Friday, September 7, 2012

Freedom of expression?

So, readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that the situation in Guatemala has not improved -- at least as far as the majority of the population is concerned -- under the government of Otto Pérez Molina. I don't yet have enough perspective to opine on the "big picture" but can offer some snapshots from my somewhat limited vantage point, or the vantage point of the people with whom I speak. It hasn't been good, in short. The congress has been stalled for most of the year; only 12 bills have been passed and no one seems to think that any more will be acted upon for the remainder of the year. Congressional committees and hearings are suspended frequently because there is not a quorum. Meanwhile the president and the Ministry of Mines seem to be only too eager to hand even more of the country over to mining companies. The government imposed a so-called fiscal reform, one of the effects of which has been to clamp down on civil society organizations that receive support from international sources -- especially if it seems that any of those funds are used to support political action. One of my colleagues said the government had basically said that they would oppose any organization that based itself on the provisions of the peace accords.  In the early part of this year the peasant and indigenous organizations were able to mobilize thousands of people in large and long marches across the country, but I'm not sure that level of popular mobilization is going to continue.  It also seems as though the 2015 elections have already begun. Apparently Sandra Torres, the former wife of the former president (they divorced so she could qualify as a candidate but her candidacy was thrown out), is already trying to make alliances for 2015; she was candidate for a centrist party, and she has reached out to some of the left parties.

Closer to my particular interests is the continued assault on community radio stations, and the lack of any initiative that focuses on indigenous people. The government seems determined to roll back anything that has to do with the peace accords, as I noted above, and so there has been a proposed reform of the constitution that has changed the language dealing with indigenous people. I don't have the document with me, so I will paraphrase and not quote. One proposed change is that the new document will not talk about the 24 languages but will say that Spanish is the official language and that the country ought to protect the languages of the Maya, Xinka and Garifuna -- but it doesn't accord official status to the indigenous languages. Further, it does not mention anything about indigenous peoples' rights to their own means of communication.

But more worrisome is the direct attack on community radio. The representatives from the LIDER party (which lost the presidency but has a pretty substantial bloc in congress) have introduced a bill, 4479, that criminalizes the use of the airwaves without authorization and imposes harsh prison sentences (6 to 10 years) on those who violate it.  This goes against all of the international conventions that protect indigenous communities' right to have their own media, and the Guatemalan Peace Accords, among other national and international legal conventions. It also is a slap in the face to the community radio movement, that has been fighting to gain legal status for the last several years, and that has promoted a bill that has been stalled in Congress, # 4087, that would grant legal recognition to community radio stations.

So, I spent part of my first Tuesday in Guatemala (August 21)  with my colleagues in the community radio movement talking about the current situation and how to move the agenda of the movement -which is to legalize community radio. The assessment is that the congress is not going to do anything and that working through the congress is probably not going to be terribly effective. There was a long discussion about what legal avenues to pursue, with a charge of inconstitutionality against the government. I didn't follow the discussion entirely since I haven't fully kept up with the legal actions, but much of the conversation revolved around pursuing a legal remedy, and also what political pressures ca be brought on the Congress from outside, since there does not seem to be much will inside the Congress.

So, we drafted a denunciation of the proposed law, and then I translated it into English, and sent both versions on to Cultural Survival so that they could start a letter-wrting campaign to key members of the Guatemalan congress.  Here is a link to the CS website:

On the one hand I am very admiring of the people in the movement for their steadfastness in the struggle .. but on the other hands, the odds seem to be worse. This may reflect the overall situation in Guatemala: a step up in militarization, neo-liberal policies, along with a phase of renewed social activism.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Ecumenism, Maya style

Now the discourse has shifted to ecumenism -- not insignificant in a highly religious country where there are often debates and divisions among Evangelics and Catholics and Maya spiritualists. "If you are going to be a Catholic, be a good Catholic, don't fuck around... Why say that my god is the best and yours is fucked up?" 

The closing slide (ostensibly in the voice of the ancestors, talking to the current generation):  "Think, then, in us, don't erase us from your memory, don't forget us. Continue our road and you will see, in the new place, that we will arrive."

Community radio and indigenous rights, part III

Talking about the Maya as political subjects (sujetos políticos) as a way of inspiring the people present to take up the struggle. This is one of the best exhortations I have heard in any language --speaking in terms of the power of the word, of the strength of his discourse. He combines humor, political analysis, and specific anecdotes, along with invocations of the spirits of past generations. "Si esta abuela tiene los ovarios para defender su territorio, porque nosotros no?" (If this grandmother -- showing a photo of an elderly Maya couple -- has the ovaries to defend her territories, why not us?).  

He is now talking about the coming Oxlajuj Baqtun (the "change of calendar"), and the commercialization. What we are going to say on the 21st is to demand autonomy. We are not going to kneel so that people can take photos of us. We are not folklore. We are the owners of time (dueños of the time).

There has been a lot of publicity regarding the "end of the Maya calendar", this coming 21st of December. Throughout the commercial radio broadcasts, commercials refer to "the end of things as we know them", sometimes in a more serious form and sometimes in a jocose manner. Radio broadcasters on the commercial stations also make frequent references. Throughout the indigenous communities there is an effort to correct some of the ideas that this is the end of the world, and so forth, and to a degree this has been covered in the mainstream print media. But there is still a lot of anxiety about how the event will be commercialized, folklorized, turned into a tourist attraction that will not, in large part, benefit the Maya communities.

Now the discourse has shifted to defend life... basically expounding about the project of CPO and why it exists, what it stands for.  "Our project is for the life of the new people, the grandchildren will communicate our thought."  He just made a reference to the white folks (Kaxlan) using indigenous garb (traje), commenting "It would be nice if when they put on our clothing, our thoughts entered them as well."

Community radio and indigenous rights, part II

There are about 50 people present, mostly from radio stations in San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and Quetzaltenango. I am the only person from Quiché, so to speak, and there is someone from Santiago Atitlán (Sololá). There is a mix of people from religious radio stations, other small local stations, and about five people from the stations that belong to the community radio movement (as I define it). Several people from the CPO, a few from AMARC, which is an international association of community radio stations (as I understand, the AMARC-Guatemala has had some differences with the Cultural Survival/Mujb'ab Lyol/community radio movement folks).

The representative from the CPO is continuing to expound about taking up the microphone as a tool in the struggle. "We are the council of the Maya peoples of the west and we look for unity in diversity. Oh, heart of the fire, heart of the wind, heart of the heavens and of the earthy. One, two, three and four times we give you thanks." They just changed the slide so I can't reproduce the rest of it. 

"Who are we? We are the owners. Before the structure that now governs came here, we were here, we were connected to the air, to the earth, and we were part of the chain of life, and also part of the chain of the world. We talk about a territory of our own, that we have to defend. Our grandparents didn't say that we should give our land to the Europeans, to the Canadians, so that they can do mining."

He is going on to talk about the Maya being only one people, even though different languages, different religions.  "We have ancestral traditions of making decisions. So put the idea of the community radio in front of the local council. And so the radio will talk about what is going on with the land, with the water, with gold mining, in the lives of the communicators" (in Guatemala, people talk about "comunicadores sociales" -- social communicators -- as an umbrella term for journalists, I guess. It doesn't really have an English equivalent -- people who do social communication. It would include bloggers, twitterers, Facebookers, print journalists and broadcasters).

Community radio and the struggle for indigenous rights

That's the theme of a meeting to which I was invited today in Xela. This is a meeting organized by the Consejo de Pueblos del Occidente, the Council of Western Peoples, a regional indigenous rights organization. The CPO has been the major force behind the community consultations about mining, just to place it on the political map a little bit. 

Tino, one of my compañeros from the community radio movement and the founder of the Asociación Mujb'ab Lyol, who got his start in the clandestine radio movement during the armed struggle, sent me the invitation, which was an invitation to representatives from different community radio stations across the country. Although I do not formally represent a radio station, I wanted to attend and so I wrote to the CPO and explained who I was, to make sure it was okay for me to attend, and received a positive reply. Later I spoke to the people in the Asociación Ixmukané and Radio Ixmukané to see if any of them were going to come to represent that radio station, but no one was available. The two coordinators of Radio Ixmukané are both taking university classes on Saturdays, which has prevented them from participating in the workshops for community radio stations, and meant that neither could come today. They did make some phone calls, and for a moment it seemed as though someone from the Youth Network (Red de Jóvenes) might be able to come IF I were able to swing by and pick him up (adding an hour to my trip), but then he wouldn't make a commitment, so I agreed that I would share the information that I received today with the compañeras.

And so, saying an early goodbye to Quiché, I set off this morning. Last night was my last night with my friends Sandra  and Catarino, and I also swept into the town to visit another friend -- who has nothing whatsoever to do with my research, but is a friend nonetheless. She works at the local health center in Chinique and is one of the few Ladina/Ladino friends I have in Guatemala -- in the sense of an intimate friendship.  Not that I have tried to not befriend Ladinos/Ladinas, but I haven't had a lot of contact outside of professional contacts -- many of whom I also consider friends although we don't get to see each other much.  She is the only Ladina from up here in the highlands with whom I have an intimate friendship - intimate in the sense that we have been inside each other's houses, gone out dancing, talked about our intimate lives.  I was extremely tired and so just stayed for a little while, and then went back home to get some sleep before getting up around 5 to head to Xela.

The meeting was called for 9, but I had a feeling it wasn't going to start on time (just based on past experience with meetings here), and so I made a few stops along the way. A friend in New Bedford had asked me to buy some hand looms and since Saturday is market day in Chiché, I stopped in the market to see if I could find someone selling a loom. No luck. I also wanted to purchase some chiles cobaneros -- a particular kind of dried chile that has a special flavor that I adore. Nothing available in the U.S. tastes exactly like it. I bought 3/4 of a pound -- some for me, some to share with friends. And I also wanted to get a couple of the red handwoven belts that men wear. Today, they are mostly worn by Maya priests in ceremonies, but in some areas of Quiché where men still wear the traditional outfit of white cotton shirts and pants, the red belt is part of the outfit.  Finally, I decided to get a handwoven servilleta (all purpose cloth) for my friend Sandra. There is no real way to compensate my friends for their hospitality. They won't accept payment as such for my staying with them, and so I try to purchase food, staple items like oil and soap, and help out by giving them rides. I bring some small gifts from the U.S. (usually clothing for the children).  

I made the trip to Xela faster than I ever have: about an hour and 35 minutes from Santa Cruz to the Centro de Capacitación where the activity was being held.

Now we are discussing the importance of the radios in the struggle. Tino gave a sharp analysis of the current conjuncture and the attacks on community radio. Now some named Eliseo, from one of the Mam councils from San Marcos, is talking very energetically about the necessity of taking up the struggle that was started by the abuelos and abuelas. "They gave their lives, to fertilize the soil, and now it is our responsibilities." I am recording this talk, because it is impossible to catch the passion and force of his language.