Editor’s note: On November 21, images of the Guatemalan Congress going up in flames went around the world. The protest was initially sparked by closed-door budget negotiations that foresaw cuts to education, social and health services while generously propping up the business sector. But the uprising that continues up to this day also reflected the Guatemalan people’s deep and long-standing frustration with political corruption, democratic backsliding and economic inequality. In early December, the Progressive International spoke to Lesbia Amézquita and Efrén Sandoval from Guatemalan trade union and PI member MSICG about the situation in the country.
[Progressive International] To begin with, for many people around the world the burning of Guatemala’s National Congress on November 21 was the last thing they saw. How are things at the moment and what is happening in Guatemala?
[Lesbia Amézquita] Well, that day we witnessed the birth of an important social movement in the country because it is driven by the workers, the students and the general population. They gathered in the square to demand justice in the face of state policies that respond solely and exclusively to the needs of the country’s business sector and to protest against a state that has not taken measures to prevent the death of the population and which is extremely corrupt at all levels. We also currently have – and this is the main reason why we are demonstrating throughout the country today – an executive power and a president who has taken control of the Congress of the Republic and the judicial power. In other words, Guatemala is now experiencing full dictatorship after having moved from war to a formal democracy. It is very important for the international community to understand what we are facing in the country: we no longer have a democratic regime, the legislative, executive and judicial powers are concentrated in the President of the Republic to such an extent that the Congress of the Republic, controlled by the President of the Republic through 115 deputies who respond solely and exclusively to what the executive power dictates, has refused to comply with a resolution of the Constitutional Court which ordered them to immediately appoint the magistrate judges. At present, we have an illegitimate court that has been operating for about a year as the President and the Congress of the Republic refuse to respect the independence and the division of powers. In addition, there is a whole system of corruption and policies that only and exclusively benefit the business sector, which has resulted in the people taking to the streets to demand the independence of powers, a National Constituent Assembly, the immediate resignation of the President of the Republic and the resignation of the 115 deputies who have subdued the Congress of the Republic to the executive branch. This is the situation we are experiencing in the country.
[Efrén Sandoval] Right now, after the climax on Saturday 21, there is a certain level of calm, apparent calm. We now see the government trying to convince the population, through the media it controls, that their discontent is based on a budget with record debt for the country that was approved in the early hours. It is supposedly offering dialogue but said it has already met with business sector think tanks here in Guatemala. So what is happening now is that the movement remains in place and is trying to counteract this discourse. We Guatemalans are not upset about a budget, the budget is a secondary issue to state policies, it is secondary to other types of conditions. In Guatemala, there is a sense of accumulated discontent; it is the increasing corruption, small advances that were made and are receding; and what we have now is that there is indeed a power, a dictatorship that exercises command over everything without any kind of control.
We must remember how the Guatemalan State is constituted: the Guatemalan State is structured on the idea of separation of powers and creates three powers: executive, legislative and judicial. Two fundamental controls are established for these powers: a control through the Human Rights Ombudsman, a congressional commissioner in charge of human rights, and a separate control of constitutionality by the Constitutional Court. In recent months we have seen a frontal attack on these controls by the government, by the deputies to the point that the Constitutional Court was rendered useless. Now the Constitutional Court cannot resolve anything important because it does not have the 7 magistrates it needs to convene. This was also done to prevent compliance with what the court ordered, as Lesbia said, to elect the magistrates of the judicial power. In other words, we are in a state without control and the discontent of the people is not the budget, in spite of all the talk.
The OAS Democratic Charter is now being invoked. I have a very particular opinion regarding that Democratic Charter. Every time it has been invoked, it has been to attack the democratic processes of nations. However, I am not surprised that it is now being invoked by a dictator to protect his position vis-à-vis the people, but it is not the people who are breaking the constitutional order here. People are demanding the independence of powers, people are demanding policies that suit the needs of the population, not ones that further enrich the corrupt gang in the institutions and the inept gang in the chambers of commerce. In Guatemala, there are no businessmen who can do business without it being at the expense of the State coffers, at the expense of people's rights and through tax exemptions. There isn’t even a single business figure who we can say represents the possibility of development for the country. That's why people are dissatisfied now. Although they are telling us it’s the budget, people are upset with this state of affairs, they are upset with this way of doing politics. They are upset but I think in the end there is something important happening because people are waking up, people are realising that our problem, and the main problem of the country, has been the business sector. It was organised through the Coordinating Committee of the Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) which was founded in 1957 to maintain the totally undemocratic movement of the 1954 coup d’état. Since then, it has been responsible for shaping state policies in such a way that the population’s rights have not made any progress since the 1944-54 decade. Now they are also advancing an agenda – that they intend to promote at an accelerated pace with this government – which basically eliminates all economic, social and labour rights.
[L] I would also like to draw the international community’s attention to what is happening in Guatemala because we cannot have an international community, like the one accredited in the country, which is perfectly aware that there are even two magistrates with criminal proceedings in the Constitutional Court, that there is no independence of powers, that a dictatorship has been consolidated and that the government of Guatemala, the President of the Republic, has risen up against the population through the National Civil Police. Two young people lost their eyes as a result of the attack by the National Civil Police for demonstrating. As we speak, young people, mainly students, are in custody for exercising the right to demonstrate, and we have a president who is a dictator and who is consolidating a dictatorship. The international community cannot be complicit with dictatorship, nor can it turn a blind eye to the fact that people are being massacred for asking for social justice policies, for asking for a budget to combat chronic malnutrition in children, to meet the great demands of women or so that hospitals are supplied. The corruption in this government runs so deep that there are no supplies in hospitals to take care of Covid patients. Here, people are dying at home because it is not worth going to an under-stocked hospital where they will only die away from their families. This is the situation we are experiencing in Guatemala at the moment.
[PI] How is the MSICG dealing with the situation and how is it organising now?
[L] Well, at the moment we are mobilising in all the departments of the country, along with the rest of the population, also demanding the resignation of the president. I want to tell you that this government even closed the institutions responsible for monitoring human rights. At this moment, the Human Rights Ombudsman institution has been weakened for some time, but mainly now, to prevent it from fulfilling its mandate to monitor the enforcement of human rights in the country. We have been mobilising and we will continue to mobilise, we will convene a permanent mobilisation of all the social forces of the country, mainly the working class, because in the end those of us who have paid the most for the policies and corruption of this government, are the working class. In the face of the Covid pandemic, the government's policy was to give money to companies, even to companies that pretended to have workers in order to obtain public funds. That has been the policy of the government, it has not been the people. It has never been to serve the population or the demands of the population. Workers were dismissed and their contracts suspended with authorization from the government; they wanted to co-opt the social security system to take over the social security funds from the executive branch; and now those 115 deputies are promoting a bill in parliament that will take away all labour rights that are, at least formally, recognised in the country. So, this Congress, this dictatorship is a danger to democracy. It is a danger to the working class and it is even a danger to the life of every citizen of this country.
[PI] At the moment is the uprising, this popular movement, mainly an urban movement or is it also a peasant movement, happening in the countryside?
[E] Well, now the movement is widespread in the country. I think that sometimes movements tend to have differences in their approach to some things. We believe that the problem that exists now in Guatemala is a general problem and when we manage to solve the immediate problem that this dictatorship and these conditions create, we will be able to discuss the differences that may exist. But now is a time to unite. We are uniting, we hope people support the common goal of, first, restoring constitutional order in the country. This means restoring the balance between the institutions, restoring their credibility, and restoring the state. In other words, there cannot be a state governing for the business sector, there cannot be a state governing to generate conditions for the enrichment of unscrupulous politicians. We have to remedy that, and that is what we are trying to do now in every corner of the country.
[L] In fact it is no longer an urban movement. On Saturday 21 we saw an urban movement, today we see a movement in Quetzaltenango, in Petén, in Totonicapán, in Huehuetenango, in the Central Plaza, in Chiquimula, in Jutiapa, in Jalapa, in Zacapa, in Santa Rosa, that is, the working-class people. Today we are alive, and we are publishing it on the MSICG network, a celebration of democracy in Guatemala where the working class of the entire country – peasant workers, urban workers, indigenous workers and mainly women – are taking to the streets to demand democracy, to demand social justice. We ask for the support of the international community. We do not want an international community complicit in a dictatorship, we want an international community that will move from discourse to practice, that helps us create democratic conditions and social justice in this country. As we understand it, the government is currently using the Democratic Charter as an instrument to repress the people, to guarantee, through the OAS, the use of public force against the peaceful demonstrations that we as a people are holding in every corner of the country. But these peaceful demonstrations will not be silenced by this dictatorship, not even with the support of the OAS because the people are fighting for bread, they are fighting for health, they are fighting for education; we are fighting for minimum living conditions and dignity, and we will not cease until we have a country where we can all live with a minimum of dignity.
[E] In fact, this government has now brought about some changes in terms of repression. It had been years since a government launched public forces against the people with such brutality. Now we see videos from these demonstrations where the police are taking out weapons that they hid in the sewers days before to pretend to be unarmed before the population, and then appear armed in front of the people. There are many images of police officers beating people up and some are even robbing them, taking their wallets, the things they carry, with the intention of robbing them. We are seeing something that has not been seen in this country. Moreover, there was a resolution by the Constitutional Court, which governed the state and the state security forces, to avoid confronting and attacking the population. However, it was done and now we see the consequences: two young people lost their eyes because they were shot at close range, one was even nearly killed because he was shot at close range by a rubber bullet.
[L] And this is where the international community can clearly see the lack of independence of powers. The Attorney General quickly mobilised the prosecutors of the Public Prosecutor's Office to accuse the demonstrators and imprison them. Meanwhile, there is no news of any imprisonment of the National Civil Police forces that used weapons against the people at the demonstration, nor is an investigation being opened into why the police had weapons in the sewers to use against protesters. This is a total lack of independence of powers. A Public Prosecutor's Office that is not also persecuting the state security forces that violated the human rights of the young people who were demonstrating, with those mainly affected being the students. This is what we most deplore in the MSCIG, the use of force concentrated almost exclusively against the students of the State University.
[IP] How can we, as internationalists from around the world, make international solidarity tangible and concrete for the Guatemalan people, in addition to denouncing the government and the dictatorship?
[L] Well, I think by explaining the problem, right? That it is a dictatorship. But also to go to your embassies. Talk to your governments. Talk to the governments of the different countries to explain what the situation in Guatemala is like so that the countries can also support a real and democratic process in Guatemala.
[E] Well, we must remember that, regularly, when democratic movements manifest, there is usually a very strong media attack, first questioning that human rights have been violated and so on, and all the media coverage – all the institutional coverage – moves to crush this democratic movement. When the people are the ones that move, the same movement begins to take place, but then they label people as vandals, as terrorists, as coup-plotters, as criminals. So this is the first war that must be won in any movement, and I think that in those moments the most important form of solidarity is to help us win that media war. We cannot continue to believe the ideas from the government, that popular unrest is an act of sedition – that is, that we are against them, that we are breaking the constitutional order – because there has been an initial subversion of that constitutional order and it happened when the democratic controls on the abuse of authority by the powers were broken. So, when the balance of power was broken, we were left with a dictatorship; that is what we have and it’s what we are fighting against. And that is the idea that should be conveyed to everyone. It is difficult for us because, as you know, democratic movements usually never have the media – the big television channels – on our side so we have to rely on the solidarity and commitment of each person to amplify it. Today, Latin America is experiencing very important moments; for some decades now, we have been trying to build a different way of things. I believe that we are finally coming out of the Eurocentric logic where the great changes were being built in Europe, now they are being built in Latin America and that is why it is under incessant attack at the moment. It is necessary for us to get active because now one of the main weapons against the movements is the media. We need to generate and move that solidarity, first in regards to communication and then we will see in what other forms it can be manifested, but the first thing is to break that media barrier they put up to alter reality in such a way that it turns whoever is defending democratic values into the aggressor. So that's what we have to break with.
[IP] Looking ahead, where are the uprising and this movement going, where are the Guatemalan people moving towards?
[L] Well, the people are moving towards a National Constituent Assembly. We want democracy and the only way to reach a democratic state at this time, in the conditions we have in Guatemala, is a National Constituent Assembly led by the people to mark the changes that must be made. Guatemala's political party system is a system designed for economic power to finance political parties, and in Guatemala all political parties – without exception – have historically shown to be corrupt and subservient to economic power. In other words, a change in Guatemala at this time does not involve political parties. A change at this time in Guatemala comes from the people, from the people in the streets, from the people exercising direct democracy as we should have always done and should never have let the business sector take from us.
Something important that I wanted to return to is that at this moment the people are clear that the problem is not only this government, but also the sector organised through the CACIF, which in the end defines state policy. It corrupts the state so that it can implement its agenda, it cheats the state when it does not pay taxes, and it defunds the state so that it does not have enough to invest in human development. So, the people finally – and this is very important in this demonstration – are very clear that the problem is the business sector grouped through the CACIF. And at some point, I have no doubt, there will be a democratic business sector, as other countries have, a business sector committed to the development of the people. Not a corrupt business sector that lives off the state, that lives off the working class and that does not contribute anything to the work or the development of Guatemalans.
Photo: MSICG / Twitter
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