CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Guatemala with Sandra Morán Reyes, an advocate of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. With a long history of participation in social movements, Sandra was one of the co-founders of the first Guatemalan lesbian group and the organiser of the first pride march in Guatemala, held in 1998 in Guatemala City. In 2015, she was elected as a national congressional representative, becoming the first gay congresswoman and politician to be elected to popular office in the history of her country. From that position, she promoted various initiatives to advance the rights of women and sexual minorities.
What was the background to the November 2020 protests and how did they begin?
A new government was inaugurated in January 2020, and soon after that we found ourselves locked up because of the pandemic. But by May or June some of our colleagues started to take to the streets again, partly to criticise the government’s attitude towards the needs of the population as the effects of the crisis generated by the pandemic began to be clearly seen. Suddenly white flags started to appear on the streets, on house doors and in the hands of people and families walking the streets or sitting in doorways. With the white flag people indicated that they did not have enough to eat, and solidarity actions began to take place, for instance in the form of soup kitchens, which did not previously exist in Guatemala. There was a great movement of solidarity among people. While organisations were busy attending to their own members, citizens made great efforts to provide person-to-person support. It became common for people to go out into the streets to give a little of what they had to those who needed it most. This was then repeated regarding those who were affected when hurricanes hit and lost everything.
At the state level, a lot of resources were approved to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, but these resources did not reach the people and the needs of the population remained unmet, so the question that people began to ask was, ‘where is the money?’
From 2017 onwards, we started denouncing what we called the ‘corrupt pact’ that brought together public officials, businesspeople and even church representatives in defence of their own interests. In 2015, after six months of sustained mass demonstrations, the president and vice president ended up in prison, but the governments that succeeded them ended up reaffirming the same old system. The government of President Jimmy Morales unilaterally ended the agreement with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, and the current government led by President Alejandro Giammattei, following on from its predecessor, has made progress in controlling the judiciary, Congress and all state institutions in order to sustain corruption as a form of government.
The effects of the lack of attention to the impacts of the pandemic and of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in October and November 2020, were compounded by attacks on the officials of the Public Prosecutor’s Office who continue to fight against corruption. Discontent continued to accumulate until the early hours of November 2020 when Congress approved the national budget for 2021. It was a very high budget – the highest in the country's history – and it included obvious pockets of corruption, especially in the area of infrastructure contracts, which is where the bulk of corruption takes place, but paid no attention to health and education, in the context of a pandemic. Budget cuts even affected the national nutrition programme, in a country that has a huge problem of child malnutrition. That was the last straw. People who are not normally prone to protest – a professional chef, an artist, many well-known people in different fields – started writing on social media and expressing anger against this decision. That’s how the first demonstration was organised, and suddenly we were about 25,000 people out there, in the middle of a pandemic.
By that time all restrictions on movement and gatherings had been lifted, but the pandemic was still ongoing and the risk of contagion was still there. No one foresaw such a massive protest, and yet it happened. The demonstrations were initially peaceful, but already during the second one there was violence and repression. A small group set fire to the Congress building, an event that is still under investigation. This was used to justify the repression: teargas, beatings, arrests and detentions, something that had not happened for a long time. In another demonstration, people set fire to a bus. From our perspective, these acts of violence were instigated to justify the need for more police control over demonstrations and ultimately the repression of protests.
Was the call for mobilisation made exclusively through social media? Who mobilised?
There were a series of calls through social media that appealed above all to the middle classes, but social movements and Indigenous authorities also made their calls. Indigenous authorities have played an increasingly important role in recent years, and in the context of this crisis they published a statement in which they proposed a governing council of the four main groups of peoples who make up Guatemala - Maya, Xinka, Garífuna and Mestizo - to pave the way for a Constituent Assembly. They have been visiting territories and working to form alliances, and this was the first time that they have made steps towards the national government, as for now they have only had authority within their territories. The role they have played is important because the oligarchy has always been afraid of an Indigenous uprising; that fear is what moves them, just as they were moved by the fact that in 2019 the candidate for president of the People's Liberation Movement, a party founded by the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), came in fourth place. A Mayan woman, a peasant, with little schooling, came in fourth place, and they found that very upsetting.
Four main actors mobilised: Indigenous peoples, women, young people and what are called ‘communities in resistance’ – local communities, generally led by women, who are resisting extractive mega-projects in their territories. The latest demonstrations also evidenced the results of the newly achieved unity of the university student movement: from 2015 onwards, students from the public university of San Carlos de Guatemala marched together with those from the two private universities, Universidad Rafael Landívar, of middle-class students, and Universidad del Valle, which caters to the upper class. The motto under which the public university used to march, ‘USAC is the people’, turned into ‘We are the People’ as a result of this convergence. This was a historical event that marked the return of organised university students to popular struggles.
The role of young people can also be seen within the feminist movement, as there are many young feminist movements. In particular, the Women in Movement collective, a very important expression of university-based feminists, stands out. Sexual diversity organisations have also been present, and have been very active in denouncing femicides and murders of LGBTQI+ people.
These groups were joined by a middle class made impoverished by the severe impact of the pandemic. There were many middle-class people, many white-collar workers and professionals, in the demonstrations. Many people who did not belong to any Indigenous, student or women’s organisation or collective went out on their own, moved by the feeling of being fed up. Thus, the November 2020 protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy.
What did the mobilised citizenry demand?
Despite the fact that several sectors mobilised and many demands accumulated, there was an order to the protests’ petition list. Although each sector had its own demands, they all rallied around a few major ones. The key demand was that the president should veto the budget, since what triggered the mobilisation was the impudence of a Congress that made a budget that was clearly not to the benefit of the citizens of Guatemala but to their own, to feed corruption. The demonstrations were an immediate success in that regard, since a few days after the Congress building was burned, Congress backed down and annulled the budget it had previously approved. Along with the withdrawal of the budget, the protesters’ demand was the drafting of a new budget that would respond to the needs of the population, but this demand is still pending.
Following the repression of the protests, the resignation of the Minister of the Interior became a key demand, but this did not happen and this public official remains in office. The president’s resignation was also demanded but did not take place.
Finally, the demand for a new constitution, which has been on the agenda of social movements for several years, was raised again. In 2015, during the big demonstrations that led to the resignation of the entire government, social movements assessed that corruption was not only the fault of some individuals, as we had a corrupt system and therefore a change of system was needed. Indigenous and peasant organisations have their proposal for constitutional change, based on their demand of recognition of Indigenous peoples and the establishment of a plurinational state that would give them autonomy and decision-making power.
Other groups have more embryonic proposals. I was a member of Congress until January 2020, and when I was still in Congress I worked with women’s organisations, thinking that this situation could arise and we had to be ready. We started the Movement of Women with Constituent Power to develop a proposal for a new constitution from the perspective of women in all our diversity.
What are the main changes you propose?
We have a constitution that was drafted in 1985 and it has an important human rights component; it includes the office of the Ombudsman, which at the time was an innovation. But human rights are approached from an individual perspective; collective rights and peoples’ rights are absent, as are the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And so are the most advanced innovations in constitutional matters, such as the rights of nature. Ours is a political proposal for the emancipation of peoples, women and sexual diversity. It is based on the idea of an economy for life, which puts the community at the centre, and on a feminist economy that reorganises work and care tasks.
Do you think the protests will continue?
Yes, the protests will continue. With the year-end celebrations came demobilisation, but in recent days it has become public that CODECA has decided to take to the streets again. CODECA is an organisation that normally goes out alone, it doesn’t coordinate with other social movements, but it has a great capacity for mobilisation. If they go back on the streets, they will open a new phase of demonstrations.
Right now, the Minister of Finance is drawing up a new budget, which in a month’s time will have to be discussed again in Congress. It remains to be seen not only how much will be invested in health, education and economic revival, but also what they think ‘economic revival’ actually means. Until now the emphasis has always been on international private investment, which only generates opportunities for greater exploitation and mega-projects. A bill has been proposed to promote family farming; there is no way it can be passed. So the demands of rural populations, peasants and Indigenous peoples are going to continue to be expressed on the streets.
For the time being, this is a sectoral call, not a broad call to citizens. But it will not take much to revive citizen protest, since after the November demonstrations the president made a series of promises that he has not kept. The first anniversary of his government was 14 January 2021 and the levels of support it receives are extremely low. Congress also has little legitimacy, given the number of representatives who are part of the ‘corrupt pact’, which is large enough to hold an ordinary majority to pass legislation.
However, people may be afraid of mobilising because we are at a peak in COVID-19 infections. And another obstacle to the continuity of the protests is the absence of a unified leadership and the fact that coordination is quite limited.