By Jeanette Charles
Chiapas Support Committee
*Organizer’s name has been omitted to protect their identity and preserve their safety. This is an edited interview which was done collectively with the Chiapas Support Committee during a delegation to Guatemala this May.
Marches in Guatemala Mark Historical Moment Guatemala, a majority indigenous nation, has faced decades of repression and genocide throughout its history. Depending on who you speak with, many date Guatemala’s present movement to 500 years of indigenous resistance, while others refer to the more recent histories of U.S. imposed conflict.
In 1954, the United States supported a military coup against progressive Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. As a former military official, Arbenz led a popular uprising against the 14 year dictatorship of President Jorge Ubico. Arbenz, part of a historical trajectory of Latin American military leaders like Hugo Chavez, underwent his own political transformation and used his power in favor of the poor. During his presidency, Arbenz was responsible for some of the country’s most innovative land reforms and social programs. However, his government and Guatemala’s ten years of spring were toppled during the U.S’s anti-communist interventionist campaign across the Americas resulting in the U.S. installed government of Carlos Castillo Armas. Since then, Guatemala has faced tumultuous times.
The U.S. backed genocide in Guatemala, that began in the late 1970s and officially spanned until the 1990s with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, resulted in hundreds of thousands murdered, entire communities displaced and massive forced migration.
Today’s government is intimately tied to the histories of genocide as the current president, Otto Perez Molina, was reported to be personally responsible for more than 700 murders throughout the nation.
Guatemalans are demanding his resignation and that of other government officials who have stolen millions of quetzals, are directly tied to drug trafficking networks as well as organized crime and have long attempted to decimate the indigenous peoples of Guatemala.
Q: Can you provide us with some historical background about Guatemala and your organizing?
Our history is complicated. We have been working for years to improve life for all our country. I organize with campesinos. There are ten groups across 31 municipalities. We do a great deal of work. In the last month we have seen powerful organizing of women, youth, teachers, and others. Our people are struggling in a thousand and one different ways. We have uncovered the state’s evils and the degree of bad management they have been responsible for. The government has always used state resources however, they have not been for the benefit of the people.
Q: What is the overall situation in Guatemala?
We’re experiencing an incredible moment. We’re a rich country, Guatemala has everything and you can grow anything. The majority of the people work very hard yet are very poor. The problem is the government and corruption goes all the way up to the presidency. For example, the health system is terrible, and recently the health minister resigned after stealing 116 million quetzals.
Education is likewise unjust, with no vision for change. Also, there are kilometers of land by the sea, vast stretches of land, held by the wealthy while the people don’t even have enough to build a house. With the resignation of the Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, we have learned directly how corruption functions. Hundreds of thousands of quetzals have disappeared.
When all this started, the government was protected by all the rich, whose organization is called CACIF. The people in power have taken the best lands.
For example, the lands along the south coast were held at first by foreigners, by French, Germans, North Americans, and Chinese, not by Guatemalans. Much was held by the banana company, United Fruit. Justo Rufino Barrios gave away these lands to foreigners, followed by Cabrera, a dictator for 20 years. They forced people to work without pay under mandanto laws, people from the cold country. My grandfather told me about this. He was forced to work six months a year for the government, he was one who built this land below. Their plantations are run by huge companies and they occupy the best lands. The rich have always defended the government, and in exchange the police and military protect them.
On the south coast there are tiny communities situated among huge expanses of palm oil, sugar cane, and banana plantations. They are all fumigated by planes and this is poisoning the rivers. People are rising up to protest. Hugo Molina owns many of the sugar and banana tract plantations, and he is much like Miguel Facusse in Honduras (2009 coup conspirator and elite landowner). Molina also owns palm oil plantations in Mexico. All of this land he buys up very cheaply. Much of the land is swamps, with waters full of fish and small animals like turtles. The rich are drying up the swamps and destroying the ecology, they are actually burying all this fauna under tons of earth. All these humid lands around the swamps are being destroyed.
People are waking up to this reality, but slowly. There are eight elite families and they have some 40 children. Only 2 percent of the land is owned by 15 million people and the rich own 98 percent. They make the laws to favor themselves and so all of the government favors the rich. CACIF and the private sector rule the country and dictate law. The poor squat on lands and then are thrown off, sometimes they are even thrown off of land they already own.
For example, two weeks ago near here in Palmar, there was a disaster preparedness drill and various politicians came to participate. With our urging, the people asked them, “Why are you allowing these mining concessions and hydroelectric projects?”
One company blocked three rivers, rivers that the community relied on, and only allowed a slight trickle to come through the pipes. We called the people together and said, “Why don’t you protest? If you don’t, we’ll disappear as a people.”
One thousand people finally rose up and demonstrated.
Secondly, the government and the rich have historically been protected by the U.S government. However, recently the U.S. government has decided for once not to support the Guatemalan government. For that reason, the government is left unprotected.
Narco-traffickers are also involved in all of this as well. So this is the social and political crossroads we are at, this is the panorama. It has created an unprecedented moment for mobilization.
Q: What are the mobilizations calling for?
One of the people’s demands is the resignation of corrupt officials. The majority of the heads of ministries have already resigned. There are massive demonstrations planned everywhere in the country and our other demands are:
1) the resignation of the president, and
2) the imprisonment of the Vice President for her theft of 40 million quetzals.
It has been impossible to shift land and resources to the poor because the government cannot go against the rich.
Drug trafficking is on fire in the plantation zone, it is incredibly strong there. There are even pastors who are deeply entrenched. These pastors tell their congregations to pray for life and forgiveness, meanwhile they themselves are central to the trafficking network. Drug trafficker Juan Ramirez, who was going to be extradited, maintained and financed Evangelical churches with luxurious buildings. This is the reality.
These people will be in power until – and this is what the protesters are demanding – the laws are changed and a new constitution is put in place.
The constitution of 1985 favors the rich. We hope we have a process to write a new constitution as well.
Q: If the president was involved in the genocide and has lost the support of the U.S, is there a chance he will be judged?
Yes, this is the idea. While he is in power he has immunity. He is a serial murderer. During the war he was a sergeant in the west and went by the name Comandante Fernando, and he was active in Ixcan, Quiten, Santa Rosa, Cuilasa, Maza Re and there went by the name Comandante Tito. He was responsible for over 700 murders according to the book Massacres in the Jungle. Yes, he was personally responsible for 700 murders and he was part of Rios Montt’s army, so he bears responsibility for collective atrocities as well. But, he can only be judged when he leaves office and he says he won’t leave until the end of his term in 2016.
Q: What are the connections between Guatemala and other political processes in Latin America?
The particularity of Guatemala, as opposed to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who continues to live on in the people, is that in Venezuela, Chavez achieved victory.
If Arbenz had been able to hold power, we would be in the same situation as Venezuela is now: under the rule of the people, with laws for the people. But we only had ten years.
We are trying to achieve what Evo Morales in Boliva and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela have achieved.
Also in El Salvador, revolutionaries have won the elections, it is a tremendous advantage for us. We are in a situation of change, as are our children.
We need clarity. We have moved from an armed struggle to a political struggle. We are continuing to keep our struggle alive. We are still organizing for what we need. And these conversations strengthen the work, they help us stay firm and fortify the struggle. We are not alone.