Of elections and other fables: Guatemala today

by Jim Hodgson

My recent sojourn in Guatemala coincided with the formal launch of Guatemala’s 2023 election campaigns in March. But not everyone who wants to run will be allowed on ballots.

Voters will head to the polls on June 25 to elect a new president, vice-president, 160 congress members, 20 seats in the Central American Parliament, and mayors and counsellors in 340 municipalities. 

Leading the list of those banned from running is Thelma Cabrera, a 52-year-old Indigenous farm-worker who was to be the candidate of the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP). 

She is blocked because her running mate, Jordán Rodas, could not present a letter stating there are no corruption cases open against him—even though other politicians with pending cases were allowed to register. From 2017 until last year, Rodas served as a human rights prosecutor, but he was forced to leave Guatemala because he had allied himself with anti-corruption efforts. Several times this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has warned that new prosecutors are using the judicial system to harass and prosecute justice officials who previously investigated crimes of corruption.

The MLP emerged before the last election four years ago as the “political arm of a social movement”—the Comité de Desarrollo Campesino (CODECA, the Farmworkers Development Committee). 

“We are seeking to transform the country, after all the injustices we have suffered,” Cabrera told Associated Press recently. The MLP’s main objectives are the nationalization of basic services; promotion of a Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly to build a plurinational state from the Indigenous’ autonomies and territories; and recovery of land and water for cultivation and consumption.

But you know who IS allowed to run? Zury Ríos, the daughter of the former military dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the 1982 coup and who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide. The constitution bans close family members of coup organizers from running for office, but in the case of Ríos, the law is simply overlooked.

Campaign posters abound, mounted by a vast array of political parties. 
For about 20 days in March, I was in Guatemala in the company of people from the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking The Silence Network (BTS) and the Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA, Highlands Committee of Small Farmers). You can read about our specific activities with regard to Indigenous land rights and fair-trade coffee on the BTS site.

As I set out to write about these elections, I struggled with how we think about corruption, democracy and, yet again, notions of development. I mean, why should I pick on Guatemala for its apparent failures? Scores of countries seem unable or unwilling to quash corruption or expand democratic participation, much less advance policies to promote the common good (“vivir bien”) or to “rule by obeying” the people (“mandar obedeciendo,” as the Zapatistas in Chiapas have been doing in their communities for almost 30 years now). 

In writing in these blogposts about development, I have tried to emphasize the importance of good political choices in shaping development priorities. This is true weather protecting the greenbelt around Toronto from urban sprawl or creating conditions in Guatemala that might allow people to remain in their homes instead of migrating northward. 

A lot of what gets talked about in Guatemala is corruption–sometimes defined as use of public office for private gain and sometimes as a problem of opacity: “how much do things really cost?” And it’s real: judges, prosecutors, police; government officials (congress members, civil servants). 

But I am uncomfortable using the term without broader context. Sometimes, discourse about corruption is linked to the problem of under-development in ways that make the rich northern countries seem innocent. But please think of debates in the United States, for example, over campaign financing and gerrymandering of voter districts, or in Canada of the coziness of real estate developers with the government of Ontario or of mining companies with their reluctant regulators

Discourse about corruption in Guatemala and elsewhere needs to be examined for bias. I can’t do a complete lit review in this blog space, but here’s an essay (2001) that deconstructs the way the World Bank has used the term. Another researcher (2006) looks at ways “the anti-corruption consensus” leads to omissions that then fail to engage the “core problems of politics and ethics.” People in wealthier countries should examine their own polities—take the log out of their own eyes before remarking on the specks in the eyes of others (Matthew 7:3-5).

Discourse about democracy can also be problematic. Countries of the global North seem content that others observe formal democracy: fairly regular elections, multiple parties, etc.—but put up obstacles when governments in the global South try to change their essential, existential problem: poverty. 

In the face of that overwhelming reality, talk of formal democracy remains unconvincing. People no longer expect “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité” or “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” or even “Peace, Order and Good Government” to trickle down from the Western democracies. Indeed, liberal democracies these days are leaving doors wide open to fascism because liberals are more interested in unrestrained capitalism and in protecting private property than in easing the problems of poverty and growing inequality faced by the wretched of the earth (Frantz Fanon) or even taking on the more focused challenge of addressing root causes of migration while more than 100 million people are on the move.

At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala

Fernando Us (left) and Mónica Chub (right).

As my 15-day visit in Guatemala came to an end in early May, I had the chance to meet Fernando Us, Maya Kiché human rights defender and self-described sexual dissident. Fernando hails from a village in Uspantán municipality, Quiché department, that is not far (though accessed via a different road) from the had village I visited in the company of a team from Breaking The Silence and the Highlands Committee of Peasant Farmers (CCDA).

Fernando, who among other activities is a Mayan spiritual leader, met me on a Sunday afternoon in a downtown café located between the National Palace and the San Sebastian church where Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated in 1998. Religion and politics would become prominent themes in our friendship: fundamentalist religious groups very nearly scored a victory with an anti-LGBTI “life and family law,” but after an international outcry, congress finally voted in March to table the bill

Back home in Toronto two days after I had met Fernando, I was trying to catch up on news from CCDA. I came across a news article that quoted people from CCDA and Mónica Chub, a Trans woman and Maya Q’eqchi’ rights defender with whom Fernando and I would be working just a few weeks later. CCDA leaders and Mónica had attended a demonstration May 11 in Cobán, capital of the Alta Verapaz department, demanding freedom for prisoners accused of crimes they could not have committed. At the same time, high levels of violence against Trans women persist in Guatemala.

In early June, in partnership with Dignity Network and InterPares, I had the privilege of accompanying Mónica and Fernando during their days in Toronto. Together with Olowaili Green, an Indigenous film-maker from northern Colombia who is lesbian, their visit to Toronto followed participation in the Canada Pride Human Rights Conference, held in Winnipeg May 27-June 5.

In Toronto, there were public presentations at Glad Day Books and the San Lorenzo Church (an Anglican parish serving mostly Spanish-speaking people). At San Lorenzo, part of the conversation was about spirituality and the churches.

Fernando, whose father was a Catholic lay catechist murdered by a death squad in 1980, called on churches to distance themselves from those fundamentalist churches that “demonize” Mayan spiritual leaders

In June 2020 in Petén department, Domingo Choc Che, 55, a Maya Q’eqchi’ expert on traditional herbal medicine, was tortured and burned alive by people who accused him of witchcraft. In June this year, Adela Choc Cuz, a member of the Q’eqchi’ Maya Ancestral Council of the El Estor municipality, Izabal department, was kidnapped with her daughter. They too were accused of witchcraft, but both were released.

On their final day in Toronto, I talked more with Fernando and Mónica about the intersections of Indigenous and LGBTIQ+ identities in Guatemala.

Fernando: I think there is a sort of accumulation of oppressions within the structural racism that is found in Latin America – all of America – racism as an ideology of racial superiority that has permeated since the time to the Spanish conquest and is maintained to this day. 

What does that mean for Indigenous people? Displacement, loss of land, situations of poverty. In a country like Guatemala, there is a lot of cultural diversity and also biodiversity. The Indigenous people live on land that is not as good for cultivation. We have less access to running water and to education, and therefore less access to good jobs.

In that context, to be gay, or to be a person of diverse sexuality or queer, means another form of oppression and vulnerability. In the face of racism, you have fewer opportunities, but if you are part of that sexual diversity, your possibilities and conditions of life are even more limited.

Mónica: When we talk about inclusion in social struggles, we’re talking about many different struggles. When we talk about LGBTIQ+ rights where we live, it’s like we’re talking about the territories from which we struggles in ways that are separate from other struggles, like those going on in the cities. We realize that these social struggles are connected, but what we live in our territories is what we embody collectively, the theft our Q’eqchi’ land, the criminalization of land defenders: those events make us reflect and embody together with all our companions. There are members of our community who face repression, but we realize we are in a difficult context, one of vulnerability, racism and discrimination. 

Part of our community is hidden, and needs to hide. But to confront that situation, some of us have to be visible.

Jim: These situations of criminalization of land defenders, the political prisoners: what is going on now in the struggles for land?

Mónica: We embody those situations. As defenders, we too are diverse. Think of the people who are criminalized and condemned to years in prison. In any moment, they could criminalize us, we who are defenders of diversity, imprison us, persecute us. It’s very important to have solidarity. The colour of our organizational flag doesn’t matter. This is collective humanitarian work.

Fernando: The claims for land and natural resources are historic. The Indigenous people have built their claims around land issues. In Guatemala, Indigenous peoples have been forced from their land, or they have land that is not good for cultivation, and the conditions in which the land was taken are not very clear in legal terms. In effect, in recent years, the aggression and attacks against those who reclaim the land have increased.

I am from a village in Uspantán that is called Macalajau, more up in the mountains. Even though I have not lived there, I maintain a relationship with the community. It feels like a town that is growing. There’s more business, and it’s more culturally diverse now. But I think that outside the village, conditions of access to water are limited. There’s malnutrition. Access to primary education is still a problem, especially for Indigenous children. And because of lack of opportunities, some people, especially young people, migrate to the United States.

Mónica: Our people are being forced from their homes and communities. Why? Because our presence is not convenient for the land-owners, the ranchers, the hydro-electricity developers who want to take over Mother Nature and the ancestral lands of our communities. What they do is to force our people out. They’re forced to flee, risking their lives, walking to another place to seek refuge. We continue to see this. They criminalize people who defend their land, condemning them unjustly. That’s what is going on in the territory from which I come.

San Miguel de Uspantán, Quiché

My posts about people and issues in Guatemala, May through August 2022, are in different spaces. Here they are in chronological order:

Unwrapping Development:

Breaking The Silence:

Unwrapping Development

  • At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala [above]

Summit of the Americas: U.S. can’t break old habits

That the White House announced Canada’s planned response to the flow of refugees in Central America said a lot to me about the way the Biden administration mishandled the Summit of the Americas, held in Los Angeles last week.

Canada will welcome 4,000 additional migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, the White House announced on June 10. That number is insignificant compared to the size of the challenge: 

  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021. About one-third were deported; another third sought asylum in Mexico. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). None of the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador chose to attend the summit – and Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela were told by Biden not to come. It’s hard to solve problems when you’re not talking to people who can do something about them.
  • As of February in the United States, about 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in alternatives-to-detention programs managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE). This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents – or the people actually held in detention.

The White House announcement of Canada’s support included commitments from other countries on migration issues, and was reported by Canadian Press in an article widely shared in Canadian media (CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, among others).

“The agreement also includes a pre-existing Canadian commitment to bring in an additional 50,000 agricultural workers this year from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean.” (Those are temporary workers whose rights are limited.)

To its credit, the government (via the Prime Minister’s Office, not Global Affairs Canada) also announced an additional $118 million for “progressive initiatives” aimed at improving the lives of people where they already live in Latin America and the Caribbean. That includes $67.9 million to promote gender equality; $31.5 million in health and pandemic response spending; $17.3 million on democratic governance and $1.6 million for digital access and anti-disinformation measures. It will also spend $26.9 million to address “irregular migration and forced displacement” in the hemisphere.

Washington “still trying to dictate” to neighbours

But it was the exclusions and boycotts that drew most attention. Because Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua were excluded by the host country, Mexico, Honduras, Bolivia and some Caribbean leaders chose to stay away. Leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador did not attend because of issues with U.S. treatment of allegations of corruption and abuses of human rights in their countries. In the end only about 20 of potentially 35 heads of state or government attended.

Apparently modelling the art of understatement, Reuters reported: “Hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Biden sought to assure the assembled leaders about his administration’s commitment to the region despite nagging concerns that Washington, at times, is still trying to dictate to its poorer southern neighbours.”

The presence of the unelected prime minister of Haiti, Ariel Henry, drew fire. During a panel discussion on “journalistic freedom,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had the good grace to seem embarrassed when challenged over Henry’s presence. As Alterpresse pointed out, “not only does Henry govern without a mandate in violation of the Haitian Constitution, he is also implicated in serious crimes, including the death of a Haitian journalist in February 2022 by Haitian police.” (Two other journalists had been killed in January in a gang attack.)

In the tradition of each Summit of the Americas (including the teargas summit in Quebec City in 2001), a People’s Summit was held, gathering more than 250 community organizations, social movements, trade unions and other progressive groups. “In the ‘richest country in the world,’ 140 million live in or near poverty. The US government is addicted to militarism and war and will spend over $800 billion in 2022, on death and destruction,” said the final declaration. “Instead of preparing for war, society must be organized to meet human needs. We want a future without evictions, police violence and mass incarceration, deportations, sanctions, and blockades. We say: no more!”