Sandra Moran, a longtime champion of women’s and Indigenous rights, came of age amid Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, launching her decades-long commitment to social justice in the students’ movement in the 1970s.
She later was forced to continue her activism from exile for more than a decade before returning to Guatemala to participate in the negotiations that brought an end to the internal armed conflict in 1996.
More recently, Moran made history as Guatemala’s first openly lesbian lawmaker, spearheading what she has described as a new way of governing closely tied to social movements in the country’s Congress.
teleSUR spoke to Moran about her experiences as an activist and lawmaker in Guatemala over the years through times of both war and peace.
You became an activist at a very young age. What motivated you to get involved in such causes then?
I was born when the war had only just started, in 1961. As a student, I first committed to the cause of education, as the teachers were persecuted by the state. I was also inspired by my grandfather’s sense of solidarity. Once, he hid teachers as they were running away from the police in his small shop in the corner of the street, but the police attacked the store with tear gas and arrested the teachers. I was also close to the Catholic church, which helped the poor in my neighborhood. Then I continued mobilizing for labor rights as a lawyer and a journalist. I just seek to have justice concretely applied.
Later, the growing repression by the military dictatorship radicalized me further, with the massacre in the Spanish embassy in January1980 (when the Guatemalan police invaded the embassy, set fire with white phosphorus and killed 37 people), among others — massive killings of campesinos, of academic leaders, etc. I had to go into exile in 1981 because the repression started focusing on Guatemala City, determined to take down all social organizations.
In Mexico, I conveyed my activism through music, starting in 1982 as a drummer in the band Katinamit, which was inspired by the Cuban movement of revolutionary music known as Nueva Troba. Then I moved to Nicaragua and took part of the band Kinleat, and we performed for the festival celebrating the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1986. We also played in Guatemala to celebrate the peace accords.
Could you tell me more about the gender aspect of the war? Why was it especially targeting women?
Dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s trial for genocide proved that the violence against women was part of the warfare’s strategy; it was used to break the organization of Indigenous communities, where women play a central role. They meant to break the continuity of the Indigenous culture as a counterinsurgency strategy.
Students and teachers were also systematically raped as a punishment. Women were exposed to many more abuses than men. Paramilitary groups and security forces would tell them “we will not only lock you up, but also rape you,” for being a woman.
The Sepur Zarco case brought to light another aspect of gender violence: it’s not just used as a punishment, but also enslaving women for domestic and sexual services, considering women’s bodies as men’s properties, a mere expression of the country’s culture of patriarchy — and racism, as these women were Indigenous.
Could you tell me more about the peace agreement? What were your demands related to gender issues? How did the negotiations go? Were you satisfied with the results then?
The peace agreements in 1996 did not recognize the extent of gender violence then. Yet women were leading the opposition to the dictatorship since 1984 with the National Coordination of Widows — over 100,000 of them demanding the government find their disappeared husbands. Then student organizations, labor unions, etc., followed the mobilization, returning from exile in 1987 and 1988.
In 1986, a window for peace — a regional peace, along with other Central American countries — opened as a civilian government took power and opened negotiations with the guerrilla.
I came back to Guatemala in April 1994, one month before the “women sector” was set up as part of the 10 civil society sectors convoked to negotiate peace with the support of the United Nations.
We achieved the inclusion of 200 specific commitments related to women rights, mostly symbolic: the recognition of the role of women in the economy, the economic value of domestic work, women’s right to organize, to access credit and property, among others. We also pushed for education reform in a bid to tackle the sexist culture at the roots.
However, the issue of gender violence during the civil war was not taken into account at the time; there were too many demands already, and the peace accords were sectorized — the human right sector, the campesinos sector, the Indigenous sector, etc., which had positive but also negative effects.
But still, the peace accords resulted in the creation of a Truth Commission, and we managed to have the Commission include a focus on gender violence. The Commission’s investigation led to the recognition of gender violence during the war with the groundbreaking genocide conviction (against Rios Montt) issued on May 10, 2013 and the Sepur Zarco case of sexual slavery on March 2, 2016.
Twenty years later, what is your assessment of the situation of women and gender issues in Guatemala? Were the peace accords implemented successfully in your opinion?
Gender violence remains a crucial issue in the country with over 1,000 women assassinated this year, and 4,000 girls under 14 years old with early pregnancy.
But the history of gender violence in Guatemala actually dates back from much older times. For instance, the colonists had a right of rape — known as “droit de seigneur” in English — the daughters of their day laborers.
For 20 years, the feminist movement has made efforts to demonstrate that gender violence was not only limited to the domestic area, but also manifest itself in the social, cultural and institutionnal realms.
Despite all the achievements, the successive governments did not fully comply with the agreements. We are still living structural issues, we are still living the consequences of the war, the consequences of the extraction model with borders opened to the global market. We obtained civilian governments, with space for political participation, yet the army still has a lot of power. Military and business sectors have fought against the genocide conviction, having the Supreme Court cancel it. (Current President) Jimmy Morales may not represent these sectors like the president who signed the peace accords did, but he is still serving their interests.
Which lessons from the Guatemalan peace process could be drawn for the Colombian one?
A peace process is not only a piece of paper, a legal matter. It is above all a human issue, with actors involved. In Guatemala, 20 years after the peace accord, we are fighting so the actors are remembered, so the history would not repeat itself. But this is a very difficult struggle because Guatemala’s dark forces are still writing the country’s history. It is crucial that women, and communities, talk about their experience of the war, so it remains in the country’s memory. As for me, after exile, it took me 10 years to reconnect to my land and go back to my roots.
What is your experience as an openly feminist, lesbian, indigenous legislator in the country’s Congress after years of grassroots activism?
This is a huge challenge — an individual and collective challenge — but also an opportunity to put in the public debate topics that are taboo for the very conservative Guatemalan society, such as LGBTQI rights, abortion rights and violence against girls. I’d rather say “that could not be done” than “that has not been done.”