GuateSec: A Guatemalan Spring? Popular protest and attacks against activists

GuateSec is intended to provide a regular focus on issues relating to security and justice in Guatemala and the surrounding region, offering commentary and synthesis of key news reports and expert analysis.

Despite international validation of a disputed Presidential election which saw the authoritarian PRI party return to power, popular resistance is flourishing in Mexico. The student-led #YoSoy132 movement has continued to draw massive support for its post-election protests against political and media monopolization. Alongside Javier Sicilla’s anti-violence campaign and the struggle of autonomous communities such as Cherán in Michoacán, these uprisings have inspired hopes of a “Mexican Spring” of civil resistance and rejuvenated social movements. The last two months have been tumultuous in Guatemala as well, with the newspaper El Periodico reporting more than 27 separate protests during the week of June 30th through July 8th. Is the land of eternal spring seeing the beginnings of a revolutionary Spring to call its own?

Maybe not. While the recent wave of protests in Guatemala was driven by a range of causes that have not cohered into a broader social movement, they also show exciting collaboration between diverse sectors including indigenous Maya communities, students, and anti-authoritarian activists. Motives for protests included discontent with clientelistic government programs delivering subsidized fertilizer and direct aid intended for impoverished families, as well as an anti-violence protest. Tellingly, El Periodico also equates these protests with an attempted lynching in a conflictive area of San Marcos department, and the burning of a police patrol in Izabal in an incident in which a suspected criminal was stripped and exhibited publicly by a crowd.

Students struggle for accessible education

[youtube http://youtu.be/ceUrSd2CnuE]

Video by CPR-Urbana, contains images of violence

Protests in at least seven different departments centered around opposition to proposed educational reforms which would restrict students’ access to free public professional teaching degrees. Adolescent students of the public Institutos Normales, or “Normalistas“, have occupied schools and blocked highways across the country in response to the Ministry of Education’s intent to increase the teaching degree program from 3 to 5 years, greatly increasing the burden on working students and their families. Independent journalist Beth Geglia offers an overview of the issue at Waging Nonviolence, speaking to young students who explain their view that the proposed reforms would restrict access and lead to a de facto privatization of education. Students have been evicted from occupied schools, and their road blockades and a July 2 park occupation in Guatemala City have led to confrontations with the police, with students detained and hospitalized due to tear gas. A photojournalist was also injured on July 2 by a rock reportedly thrown by a student, though photos of police throwing rocks have also circulated online. Students were accused of “kidnapping” Education Minister Cynthia del Águila when they briefly occupied a building where negotiations were being held on July 2, and Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla arrived to personally direct the police response to the students’ protests:

At the eviction Bonilla reaffirmed his resolve to end the occupations. He repeatedly denied the use of force to evict students but was recorded responding, “I would love to.” … “This has been the plan since 1998, since the signing of the peace accords,” Bonilla stated. “So what we have to do is take back control of the schools, put everything back in order and put an end to the anarchy.” As the police retook the Institute, students reaffirmed their demand for fair negotiations and a different proposal for educational reform in Guatemala.

Allies decried the crackdown on the teenaged students and criticized Lopez Bonilla’s reaction as militaristic. The government, following complaints by powerful business lobbies, has declared a zero tolerance response to the students’ road blockades, despite negotiating with bus drivers who closed roads elsewhere in the coutry. The press has largely been unsympathetic to the students, depicting them as lazy and criminal. The usual rumors fly that students are being “manipulated” by other actors, from university students to opposition parties. Lopez Bonilla openly criticized campesino organizations who have lent their support to the Normalistas in a struggle that doesn’t appear likely to dissipate any time soon.

Historical memory links defense of natural resources and anti-militarism

…Formal democracy is imposed as a strategy for the domination of our peoples, in which the Army continues to fulfill its historic role: defending the interests of the political and economic elite, as well as national and transnational businesses, through the use of violence. Genocide has been the key to maintaining the power of a dominant class which today returns to the violent displacement of communities that are resisting the imposition of a development model based on plunder. In injustice and the benefits which the oppressor class obtains from it, we find the link between the past and present: Memory…

Statement by H.I.J.@.S. for the Day of Heroes and Martyrs, June 30, 2012

2012 National Day of Heroes and Martyrs in San Juan Sacatepequez - Photo MiMundo.org

Shared opposition to militarization brought Maya Kaqchikel communities of San Juan Sacatepequez together with the organization H.I.J.@.S. for the June 30th celebration of the Day of Heroes and Martyrs, protesting the opening of a new military base in the municipality, where conflict has raged for years due to the expansion of industrial cement production by the powerful Cementos Progreso monopoly. H.I.J.@.S. is an organization with chapters across Latin America, its name stands for Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence, bringing together the children of the disappeared with young people who grew up during and after the internal armed conflict in struggle for historical memory. In Guatemala, H.I.J.@.S. has protested every June 30th against the official Armed Forces Day holiday. This year, the “Flowers of Resistance” march in San Juan Sacatepequez highlighted the continuity of militarization, economic exploitation, and denial of indigenous rights in post-conflict Guatemala.

2012 National Day of Heroes and Martyrs in San Juan Sacatepequez - Photo MiMundo.org

Protest has also continued in Barillas, Huehuetenango, where the killing of a local leader opposed to hydroelectric dam development sparked an uprising that led to the government’s declaration of a state of siege in May. Also at Waging Nonviolence, Beth Geglia examines the Barillas conflict and provides a concise analysis of the current juncture facing the movement for indigenous self-determination and defense of territory, situating the recent state of siege within a broader context of social struggles for autonomy and the creation of alternatives to media monopolization.

Urgent action needed for threatened activists

While these signs of popular organizing and resistance are hopeful, recent weeks have also seen a series of attacks on activists involved in the defense of natural resources and the territory of indigenous and campesino communities.

On June 13th, Yolanda Oquelí was shot while returning to her home following a protest against mining in the municipalities of San Pedro Ayampuc and San José del Golfo, where the Canadian company Radius Gold operates the El Tambor gold mine. Yolanda was hospitalized and is reportedly recuperating, with her attack generating statements of support and repudiation, as well as an Urgent Action from Amnesty International.

A day earlier, on June 12th, José Tavico Tzunun was shot to death in his home in Santa Cruz del Quiché by two heavily armed men. José was a member of the K’iche’ Peoples’ Council and an organizer of the 2010 community referendum in Santa Cruz, which resulted in a majority of participants voting against mining and other forms of megadevelopment. Days later, CPK representative Lolita Chavez also narrowly survived an attempt on her life following a protest against abuse of power by a local mayor. Amnesty International has released an Urgent Action regarding both incidents.

GuateSec readings

In addition to commentary and analysis, GuateSec hopes to provide links and context for key readings in both Spanish and English regarding issues of security and justice in the Americas. Read on for this installment’s suggestions.

El Consigliere tiene un proyecto – Plaza Publica’s sprawling three-part profile of Antonio Arenales Forno, Peace Secretary and counselor to Otto Pérez Molina’s administration, presents a measured, literary, and illuminating portrait of a key functionary in Guatemala’s “managed transition” to neo-liberalism and electoral democracy. Arenales Forno’s notoriety following the announcement of the dismantling of the Peace Archives, his admonishment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for its attempts to hold the Guatemalan state accountable for past human rights abuses, and his repeated denials of genocide—a posture recognized in interviews for this piece as state policy—are only the most recent manifestations of Forno’s project as a military-aligned diplomat and statesman, which may include the institution of a “punto final” amnesty law that would close investigations into the Guatemalan military’s responsibility for crimes against humanity and genocide.

Washington’s Wars and Occupations: ‘Terror Tuesdays’ Seattle Solidarity Network organizer Michael Reagan writes for War Times, covering a lot of ground in this news roundup, from the repression caused by the proxy conflict in Syria, to the technical coups in Egypt and Paraguay (War Times’ Francesca Fiorentini offers more analysis of the situation in Paraguay), President Obama’s disturbing new role as “assassin in chief”, and the unfolding climate catastrophe. Also available in Spanish.

Cops Raid Radicals – The Seattle Stranger has been covering an armed raid last week against the home of members of Occupy Seattle and the Red Spark Collective, with a warrant specifying that the raid was intended to search for “anarchist materials” and items such as bandannas and goggles. The SPD has claimed that its investigation is intended to pursue those responsible for May 1st property damage in Seattle; activists in the area have reportedly been approached in recent weeks by FBI and other investigators.

[youtube http://youtu.be/j7RAx3-E9P8]

About cascadiasolidaria

Human rights and solidarity activist from Cascadia, North America, writing about issues of justice and security in Guatemala and Central America from a perspective of solidarity with human rights and social movements.
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