Dear friends and family,
Three months have passed since I last spent time with some of you, nearly half a year already since I moved to Guatemala to continue my work with NISGUA, and I regret not having been in more regular communication with you all. On my arrival, I thought about writing to you about my impressions of life in Guatemala City–the black volcanic ash casting gritty shadows in cracks and corners, the smells of the market, the torrential nighttime rains, the tense streets at dusk–but really I felt like I had returned to a place that was already too familiar for that kind of reflection. I arrived to an open room in a comfortable house near my office, to a small community that shares many parts of my life, to work that interests me deeply and offers me the great privilege of proximity to many fascinating and inspiring individuals and organizations.
Yet I can’t deny that the transition has been at times very difficult, feeling far away from so many people who sustain my spirits, adjusting to the limits and pressure of living in a city and a country where it is hard to be healthy, both emotionally and physically. I’ve been coping by cooking good vegetarian meals for myself, powering through some massive novels like Roberto Bolaño’s epic 2666 (I must say I am proud to have read all 800+ pages in Spanish, perhaps I will share some thoughts about the book at some point), playing acoustic guitar, and listening to music that reminds me of the Pacific Northwest, like Cascadian bluegrass band Nettle Honey.
Rather than focusing on my own adjustment, however, I want to mention a few trends and important events which have taken place here in Guatemala in recent months, some of which are directly related to my accompaniment work, while others are not.
In August I wrote and circulated a letter in support of students at San Carlos University, Guatemala’s only public higher education institution, who at the time had occupied the entire sprawling campus in Guatemala City in protest against under-budgeting and policy changes which decreased student participation in the school’s governance and would restrict access for many students. Under the name Students for Autonomy, they locked down the campus for 54 days demanding that the University’s constitutionally-guaranteed rights be upheld. I was unable to offer much information on the situation, which was unfortunate in light of the lack of coverage by the international media and the campaign of generally negative press in national newspapers. However, I did hear a lot about the daily developments of the struggle from a friend who is a student activist, and even got the chance to enter within the barricades to observe an assembly of students representing a social science department, one of hundreds of meetings carried out during the occupation to seek a means to roll back regressive University policy changes.
Like the student movements that have been developing worldwide against budget cuts and the privatization of higher education, the micro-politics of student struggle represent a microcosm of broader political trends in Guatemala. The public University here plays a key role in the institutionality of the state, such as in the process of forming commissions to nominate key appointees in the justice system. It’s hard to imagine based on comparisons with the U.S. educational system, but in the years since the 1996 Peace Accords sectors within San Carlos University itself, such as the Student Assembly and some academic departments, have become infiltrated by the same parallel power structures which have corrupted the rest of the state, including organized crime and political and economic interests. The occupation of the University, and an insurgent student movement represented a very real challenge to powerful and unscrupulous actors, and this was reflected in acts such as threats against student leaders and nightly gunfire outside the barricades. The students agreed to give up the University without winning all of their demands, but the courageous occupation did set in motion a participatory process of reform which may address some of the underlying causes of the San Carlos crisis.
Moving from University micro-politics to the macrocosmic level, the electoral season is in full swing in Guatemala despite legal restrictions on campaigning before May 2011. While Guatemala officially transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1986, the system as it exists currently does violence to the definition of democracy, not to mention being associated with very real violence, which has notably spiked across the country during previous election years. Since displaying party slogans or images of candidates is still officially illegal, trees, electrical posts, rock faces, and house- and store-fronts in entire towns are instead slathered with paint in the color of the various parties–partisan politics boiled down to its content-devoid essence. Again, one of the leading candidates, Otto Perez Molina of the Patriot Party, is a former General who served in the Quiché region during the 1980s, when it was the area of the country hardest hit by the Guatemalan army’s scorched earth counterinsurgency. His demagogic calling card is “Mano dura,” or an “Iron fist” against crime, while his party’s logo, a clenched white fist on a field of orange, recalls the name of the notorious “White hand” death squad. The country’s generalized insecurity and violence actually become political capital for a likely war criminal, at least during his election bid. As president, Molina would have the ability to name and influence officials in charge of advancing important legal cases against the crimes of the past committed by the military, including crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity in which he may be implicated in the future.
Meanwhile, the meager social welfare programs of the current government are denounced as “populist” attempts to secure votes for Sandra Torres, possible presidential candidate and wife of current president Alvaro Colóm. Financing for all political parties is completely opaque, leading to a general understanding that powerful economic interests, including narco-capitalists as well as more “legitimate” economic lobbies, control all of the parties and will extract their quid pro quo from whichever candidate is elected. And all this occurs in the regional climate of instability created by the 2009 Honduras coup against Manuel Zelaya, a president who dared to show reformist leanings that challenged his country’s power elite. The potential for this kind of direct political intervention still exists in Guatemala, though powerful interests obviously prefer to manage the political and economic system while maintaining the trappings of electoral democracy. With regards to the elections, the general analysis of observers in the social and human rights movements in Guatemala is one of uncertainty, fear, and a sense that political space for change is dwindling.
Advances in legal cases and in organizing for territorial defense
Yet there is light shining though those electoral clouds on the horizon! Grassroots movements for the defense of natural resources and the territorial rights of indigenous communities continue to expand in Guatemala. A series of popular consultations carried out at the end of this year have brought the number of people who have asserted their right to say “No” to exploitative development plans to nearly one million. The experience of communities in Guatemala has thus far shown that massive extractive industry and infrastructure projects imposed by the government and transnational companies, rather than creating jobs or well-being for the poorest and most marginalized communities, have brought conflict and displacement due to pressures on land and natural resources and unequal provision of meager benefits. NISGUA has been blogging about and supporting the extraordinary organizing efforts of groups such as the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango, the Western People’s Council, the K’iche’ People’s Council, and communities threatened by the Xalalá dam and other hydroelectric projects. I recently wrote a short editorial letter published by the Seattle Times in response to an irresponsible article about the plight of communities that have been displaced into Protected Areas in the Petén region, and provide some more context and resources in a previous post, so I won’t belabor those points here.
While the Guatemalan courts remain besieged by impunity (I won’t even try to summarize the byzantine intrigues and disinformation campaigns sparked by those targeted by the crucial work of the UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG), recent months have also seen important advances, especially in cementing precedents for the trial of the crime of forced disappearance. On October 28 two ex-police officers were charged as the material authors of the forced disappearance of student and labor leader Francisco Garcia, 26 years after he was last seen alive. Over 36 years of internal armed conflict, more than 40,000 individuals suffered the same fate; it was Fernando Garcia’s widow who was one of the founders of the Mutual Support Group, often called Guatemala’s first human rights group. There have been two other successful cases against the perpetrators of forced disappearances in the communities of Choatulúm and El Jute. As in those sentences, the Fernando Garcia case was left open for further investigation of the intellectual authors of the crimes. You can read more about the sentence in the case here in Spanish, or read a detailed inside account from an expert on the U.S. intelligence system who participated in the case.
Winter wishes and goodbye for now…
I hope that this letter has found you all well and enjoying the winter season, along with any holidays you celebrate at this time of year. It’s actually been quite cold and blustery here in Guatemala City, and last night my neighbors lit fireworks and burned papier-mâché effigies of the devil in a traditional pre-Navidad festival. Charming, but it hardly helps the generally smoggy atmosphere…