Central America / Politics

“The Guatemalan Attorney General should resign in Christian conscience”

Tiziana Fabi
Tiziana Fabi

Thursday, October 12, 2023
Roman Gressier

Leer en español

“There are at least four blockades separating us,” Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini wrote over an encrypted messaging app upon accepting this interview. “It would be better to do it over video chat. Don’t put yourself at risk.” These are convulsive days in Guatemala, with a hundred blockades of highways and streets around the country in protest against Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ abuse of power. Ramazzini’s diocese is in Huehuetenango is some six hours by highway from the capital. At the time of this conversation, dozens of riot police had been dispatched to the Peripheral Ring highway, one of the gateways west from Guatemala City.

Ramazzini has taken the side of the demonstrators. So, too, he says, are all of Guatemala’s bishops. On behalf of the Episcopal Conference, he has repeatedly condemned the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s (MP) obstacles to the electoral process and the transition of power that should culminate on January 14 with the swearing-in of President-Elect Bernardo Arévalo. Five days ago, he stood in front of the MP headquarters in the capital and, escorted by the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán and Indigenous Mayor’s Office of Sololá, addressed hundreds of demonstrators: “I can not turn a deaf ear to the cries of a people who for centuries have demanded that their voice be heard.”

The cardinal is a prominent defender of migrants’ rights —he was one of the founders in 1999 of Casa del Migrante, whose shelters pepper the path across Guatemala, administered by Scalabrinian missionaries— and vocal in the causes of campesinos and the defense of national resources. He was not always such an open critic of the administration of Alejandro Giammattei; he says that before the pandemic he unfruitfully tried to mediate between the government and communities in Huehuetenango amid a dispute over a hydroelectric dam — until Giammattei, he says, “made clear to me that he was the president and would do as he pleased.” Now, with more benevolence than many others concede to Giammattei, he accuses the president of being lukewarm in the current crisis.

With the country in its tenth day of a national strike, he again offers his mediation to the government. In this conversation he accuses the Foundation Against Terrorism of defending “a racist and exclusionary Guatemala,” marks distance from CODECA, whom he criticizes for their radicality, and highlights his friendship with some business leaders, despite their differences. “I have no basis to say whether they are responsible or not for the current crisis,” he says of the private sector, “but they bear much responsibility for the historical process of discrimination and marginalization of the most impoverished sectors of Guatemala.”

Is Guatemala facing the risk of a coup d’état?
That’s one hypothesis, because in this country you never know what could happen. It reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, 100 Years of Solitude, which tells of fantasies that could actually happen. The intent in saying the words ‘coup d’état’ is to send a warning: Don’t do it. If the military is considering it, don’t; it would be disastrous for the country.

Guatemala is Macondo.
Yes, it’s unbelievable what is happening here.

The country has spent ten days under a national strike with almost 100 blockades. How strong do you reckon the demonstrations are right now?
The Constitutional Court (CC) has accepted the injunction presented by the Indigenous Mayor of Palín requesting respect for the right to mobilization, and the court has also stated that roads should be free from blockades. But maintaining the blockade is a right recognized as peaceful protest. Those who have committed acts of violence at the demonstrations are not the organizers, but rather infiltrators. The mentality of those who organized this blockade was always peaceful, and I would hope that those of us who are protesting —I am not part of the blockades— maintain that spirit.

Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini (center-right) after addressing hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the foot of the Public Prosecutor
Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini (center-right) after addressing hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the foot of the Public Prosecutor's Office in Guatemala City on Oct. 6, 2023, during a national strike demanding the resignation of Consuelo Porras. Photo Roman Gressier

Last night, here in Huehuetenango, I visited a group blocking a highway toward the Mexican border and they were aware of the need to not punish sick people who need to get through, or trucks bringing in gas, because right now in Huehue the gas stations are empty. They need the minimum good sense to avoid rigid extremism that puts people’s lives at risk. Now, with the CC’s ruling, the authorities can make the argument: “You’re out of line, and we’re acting.” Sometimes the leaders lack the astuteness that, as Jesus says in the Gospel, you should be harmless like a dove and wise as a snake.

What do you expect the blockades to achieve?
I would hope that the attorney general resigns. That is my wish, but I’m not sure to what extent she has the human sensitivity to realize that large majorities of the population do not want her to continue in her role. She has always maintained that she respects the law, but there have been illegalities that gave way to the opposition against her, like the seizure of ballot boxes. Before, the population had not reacted like this against her, despite the fact that she took drastic measures against people from her same office who are now in exile. But when they touched the elections, the votes, and the count, people reacted in this fashion. I wasn’t expecting it, but good on the people for reacting.

What role is President Giammattei playing?
He has backpedaled. For weeks he said nothing in public, but in neither of his two recent speeches has he mentioned the source of the problem. He has not said, “I disagree with what you’re asking me, for me to ask the attorney general to resign.”

I tell him now: Mr. President, you must assume your responsibility. And I think we bishops made that clear to him in our open letter on Tuesday. He must uphold the common good and public order and guarantee peace. The least we could expect of President Giammattei is for him to say, ‘Madam Attorney General, in keeping with my obligations I ask for you to resign.’ That would bring the president points in his favor.

There have been rumors —which the president denies— that he is considering declaring a state of exception.
If they are evaluating that, it will not help at all. Because the level of protest and public discontent have already risen so much. He has just three months left in his term, and it would be foolish for him to make that decision, especially given the ruling of the Constitutional Court.

Do you not think the CC is trying to appease everybody with its rulings?
At least now they’re offering answers. But as for whether these will really help reduce or make all of this go away, I doubt it.

You have publicly supported the strike, but two days ago a robed priest ran over demonstrators in the wealthy Guatemala City neighborhood of Cayalá. Are there two Catholic churches in Guatemala?
No, just one. Within the Church there are orders with their own internal norms, but everything having to do with public life outside of that is the responsibility of the bishop. I haven’t spoken with the archbishop, who has jurisdiction in Guatemala City, but I imagine that he will have something to say on the matter. I also imagine this will have caught the attention of the superiors of this priest, who belongs to Opus Dei.

Is it perhaps apparent that there are widely divergent views among leaders of the church regarding national current events?
At the level of the bishops, no. What we said in our statement is what we all think. At the level of the priests, I would imagine so. We have freedom on issues not concerning faith; we respect freedom of thought. In my diocese, any priest who disagrees with something I say in public has the right to tell me, and to talk about it. And if I can’t convince him, it in no way affects pastoral life.

What role should the Catholic church play in this political crisis?
The one that we have been playing: reconciliation, yes, while also helping to eliminate the causes that have provoked this situation. That’s why we’ve consistently said: madam attorney general, resign. You consider yourself a Catholic, so resign. Prosecutor Curruchiche, resign. Do so for the good of the people, and not only because you’ve committed crimes. That is, if you truly have a Christian and civic conscience.

The Giammattei administration presents itself as conservative and religious. Does the president listen to you?
At first I had a close relationship with him due to problems in San Mateo Ixtatán, Huehuetenango. But he later made clear to me that he was the president and would do as he pleased. And that was the end of it. Both the government and the diocese undertook this mediation in San Mateo, but the pandemic came and everything stopped. I’ve since cut off our close relationship and now, as a citizen, I must tell him where he is going wrong. That’s why we’ve called on him and the attorney general directly.

Does the church have the capacity to mediate with the government?
If they ask us to mediate, we are willing to do so. While we have a separation of church and state, we have always been willing to help resolve problems jeopardizing Guatemalans’ social stability.

What do you make of the role of other Christian churches in Guatemalan politics today?
It depends, because there is a sector of the Evangelical churches, the Conference of Evangelical Churches of Guatemala, that is committed to social issues. But there is another sector that I really wish would stake out a clear position on political and social issues. But that’s their way of thinking and their right, as any believer.

An influential coalition of Evangelical pastors has offered Giammattei and allies its broad support.
Unfortunately so. That support has not helped us; it has brought us to this crisis. Support should include showing the president his mistakes. If he doesn’t listen, then that’s a different story.

On Friday you called on demonstrators to watch out for “extremist agendas”. What are you referring to?
The infiltrators. They’re government people acting as ears, and we should be very careful with government infiltrators. Because I’ve heard rumors that some acts of vandalism have been committed by groups run by people close to the government. It would need to be proven, but I think it’s possible.

Some also consider the campesino collective CODECA, many of the members of whom have joined these demonstrations, to be extremists.
I completely agree. Years ago, when I had just arrived in Huehuetenango, they invited me to participate in an event. I told them that some of their attitudes and actions were not helping, but they didn’t want to understand. Their dynamic has always been to clash, and that hasn’t helped the country. I have told them so.

Speaking of clashes, the Foundation Against Terrorism has announced the filing of a criminal complaint against the president of the 48 Cantons for his visibility in the demonstrations. How do you assess this possible maneuver?
It doesn’t surprise me that they would do such a thing. They, and especially Mr. Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, have always held stubborn positions that fail to respond to the grave problems facing the country. You wonder, “How is it possible for him to say these things?” And they have always used legal —quote-unquote— instruments. They hold an extremist ideological position.

They say they defend conservative Guatemala.
What does conservative Guatemala mean? It's a racist, exclusionary Guatemala in which those with economic and ideological power are privileged through their use of the media. They represent the Guatemala that Severo Martínez clearly described in La patria del criollo. That’s what they are: defenders of the creole fatherland.

What does it mean for a coalition of Indigenous authorities to be in the center of this movement to defend democracy?
It’s a sign of hope, and of a truth that many sectors of Guatemala do not want to acknowledge: the Indigenous peoples are not the children, enslaved people, that we Ladinos have always thought them to be. No. The thinking of many Indigenous leaders has evolved as fruit of their access to a formal education, of an increased awareness, but also as fruit of an expression that they were previously denied.

You have lamented that more capital-city residents have not joined the protests. To whom are you referring?
To the entire population of Guatemala City. There are more than three million and barely any of them are here in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office! I was raised as a child in that neighborhood, Gerona. And some have been saying, ‘We’re from Gerona!’ Congratulations to them, but how many others from other areas of the city came to support? A minimal amount. What’s missing is for us to all feel others’ problems as our own.

What has the mobilization been like in your diocese in Huehue?
Many people here are participating or carrying supplies to those at the blockades. In small towns there is a greater awareness of what is going on. The municipalities of Aguacatán and San Pedro Soloma organized a fundraiser, put the money in trucks and dropped it off in Quetzaltenango. In the department seat of Huehuetenango I wish there was more solidarity, but there is a big difference in that regard between cities and rural towns.

Guatemalan prelate Álvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri meets with family and friends following his selection as cardinal on Oct. 5, 2019. Photo Tiziana Fabi/AFP
Guatemalan prelate Álvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri meets with family and friends following his selection as cardinal on Oct. 5, 2019. Photo Tiziana Fabi/AFP

I also continue to lament the lack of a greater social commitment from our Catholic communities. From employers, too, so that they understand that if people aren’t getting to work it’s because of the current situation.

How would you describe your relationship with the private sector?
With some of them, good. We’ve been able to dialogue. In one meeting they told me they had changed their mind about me, that before they had seen me as a communist, an extremist. I would even say we’ve come to be friends over the years.

Do you blame the private sector for the current crisis, as do parts of Semilla and the demonstrators?
I have no basis to say whether they are responsible or not for the current crisis, but as for the inability to bring to life what was established in the Peace Accords —a plurinational, pluricultural state, etcetera— yes, they bear much responsibility for the historical process of discrimination and marginalization of the most impoverished sectors of Guatemala.

Is the armed conflict a shadow over politics today?
Absolutely. And unfortunately the Peace Accords, which were designed to heal wounds and rebuild the state, have not been upheld. The accords were not perfect, but they would have helped to reduce the social conflict. Unfortunately, they have been forgotten.

The Guatemalan Congress is currently discussing a possible total amnesty law. What do you make of that proposal?
If an amnesty helps people accused of crimes committed during the armed conflict to insert themselves in society, and if they also acknowledge their excesses, then that’s fine and good. But some years ago we published a pastoral letter saying that if we really want to live in peace, the first step is for those who committed crimes to acknowledge them and ask for forgiveness. True reconciliation doesn’t come from a law, but rather from inside an individual.

You have also spoken in public about drug trafficking. In Huehue you must see its effects on the frontlines.
Without a doubt. People living along the border tell me, “This cartel is asking me for ten thousand quetzales to sustain their fight against the Mexican cartels,” or, “I can’t return to my land because it’s on the border and I fear the Mexican cartels will come in and, as they’re fighting the ones on this side, something will happen.” People living in the border region are afraid. And not to mention those living in little towns along the border line, in areas totally controlled by drug traffickers. It’s totally unfortunate.

Do you believe that drug traffickers participated in these elections and lost?
Those are rumors, but as long as we haven’t seen the hide of the beast, it’s impossible to say yes or no.

Will Arévalo take office in January?
I hope so. I do.

What do you think of him?
I didn’t know him, but from what I’ve seen and the support he has, I have a positive opinion. I think he is an honorable and coherent man with a strong intention to get this country out of the crises we’re in. His party’s positions in Congress have been positive for Guatemala and I have full confidence that he can form an excellent government.

But I told him when we met in Guatemala City: “Beware of those circles that close in around you as president, that sweeten your ears.” He must always allow himself to be questioned and criticized, because that is what will help him see things from a different angle.

What do you expect concretely from his government?
Fundamental changes, like seriously confronting poverty and not forgetting about the great masses of campesinos who are always the most abandoned. For him to defend migrants living in the United States, strengthen the aid programs against chronic child malnutrition, and for there to be a deep and urgent reform to the prison system; many people should be out of prison but remain there because they cannot pay fines.

He should also ensure that health services work, from national hospitals to clinics in tiny villages, air out and reform the problems in the social security system, and contribute to a profound educational reform that applies the terms of the Peace Accords. And I have always dreamt of agrarian reform. Many people say, “Ah, they’re going to take away our land,” but no, not that kind.

Does the president-elect’s lack of interest in changes to legislation regarding abortion or marriage equality weaken his promise of inclusive change?
I clearly disagree. I do not agree with the approval of abortion nor the death penalty nor same-sex marriage. It’s logical; I am a priest. But from what I can see here in communities in Huehuetenango, people here aren’t thinking about those issues. To the contrary: speaking here in Indigenous communities of a man living with another man, or a woman with another woman, draws very strong reactions.

Will the church try to influence the new government?
As a hierarchical church, as bishops and priests, no. But we do hope that well-prepared secular people with values can help the government keep its promises. And there are devout Christians, well-prepared people, who can hold positions of public influence. But for us the separation between church and state is clear.

Support Independent Journalism in Central America
For the price of a coffee per month, help fund independent Central American journalism that monitors the powerful, exposes wrongdoing, and explains the most complex social phenomena, with the goal of building a better-informed public square.
Support Central American journalism.Cancel anytime.

Edificio Centro Colón, 5to Piso, Oficina 5-7, San José, Costa Rica.
El Faro is supported by:
FUNDACIÓN PERIÓDICA (San José, Costa Rica). All rights reserved. Copyright © 1998 - 2023. Founded on April 25, 1998.