Central America / Politics

“Dialogue with Indigenous peoples must be part of the democratic springtime in Guatemala”

Roman Gressier
Roman Gressier

Thursday, October 5, 2023
Roman Gressier

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In front of an austere gray façade of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) with a dozen spacious square windows in Guatemala City, hundreds of demonstrators have gathered since Monday, October 2, amid a national strike convened by Indigenous authorities. The demonstrators are demanding —a month and a half after the August elections— respect for the results and the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the visible head of efforts to boycott the victory of social-democrat Bernardo Arévalo and prevent the transfer of power set for January.

The main highways of the country and even Puerto Quetzal have seen blockades for four days. Academics and university students, unionists, campesino collectives, human rights organizations, and an increasing number of analysts and journalists are joining in the demands in a gradual crescendo, amid repeat episodes of police repression. In the capital, the MP has drawn its blinds.

Aleisar Arana is the Huxi Hurak (president) of the Xinka Parliament, which represents the second-largest Indigenous population in Guatemala after its Mayan peoples. Together with more forceful ancestral authorities like the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán or the Indigenous mayors’ offices of Sololá around Lake Atitlán, the Xinka are openly challenging the country’s traditional political elites. “Some ask me, ‘Why are you blocking (the streets)?’ But those doing the blocking are the Constitutional Court, the justice system. Consuelo Porras is,” he says in this interview with El Faro. “As soon as they take away their blockade, we’ll quickly pack up and go home.”

Arana accuses President Alejandro Giammattei and ultraconservatives in the private sector of orchestrating behind closed doors the attacks on the elections and Arévalo through the justice system, but he expresses optimism. Despite the fact that the Xinka Parliament managed in August to secure “a very short meeting because they are always in a hurry,” he believes Arévalo will keep his promise to fight corruption and commitments to halt mining concessions and to acknowledge ancestral land rights — that is, Arana caveats at the protest in front of the MP, “if he is sworn in.”

The flier calling for national mobilization that the Xinka Parliament published on September 30 alongside a series of Indigenous mayors’ offices reads: “We didn’t return, we’ve always been here. We’re not one or two, we are all.” What does that mean?
We are one people. We, the Xinka people, are a culture different from Mayan culture, but that hasn’t stopped us from joining together, exchanging ideas, and charting a course toward a common objective.

What is that objective?
Right now our objective is for Consuelo Porras, prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, and Judge Fredy Orellana to resign. But it is also to find harmony among peoples and have a dignified life in which our rights are respected. An important right for us is the right to consultation [prior to the approval of mining projects]. We have to consult any decision with our people and carry out what the population communicates to us. In our culture, this is the fundamental principle of guiding by obedience.

You have announced an indefinite strike. Just how long is ‘indefinite’?
We won’t budge until our demands are heard. Right now our goal is for the authorities who were democratically elected to be sworn in on January 14, and today we feel that the will that the people expressed at the polls is being violated.

The Xinka Parliament and other ancestral authorities have asked for Porras’ resignation since at least July 2021, when another strike was held, but she continues in office. Would you be willing to stay here in front of the MP for months?
It’s a bit difficult because we have other needs on our land, and we have to work. But we will exert pressure to every extent possible. When we called for Consuelo Porras’ resignation after prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval was forced to leave the country, we had firmly dissented to her nomination, because we knew that Consuelo Porras was not fit nor honest enough in order to hold such an important position as head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the Public Prosecutor
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the Public Prosecutor's Office in Guatemala City on Oct. 2, 2023, to demand the resignation of the chief actors involved in prosectors' efforts to stymie the transfer of power next January 14. Photo Roman Gressier

If the Attorney General doesn’t resign and those who now protest go home, do you fear that you will send a message of weakness?
Our interaction with the Mayan peoples, far from being weakened, will only grow stronger, because we are already aware that our responsibility as citizens and as Indigenous peoples of Guatemala is to maintain unity in our demands in order to obtain results. We are the majority, and we have to use that in our favor.

How did you coordinate the strike? What political interactions occurred beforehand?
We held assemblies to share ideas and chart a course, but it was a bit difficult, because the context kept changing. We would say, ‘On such-and-such day we will mobilize and start the protests,’ but then we would push it back to another date. It was only up until now that we said, ‘On October 2 we are starting this, and it will be an indefinite mobilization.’

Who was around that table?
There were various [Indigenous] authorities there. The strike is chiefly being led by the 48 Cantons and by Sololá. They have been the two peoples who historically have had the structure and capacity to mobilize a great number of people. And today we the Xinka people, despite the fact that we emerged only with the Peace Accords [the Guatemalan state formally recognized the Xinkas in 1995], have also been protagonists of this struggle, and in the defense of our land. We’re making ourselves known not only at a national level, but also internationally, as a highly organized structure across three departments of Guatemala.

Is there more unity today among Indigenous peoples in Guatemala?
Yes, and we hope that other peoples who have been erased, mistreated, and humiliated also join in. I’m referring, in these times, to the Q’eqchi people in their territory in El Estor, Izabal, and that area.

Are campesino collectives like CODECA part of that increased cohesion?
As an ancestral authority we have always administered our communal land; the Xinkas are the people with the most communal land. And we have stood out for our not engaging in partisan politics. CODECA and the MLP are seeking the presidency, Congress, and mayors’ offices, and that’s fine, but we have insisted to our people that they analyze their vote and for each person to choose the candidates they see fit. Before our country was coopted by corrupt political parties who had money to finance campaigns and took power. People accepted a lot of money, including in cash, in exchange for their vote, but now they feel betrayed because of the results.

Do you trust the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice?
We have filed petitions and have knocked the door of public institutions to use the legal tools at our disposal, so that nobody can say that the people’s only tool is protest. But we really do not trust them. The Supreme Court of Justice has just reversed course: It will not hear the injunction submitted by the president-elect. We made it clear before the protests started, when we came here on September 18: ‘We don’t want to come out here and demonstrate in this fashion; heed the call of the people.’ But they didn’t listen.

Members of the Xinka Parliament arrived in Guatemala City on Sep. 18, 2023 amid sustained judicial interference in the electoral process. “We #IndigenousPeoples organize against the attempted #CoupdEtat and demand the resignation of #ConsueloPorras, #RafaelCurruchiche, #CintiaMonterroso, and #FredyOrellana,” wrote the Parliament on X.
Members of the Xinka Parliament arrived in Guatemala City on Sep. 18, 2023 amid sustained judicial interference in the electoral process. “We #IndigenousPeoples organize against the attempted #CoupdEtat and demand the resignation of #ConsueloPorras, #RafaelCurruchiche, #CintiaMonterroso, and #FredyOrellana,” wrote the Parliament on X.

Do you blame President Giammattei for what is happening?
We believe that he is chiefly responsible for giving more power to this criminal structure of corruption. What pains us is that he says one thing in his deceitful speeches but does another. We see that he is at the head of what is happening in the government, whether in the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial Branches.

Do you believe the president has sought to alter the electoral process?
We have no doubt that he is part of this situation. Right now [Wednesday, October 4] he called on Guatemalans to be a team, and said that taking the streets was not the way to do things. But they have left us with no other option. We don’t want to be doing this; we have other things to do on our own land.

What do you think of the role of the private sector in this political crisis?
The private sector is the one behind everything. We have no doubt about that, either. It’s the private sector who have managed and financed the political campaigns. They have handpicked courts of justice and have built this structure, too. Among those responsible for the current situation are the monopolies who control commerce. They have us in this situation and just yesterday made a statement requesting that the Constitutional Court make a decision to resolve this crisis. Let’s hope the court listens to those who have always had the real power.

On Monday the Chamber of Agriculture asked the National Civil Police to “clear the roads” that you are blocking. Could these demonstrations provoke an even greater fear among conservatives of political change and an Arévalo government?
We’re only asking that they respect us, and for the situation to change. I’m 60 years old; I’ve seen one government after another and things are backsliding. Today we are demonstrating because we see a clear alternative with the president-elect. He’s proposing another system and has been clear that he will fight corruption. If he is sworn in, let’s hope he does so. And we will have an important role as ancestral authorities, so that through citizen support he can execute part of his agenda.

We know that there will be opposition in Congress, that the courts will be against him and that the situation is complex. But we hope to give him the necessary support while at the same time critically evaluating his work. That’s why we see the current context as positive.

Which of the incoming government’s proposals resonate with you?
The most important is the fight against corruption. We pay our taxes but they haven’t been returned in public works; rather, in unrepaired highways. They use the cheapest materials and a month later the potholes have returned. The crisis of hospitals, education. The environment is another issue that deeply concerns us, because the government is not handling solid waste well, and this is polluting the rivers. There are very complex problems that we want him to focus on.

What conversations have you had with Arévalo? Has he made specific commitments to the Xinka Parliament?
We had a very short meeting because they are always in a hurry. At the time he had yet to be elected. The Xinka Parliament presented a slate of requests to meet our most immediate needs. He committed to working on these proposals, with mutual support from both sides.

What did you prioritize in that conversation?
There has been plundering of our communal land due to the issue of property deeds. In Jalapa there are removal orders and things are very complicated. What worries us are the many mining licenses. Almost all of them fall in our region. Arévalo committed to promoting a moratorium on the Mining Law. He said they will study the positive and negative effects of the current law. One of the negatives is that it affects Indigenous peoples and we were not consulted. Article six of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) states that any administrative or legislative action that will affect Indigenous peoples must be consulted with them.

There are Indigenous leaders who accuse Semilla, the president-elect’s party, of being classist. Do you see it that way?
I wouldn’t use that term; I see openness. But we have yet to see how what we spoke about is carried out. During Semilla’s time in Congress we have seen them do good work and defend our peoples. They have always opposed regressive legislation, and I think that helped Arévalo get elected. What’s also clear is the legacy left by his father, President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo (1945-1951). I wasn’t around then, but my grandparents, father, and others recall the change that occurred in another moment of crisis, because they had just gotten rid of the dictator Jorge Ubico.

Is Semilla too urban?
Perhaps, yes, but we see an acceptable openness when they express that we farmers are important. We need them to help us produce for the consumption of our country, and not import products that we could harvest here. We live in the dry corridor and this year suffered tremendous losses of corn crop. There are rivers that can be used for irrigation projects. Rainfall can be stored. There are viable options for change in our territory.

Arévalo has promised a “new democratic springtime.” What do you expect from that springtime?
(He smiles and pauses.) Well, I hope that comes to fruition, but what you first expect in a democracy is for all of us to be respected, for us to be able to sit down with him. It would be interesting to have a relationship that isn’t, ‘I’ll give you 20 minutes to chat, and bring the most concise bullet points.’ We need a conversation that generates trust. Dialogue is part of that springtime.

Aleisar Arana, president of the Xinka Parliament, outside the Public Prosecutor
Aleisar Arana, president of the Xinka Parliament, outside the Public Prosecutor's Office in Guatemala City on Oct. 4, 2023. Since 2014 he has held the command staff conferred on him by the Xinka people, native to the southeastern corner of Guatemala. Photo Roman Gressier

What advances in terms of democratic institutions would you hope to see in the next four years?
A great step forward would be to educate citizens on their rights. That would truly strengthen the rule of law. In these elections we went to our communities and spoke with them so that people would be conscious of who they were voting for, so that they would learn more about the candidates. We did a simulation of the vote to see if they understood, but we saw that many of our people are not yet prepared to deeply analyze politics.

Empowering people is the only way for this country to emerge from the authoritarian labyrinth. If everyone knew the law, the Constitution, the municipal code, and the agreements and conventions that Guatemala has signed and ratified in terms of Indigenous rights and human rights, then we would have better analysis and debate. Often people stay quiet because they don’t understand what is being said and there are politicians who know that weakness, because they speak in technical jargon.

Once Arévalo takes office, if he faces political and institutional obstruction, will the Xinka people take the streets again?
Some ask me, ‘Why are you blocking (the streets)?’ But those doing the blocking are the Constitutional Court, the justice system. Consuelo Porras is. As soon as they take away their blockade, we’ll quickly pack up and go home. If the obstruction you mention blocks the project that Arévalo has set out for development, then we will be happy to set out again. And I think he will be able to get things done if he has the support of the citizens.

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