instance, on the extremely complex and controversial issue of migration, CRS

not only provides direct humanitarian assistance to migrants, we also carry out

in-depth research and policy analysis on specific aspects of the migration

debate, such as unaccompanied minors and human trafficking. This information is

extremely helpful for the bishops' conferences (both in the United States and

Latin America) to be better informed and to construct a more credible platform

upon which they can influence policy and practices.

Fieser:

What has CRS' impact been?

Thorup:

Frankly,

our impact is felt every day throughout the region: working with and

strengthening our partner organizations, responding to emergencies, reforesting

damaged watersheds, and influencing national dialogue on issues affecting the

poor.

During

last year's very active hurricane season, thanks to our supporter's generosity,

we provided more than $5 million of emergency support (food, blankets, hygiene

kits and roofing material) to the Catholic Church in Cuba to respond to the

immediate needs of storm-affected families. In June, we completed

href="/bolivia/preventing-chagas/">reconstructing the last of

3,000 homes in southern Bolivia which had been previously infested with insects

that carry Chagas disease. In Haiti, in more than 240 health centers,

orphanages and schools, CRS provides a nutritious meal to more than 60,000 children

each day.

On

broader civil society issues the Church, with its moral authority, local

credibility and tremendous reach, has the necessary cachet to engage in and

influence complex public policy debates such as land tenure, workers' rights

and gang violence. At the request of the local Church, CRS supports programming

that strengthens these efforts through both service delivery and research.

Fieser:

What are the main socioeconomic trends in the region that are influencing our work?

Thorup:

Many of the macro trends of the last three or four decades remain in place. We

continue to observe significant rural-to-urban migration as well as a

consolidation of democratic governments and institutions throughout the region.

Three negative trends that have continued are the increasing levels of income

disparity, as well as rising violence and widespread corruption. Drug trade,

gangs and human trafficking have all fed these conditions to the point now

where certain democratic institutions are at serious risk of failing.

Fieser:

What about more recent trends?

Thorup:

Well,

we saw huge, unprecedented increases in food prices in 2007 and 2008, which put

a tremendous burden on the region's most impoverished countries, where the poor

will typically spend up to 70 percent of their income on food. Their inability

to provide for their families led to

href="/haiti/food-crisis-protests/">public riots in several

countries such as Haiti, Mexico and Nicaragua. This in turn led to increasing

migration pressure for family members to seek employment opportunities in wealthier

countries such as the United States, Canada, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil and

Costa Rica.

Unfortunately,

the current worldwide economic recession has impeded this traditional employment

option for many countries in Latin America. That has led to substantial

reductions in the hugely important remittance flows back to the migrants' home countries.

This in turn places additional burdens on these families.

Fieser:

What do you like about living and working in Latin America?

Thorup:

I've

been with CRS for 19 years, most of that overseas. I love the opportunity to

serve and to make a real impact. It is both a privilege and a responsibility. When

I travel, I am so often impressed by the faith, grit and sheer determination of

the people we work with, with their conviction to salir adelante (move

forward), in spite of often huge obstacles.

Just

a few weeks ago, I visited a rural community of about 60 families in western

Honduras, which since its founding had depended on a potable water source located

more than 3 miles away. Every day, children and their mothers spent several

hours going back and forth fetching water for the household. Today, through a

partnership between CRS and the community, the spring has been capped and the

water now reliably flows to six distribution points in the community. You have

no idea the tremendous impact this has had on the lives of the people of this

community, on their health, on their security and on their ability to provide

education. We can all feel proud of such results.

Fieser:

What

do you wish people knew about the region that they may not know?

Thorup:

You

know, unfortunately the cameras and news reports move all too quickly from one

emergency, drought or war to the next. Recovery and reconstruction often takes

years and it is challenging to maintain the public's focus. It is a struggle to

build U.S. awareness that, today, 28 percent of Nicaraguans still earn less

than a dollar a day, or that 49 percent of all Guatemalans under the age of 5 are

chronically malnourished.

At

the same time, I don't want to give the impression of simply unending, unmet

needs. Latin America offers tremendous opportunities and, indeed, much has been

gained over the past decade in terms of economic growth and reduction of overall

poverty levels. Nevertheless, these gains have been largely unequal across the

region and in many cases remain extremely fragile. More can and should still be

done to assist the poor and provide them with opportunities for a dignified

life. CRS offers a great opportunity for U.S. supporters of all faiths to

directly engage in these efforts and to make a true impact.

Robyn

Fieser is CRS' regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean

based in Guatemala.