Central America / Politics

The Indigenous Resistance Puts Its Doubts and Hopes in Arévalo’s Hands

Roman Gressier
Roman Gressier

Tuesday, January 16, 2024
Roman Gressier

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On Sunday, January 14, as the first rays of sun sweep away the darkness from the steps of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, some two hundred people in a circle look to the east to give thanks for the new day. In the middle is a large clay bowl full of ocote and copal woods, surrounded by a wide ring of thin candles, flowers, breads, and thick tobacco cigars. A group of Mayan spiritual guides feeds the flames with aguardiente or more candles. Sporadic fireworks shake the multitude from their trance.

Hours remain until Bernardo Arévalo’s inauguration as president of Guatemala — a day that, due to months of political tension, seemed far from guaranteed. The symbolic epicenter of Indigenous resistance against an attempted coup d’état led by the Attorney General is observing a ritual that marks the close of a cycle. While in October thousands blockaded roads throughout the country to defend Arévalo’s victory, here they set up a line of open-air tarp protest tents, at once boisterous, indignant, occasionally festive. After the roadblocks fizzled out, the camp in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office stayed there, its heart beating.

“This ceremony is to thank the Creator for 105 days of resistance, because we have taken this first step toward democracy,” says Feliciana Herrera Ceto, the First Coordinating Mayor of the Ixil Mayan town of Nebaj, her voice reverent, unhurried, as she gazes at the bonfire.

Some two-dozen Ixil authorities traveled to the capital early Wednesday morning. Over the last few days, and especially over the last few hours, thousands made a pilgrimage from all corners of Guatemala to celebrate and defend the transfer of power. Before the sun rose, Achi Mayan representatives from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, also made their way to the city. A diverse swath of Mayan ethnicities —among them Q’eqchi’, Kaqchikel, and K’iche’—  awaited the Ixil at five in the morning at the Public Prosecutor’s Office, while some still slept under a tent or on the sidewalks, almost always with nothing but a thin blanket on the pavement. Now, long lines have assembled for breakfast or hot atol, prepared and served by volunteers.

Luz Emilia Ulario (left) and Imelda Estacui, leaders from the Indigenous Mayor’s Office of Santa Lucía Utatlán, at the camp in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, where demonstrators stayed from early October until Bernardo Arévalo’s inauguration. Photo Carlos Barrera
Luz Emilia Ulario (left) and Imelda Estacui, leaders from the Indigenous Mayor’s Office of Santa Lucía Utatlán, at the camp in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, where demonstrators stayed from early October until Bernardo Arévalo’s inauguration. Photo Carlos Barrera

Herrera, 33 years old, is wearing black-framed glasses, a black-and-white checkered suit jacket, and a long bright red skirt, the color that distinguishes the Ixil of Nebaj from other groups here. In her hands is a yard-long command staff denoting her leadership.

“We Indigenous peoples are against corruption, which has caused great inequality, a lack of development, poverty, migration, and other problems that we have suffered. That is why we have come here,” she says. “And to cleanse ourselves of the energies that have filled this space.”

She is referring to the attempted coup, which right now appears to be defeated. In reality —as she is well aware— the country wants to believe that the threat has subsided, but is still holding its breath. It is a Sunday of uncertainty.

* * *

On Saturday afternoon, among the pilgrims who arrived by bus were five women and two young boys from Champerico, along the coast of Retalhuleu, close to the Mexican border and a half-day away from the capital by bus. They looked exhausted, resting on their sides along the pavement with their sandals off as a human sea flowed in front of them in a demonstration that would last until the evening.

Three of the women spoke only Mam, but María, a solid woman with a round face, explained to me that they had left home at midnight and took their first step in the city at eight in the morning. They came to march through the historic center district and hoped to listen to the speech of the new president on Sunday night, in the Constitutional Plaza.

“We feel hope. We came to support Arévalo. He can make many changes in our community: work, education, health, everything,” she told me shyly.

Each woman paid 75 quetzales (around ten dollars) for the round trip by bus — a considerable economic sacrifice. Although she could not pinpoint the dates María told me that they had already made two other trips to the capital to defend the president-elect. A few meters away from them, a group carried a long red banner with enormous lettering: “Mam community, Cajolá Champerico Rethaluleu, present”.

That night, a group of artists and activists put up their own tent at the rear of the camp, along a perpendicular street, with photographs that commemorate the more than three months of demonstrations, starting on October 2 of last year, when Indigenous authorities convened a national strike. In the center of the tent they placed flowers surrounded by large obsidian stones. David Pérez, one of the curators of the space, said that the protests were a historical, political, and social milestone.

“This movement goes beyond democracy,” he told me, standing in the main path between the tents, in a professorial tone. “The Mayan does not want to live in dictatorship, and that is the cause of this uprising, which is not the only one. There have been multiple, starting after the colonial invasion, to defend ancestral cultures and practices.”

“This is only a first step,” he continued. “The defense of democracy is essential in the defense of Mayan life. It goes beyond solidarity, because this is about being Mayan, being a community.”

Even so, the Indigenous leaders camping at the steps of the Public Prosecutor’s Office did not hide —together with their optimism toward the political project of Arévalo, a social democrat, and his party, Movimiento Semilla— an increasing dose of skepticism. Many see the political project as too urban, too middle-class, too Ladino, too distant from rural and Indigenous realities.

“We hope there will be democracy for all, and development benefitting the whole country,” said René Chacón, an upbeat Poqomam leader and Second Mayor of Santa Cruz Chinautla, a municipality six miles from the capital, on Wednesday. “In Santa Cruz Chinautla there are some sand companies who are greatly exploiting and degrading our land. With that in mind, we joined. And not only Chinautla is here, but rather all of the peoples.”

“But we’ll have to wait and see,” he expounded. “Even Giammattei said he would not be corrupt. In the end, he was. We can’t place our trust in anybody, we can only wait to see their will.”

* * *

Herrera, the mayor of Nebaj, also emphasizes the expectation of a real dialogue with the new government, and she is no newcomer: She was a member of some of the Indigenous delegations who in October and November sat down with the private sector, embassies, and even the outgoing president himself, Alejandro Giammattei, to lay out their demands of respect for the popular vote, to claim political space for their peoples, and to call for the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras — the latter of which did not happen. Herrera emerged from those meetings with a bittersweet feeling.

“We believe there is a possibility to strengthen democracy, and for the population in general to be included, without distinction of peoples, of who we are,” she told me Saturday afternoon. “Nevertheless, in our view there are things that do not change: the government is always Ladino, white. And unfortunately in Guatemala there is no understanding of the complexity of how we [Indigenous] peoples live.”

For over a hundred days, entire families protested in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in defense of Guatemalan democracy, heeding the calls of the 40 Cantons and the Mayor’s Office of San Cristóbal, of Totonicapán; the Ixil people of Nebaj, and the Xinka Parliament, among others. Photo Carlos Barrera
For over a hundred days, entire families protested in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in defense of Guatemalan democracy, heeding the calls of the 40 Cantons and the Mayor’s Office of San Cristóbal, of Totonicapán; the Ixil people of Nebaj, and the Xinka Parliament, among others. Photo Carlos Barrera

The Ixil were victims of what is probably the darkest episode of the Guatemalan armed conflict. In 1999 the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) identified them as one of five Mayan peoples who suffered genocide during the scorched-earth campaigns carried out by the Army as part of its counterinsurgent repression. Nebaj was the epicenter of thousands of war crimes.

Today they also resist the installation of hydroelectric plants in their territory without prior consultation. In 2015 the Constitutional Court ruled in their favor in the cases of Vega 1 and Vega 2, dams of Spanish capital. Under one of the tents, sitting next to other leaders, Herrera told me that the fulfillment of the sentence has become stagnant.

“In reality they never fulfilled the consultation,” she commented. “We hope that now the sentence can be carried out. We are not opposed to development, as they say we are. We simply base ourselves on constitutional rights. And we hope the new government will find the mechanism to approach Indigenous peoples one by one, because there is not one who speaks for all.”

Also on Saturday, almost shouting to pierce the noise of hundreds of people yelling slogans, plastic trumpets, and a trova artist singing over the loudspeakers under one of the tents, I met Domingo Xitumul, an Achi writer from Rabinal, another of the places where genocide took place, and with his companion Andrés Pablo, a Q’anjob’al teacher from San Juan Ixcoy, Huehuetenango.

“We are in an era when the Indigenous peoples must go out and defend the little democracy we have left,” Domingo began. “And we’re defending it with all our might. Starting now, we believe that there will be major changes in our country. We, the Indigenous, want to be present in it all.”

“Arévalo has prestige due to the legacy that his father left when he governed,” Andrés added. At around 60 years old, he is referring to the incoming president’s father, Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, considered the first democratic president of Guatemala, who governed from 1945 to 1951. “But in the principles of the party there is almost no mention of the Mayans. They are not revolutionary; they are reformist. A little. The first thing we will ask is for a constituents’ assembly. There will be a plurinational nation-state…”

“With equality,” interjected Domingo. “That is what we want.” And Andrés picked back up:

“We only want peace. A nation where men, women, mestizos, and all belong.”

Rodrigo, a Q’eqchi’ man from Cobán who is also around their age and whom I spoke with minutes prior, had arrived at the protest camp on Wednesday morning. He shared their reservations.

“Arévalo is not fully committed to pluralism. Despite the fact that he is an anthropologist, sociologist, he does not accept diversity,” he asserted with a sardonic look. “Look at the new cabinet: There was pressure from CACIF and the Army. They are the hidden powers who impose the cabinet.”

It seemed of little use that Arévalo publicly stated that neither international cooperation nor the Guatemalan private sector contacted him to “ask for names”. The presence in the cabinet that Arévalo presented on January 8 of two figures associated with CACIF, the influential conservative business association, tinged the week before his inauguration with controversy and suspicion, even more than the surprise inclusion in the list of a sole Indigenous minister, the lawyer Miriam Catarina Roquel, as the new head of the Ministry of Labor.

For many of those who spent months protesting and from the bases of Semilla —party legislators made “A future without CACIF” a campaign slogan— it stung that a former executive from the Chamber of Construction, Jazmín de la Vega, was placed in charge of the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing; and that Anayté Guardado, a former director of the Association of Generators of Renewable Energy, would be minister of Energy and Mines, responsible for authorizing extractive and hydroelectric projects.

Guardado resigned last Thursday, after three days of intense criticism, but the first impression seemed already cemented in place.

“Did you vote for Arévalo?” I asked Rodrigo.

“Yes, of course. We do not want the far right. We are tired of them,” he answered emphatically, without needing to mention Zury Ríos, the daughter of the general responsible for the Ixil genocide, Efraín Ríos Montt, and who appeared to be the frontrunner until days before Arévalo finished in a surprise second place in first-round voting in June. “We are in agreement with their plans to improve education, health, security… They will need to revise many laws.”

“And what should be the top priority for the new government?”

“The division of powers and an equitable budget. Without those, it is impossible to get anything done.”

Nor has the scarce representation of Indigenous peoples gone unnoticed. The new president immediately acknowledged the lack of inclusion in his cabinet, promising to choose more Mayan, Xinka, and Garifuna people for vice minister or secretary roles. But on Wednesday morning, when the Ixil authorities first arrived from Nebaj last week, they convened a press conference in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office alongside other Indigenous authorities:

“We lament that figures wo have been executives, directors, advisors, or consultants of state or non-government institutions under past administrations, who have participated in the denial, disrespect, or violation of our specific rights as Ixil people, have been chosen by the president,” said a spokeswoman. “While it is true that we are in resistance to defend democracy, that does not mean we have given a blank check for any decision.”

The First Mayor of Nebaj, Diego Santiago Ceto, intensified the critique: “A judicial process has been opened against us because we have stuck our neck out to defend the little democracy and constitutional order that are left,” he stated. And he closed with a reproach that sounded like a warning:

“That is what has brought us here. It is thanks to the struggle of our peoples that Bernardo Arévalo will be sworn-in.”

* * *

Nobody in Guatemala calls that into question. At the crescendo of prosecutors’ legal attacks against the election results and Semilla, last October, authorities from Totonicapán, Sololá, the Xinka Parliament, and others convened multitudinous demonstrations and highway blockades, sending a clear message to political and economic elites —including pro-coup operators in their ranks, as well as many who lay in wait, undecided, to see which side would prevail— that Arévalo’s election victory must be respected.

From that time forward, the street in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office became a reminder that the flame, which in the case of a successful coup could have exploded, was still burning. It started on October 2 as a campsite and gathering point of demonstrations on the sidewalk and two lanes of asphalt, and then dug in its roots, cutting off almost all vehicle access with massive carp tents serving as a makeshift dormitory, multiple kitchens serving three meals a day, and a space reserved for speeches, events, and music for when the time came to hold parties.

Domingo Xitumul (left) and Andrés Pablo joined a demonstration of hundreds of people in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office on Saturday, January 13, 2024, to commemorate more than 100 days of Indigenous protests in favor of the election results and a peaceful transition of power. Photo Roman Gressier
Domingo Xitumul (left) and Andrés Pablo joined a demonstration of hundreds of people in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office on Saturday, January 13, 2024, to commemorate more than 100 days of Indigenous protests in favor of the election results and a peaceful transition of power. Photo Roman Gressier

On Christmas Eve, the main organizers of the demonstrations gathered there for a celebratory hug. On the sidewalk in front of the building, on a bed of flower petals, there was still a Nativity set on Wednesday, covering an offering of ornaments for a tree, two blackened candles, and two chiseled receptacles to burn incense. “This is our home for 24 hours. Please put your trash in the repositories,” stressed one Ixil leader after the press conference that day. Despite the fact that thousands had passed through here in recent weeks, there was no trace of garbage on the block that day. For an improvised campground in the middle of the street, this protest site in the Gerona neighborhood of Guatemala City sparkled.

What lost its shine in recent days was the hope that some felt. “As human beings we must avoid attachment, because it ends up hurting us,” Josefina, a 65-year-old woman, told me, her head covered with a bright green ball cap embroidered with the purple lettering “Semilla”. Her eyes were expressive, sad. She came to sit next to me on Wednesday and immediately began telling her story, as if she were drowning in it.

“We accompanied Arévalo in his march of ancestral peoples, and now he does this to us,” she said regarding his cabinet. Tears began invading the corners of her eyes. “We, the owners of the eternal springtime, are backed into a corner.”

Josefa is from the western highlands in Quetzaltenango, but says she spent 22 years in Totonicapán. She says that when she was 20 years old the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) tried to recruit her. “Stop being a couch potato at home and come join the struggle,” she says they told her.

“I responded: ‘No, I will not go to the mountains. The Right and the Left are the same. The Ladinos only try to use Indigenous people as a ladder to power.’”

She is now retired after working for years for the state, and thinks that little has changed as she has aged. “I never went to the mountains, but I came to sleep here,” she asserted with pride, pointing to a doorway of a nearby house where she says she camped on the sidewalk. “But I’m going to leave now, and not return, because they do not take us into consideration.”

Indigenous authorities said all week that their protests would enter a new phase, after over a hundred days of camping and demonstrations, on Monday, January 15. Most do not yet know what shape the future of the movement will take.

“The resistance, specifically here, will be packed up tonight,” says Feliciana Herrera before the bonfire on Sunday morning. “We’re putting away the tents, so that the municipality can come to clean the space. We will leave it just as we found it.”

* * *

After one o’clock in the morning on Monday, June 15, In his first address after his inauguration, President Arévalo explicitly mentioned the “Original peoples” of Guatemala, promising “a respectful dialogue, in conditions of equality, with a majority who up until now have been systematically ignored.”

“We will strive to make you participants and beneficiaries of development that you have been denied for centuries,” he said.

It is now past two o’clock. After saying goodbye to the international guests at the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Theater, and before greeting a massive crowd awaiting him in the Constitutional Plaza, Arévalo has traveled with Vice President Karin Herrera to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, where an ecstatic crowd of hundreds of people awaits him, as well as seven Indigenous leaders who led what, since midnight, they now call “the resistance of 106 days.”

The tents have been taken down. There are no more kitchens. Tomorrow everyone will return to their territories, but many have waited here for days for this encounter with their new president.

The area around the small stage awaiting their arrival is packed tight, and the organizers ask at least five times on loudspeakers at full volume for space for the president’s security detail. Police agents remove two drunks, stumbling and grumbling. An organizer asks for a quick cleanup of any trash along the street, and announces that only the acting leaders of the seven Indigenous authorities, and Arévalo, of course, will speak.

“I know you all want to be part of this historic moment,” says the emcee.

“We now have, we now have, we now have a president! One-hundred-six days in this camp, but we have a president!” sings a guitar player with a bushy gray mustache, as the crowd sings in chorus.

The place is brimming with faces wrinkled by age and eyes wide awake. A long line of men with command staffs in salute forms a passageway for Arévalo to slowly walk through the crowd, a hand raised in a permanent greeting. When he finally appears with a smile at the front of the crowd, the air fills with recording cell phones and cheers: “Yes, we did!”

The Ixil authorities of Nebaj and other Mayan leaders, organized in resistance, began Inauguration Day in Guatemala City on Jan. 14, 2024 with a ceremony of gratitude at five in the morning. Photo Roman Gressier
The Ixil authorities of Nebaj and other Mayan leaders, organized in resistance, began Inauguration Day in Guatemala City on Jan. 14, 2024 with a ceremony of gratitude at five in the morning. Photo Roman Gressier

In a voice more thunderous than usual and his eyes glazed with passion, as if infected by the euphoria of the place, in a few minutes Arévalo will say:

“Today you have a democratic government that you, the Original peoples who have gathered here for one hundred and six days, have known how to save!” the president exclaims. “The Original peoples have led the resistance against those who tried to mock the will of the people. It was you who inspired the entire citizenry to resist the criminals who tried to stay in power in order to continue stealing the money of the people and prevent development from reaching the population.”

He will then lower his voice and continue, in a more intimate tone. After an explosion of jeers at his mention of “the criminals”, an unusual silence takes hold, every eye trained on Arévalo.

“Listen here: Our first act as elected authorities has been to come here and tell you, the ancestral leadership, thank you!” he will say. “History books will look back and see the moment when, together and united, inspired by the leadership of the ancestral peoples, the people of Guatemala managed to save the springtime!”

But beforehand, the first to speak is Manuel Lacán, vice president of the Executive Board of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, who takes the microphone resolutely.

“I take this opportunity, in the name of all our peoples but especially on behalf of the 48 Cantons, to ask you, Mr. President of the Republic of Guatemala, to call on you to ensure that during your tenure the benefits reach our peoples, that we be taken into consideration, that we be given the value that we deserve,” he begins, looking into the eyes of Arévalo and Herrera. “We stand against corruption, and also against exclusion.”

The crowd erupts in cheers and applause. Arévalo and Herrera seem moved. Guatemalan flags float above the first rows of the crowd.

“We ask, with all due respect, that you do not forget us,” Lacán continues, “nor the peoples who struggled in defense of democracy, with hope in your government, so that you can leave a mark on history and make a change. Today we want to bestow on you, in a representative way, a vest from the 48 Cantons. And to Madam Vice President, a shawl, so that you carry the memory of those who fought for you.”

Feliciana Herrera speaks after Lacán, wearing long ornate earrings and a braided Ixil headwrap. She takes the microphone, looks at President Bernardo Arévalo, and, after months of popular resistance, tells him:

“We leave in your hands the defense of this democracy.”

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