Thursday, September 1, 2011

My latest adventure

Without exactly intending or planning, I have thrown myself into the political process here in Guatemala. Through my involvement in Asociación Por Nosotras Ixmukané, the Maya women's organization with which I have been collaborating/volunteering/assisting for the last several months (basically since I arrived), I learned that two of the women who have been longtime activists in the organization, and even longer-time fighters for women's, and specifically Maya women's rights, were running for congress (diputada al congreso de la república).  Although the organization is not a political party, one of its areas of work has been to empower women to assume leadership positions in their communities and to be able to actively participate in the political process. By and large Maya women have participated in politics as voters (to a degree) and recipients of public services, and also through critiquing or protesting when public services and public institutions do not serve them. Even at the local level, community institutions such as community planning councils (called COCODES -- Consejo Comunitario de Desarollo; every community and town has one) have been unresponsive to women. Women have told me that when they have gone to COCODE meetings and been told that as women they have nothing to add to the meeting. The COCODE members are almost invariably men, and while they cannot legally bar women from attending the public meetings, they do make it hard for women to have any meaningful participation. 

So, a few months back I learned that two of the women in the organization, Doña Matilde de Leon and Doña Fermina Lopez, were running for congress in the first and second spots on the slate for the Frente Amplio de la Izquierda -- the Broad Front of Left, which is an alliance between Winaq (the indigenous political party founded by Rigoberta Menchú Tum and others), the URNG (the former guerrilla united front, which became a political party after the peace accords were signed) and the Alliance for a New Nation (ANN).  Usually when Maya women have been candidates for national positions, they occupy much lower positions on the slate. I don't entirely understand the system of voting for congress, because there are eight seats for Quiché but each voter only gets one vote. But each party can run a slate of up to eight candidates; however, the person in the first slot will be the first one to be selected once the vote totals are tallied. That is (this is how I think it works), once votes are counted, it is clear which party gained the largest number of votes for all of its candidates together -- and the party with the highest number of votes gets to put 2 or 3 people in as deputies, and then the next party, and so forth. So the people who occupy positions 3 or 4 or lower are very unlikely to actually sit in Congress; they are there to get votes for their party, which will help elect the people who are higher up on the slate. 

So the fact that Doña Mati and Doña Fermi are in the first and second slots respectively means that they are much more likely to actually get elected to congress -- at least Doña Mati as she is in the first slot. It is thus an accomplishment for Maya women and a testament to their decades of work that they were given those ballot positions.

I had known about their candidacies, and back in June, a few friends who are involved in Winaq and the Frente Amplio had asked me to help out. As those of you who have been reading this blog know, I've found the political process here fascinating in a kind of grotesque way. On the one hand, politics and most of the traditional political parties are dominated by big capital, the political and economic elites, and the parties and most elected officials act solely in their own interests. Office holders and parties are beholden to "godfathers" -- the large political/economic interests who finance campaigns and then expect concessions and favors in return.  There seems to be little regard for the laws and regulations that do exist -- yesterday, for example, the papers published accounts (probably largely fictitious) of the money that political parties reported spending on their campaigns.  The major parties had all gone over the legal spending limits (even in the doctored accounts that they submitted). However, the legal institutions seem powerless to do more than slap some citations and not very significant fines.  But nothing that the regulatory bodies do will have much impact. It is a week before the elections and the airwaves are full of political announcements; on the news radio stations, the ratio seems to be 10 minutes of political ads for every 5 minutes of news. 

And then there are those who are genuinely trying to make some kind of change through the electoral system. I deeply respect the people I know who are iinvolved in Winaq, the URNG and the Frente Amplio (I don't know anyone who is involved with ANN; the FA folks I know are all Winaq and URNG). Most are former insurgents, people who spent anywhere from 10 to 30 years in or actively supporting the armed resistance, or who were involved in other kinds of community and grassroots organization. I am well aware that this is not my country. I will not vote here. My daily life, once I return to the U.S., will not be affected by the outcome of the elections -- although I intend to have an ongoing relationship with Guatemala, and will likely return for both short visits and more extended stays for a long time to come.  So I hesitated a moment -- was it really my place to get involved more directly? My friends challenged me about my commitment -- if I were really serious about accompanying women in the process of seeking voice and representation, then why would I not become involved?  

So I agreed, and have been balancing my work with the radio station -- and the community radio movement more broadly -- and supporting my two compañneras who are candidates. Some of my support -- much of it, actually -- is simply logistical. I have a car, they need to go places, and I can help them do that. I am certainly not about to tell them how to campaign here. And I have been working to raise funds -- not directly for their campaigns, as that would not be appropriate, but to support voter education and outreach efforts to Maya women, so that they can make free and informed choices come September 11. I have never done internet-based fundraising before, nor have I raised funds for anything outside of the U.S., so it has been a learning experience.  A dear friend in the U.S. created the website and helped set up the Paypal account, my friend and comrade Benjamin Chaj, ex-insurgent and member of the national executive committee of Winaq, helped develop the idea and spread the word to his contacts.  

So now I am full of ideas about how we can try things along similar lines in the future. For one, to see how we can raise funds for the radio station (and perhaps for the community radio movement more broadly) and other projects of Ixmukané. And also, thinking about how the Guatemalan left can start to do fundraising in this way for the next elections in 2016 --since most of the traditional parties have large sums of money at their disposal, and the left does not.

Meanwhile, in the week before the election, it is not clear what I will be doing. We were going to take a long trip to the Ixcan region of Quiché, a remote and rural region near the border with Mexico and also Alta Verapaz, but that was called off. So we might go to Cunén and Sacapulas. It is not entirely clear when campaigning is supposed to stop. One person told me a week before the election; Doña Matilde told me 48 hours. I had said that I would put myself at the disposal of the candidates for the week prior to the election and election day, but I am still not sure what that means....

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