Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The new contours of indigenous protest 1

It's been some time, and I haven't really written anything since shortly after my return from Guatemala, but it's not as though Guatemala is not on my mind, and I am in touch with people and events there to the extent that the internet (and time) permits.

This morning's paper (in Guatemala) carried a headline about a recent vote in the 48 cantones of Totonicapán against the proposed constitutional reforms. Over the weekend I was able to catch up with the alcaldía indígena (indigenous mayoralty) of Chichicastenango, four of whose representatives were in New York to address the United Nations and network with groups here.  I also met, over the weekend, with a friend from a community radio station in Guatemala who, unbeknownst to me, decided to emigrate not long after we had met, and is now living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  But to be able to contextualize these three seemingly unrelated events, I need to give some background about the the state and indigenous communities in Guatemala.

In the past two months, Guatemala has been in a state of turmoil, or at least the parts of Guatemala that concern me the most -- the Maya communities in the highlands, and the community radio movement.  Since early October, Totonicapán has been at the center of people's attention -- a peaceful protest at the highway crossing known as Cuatro Caminos, led by indigenous leaders from the 48 cantones of Totonicapán, was attacked by the army and a total of eight people were killed (four of them died immediately, and another four who had been wounded in the attack died within a day), and dozens wounded.  Totonicapán has now become a potent symbol of indigenous resistance within Guatemala.  About a week later, the Ministerio Público raided the community radio station in San Mateo, Radio Doble Vía, and took their transmitter and other equipment. 

But this needs a little background. I have to confess that I don't know enough about the particularities of the "movement" in Totonicapán on a local level. When I visited Guatemala in March and attended the pubic gathering with the UN Human Rights representative Navi Pillay, I was struck by the visible presence of the local indigenous authorities from the 48 communities, who formed an honor guard as the UN representative walked to the platform, bearing their wooden staffs as symbols of their authority and leadership. It was an impressive sight, and spoke volumes about the level of organization in those communities, which I confess I barely know. But to venture a wild surmise (phrase lifted from Keats' "On Looking into Chapman's Homer", for those literary-minded among you), I think what we are seeing is the resurgence of a national movement for indigenous rights,  bringing together traditional local leaders (who I think have not always been that politicized), along with other social actors --including groups that date back to the armed conflict, like the national peasants' organization, CUC -- the Comité de Unidad Campesino -- and newer formations like the Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente (the Council of Indigenous Peoples of the West, or CPO).  Well, not sure what the right word is.. resurgence, or the formation of a new movement that includes old-line "movimiento maya" activists with new players. But whatever it is, it bears watching (and in my case, engagement).

Since the new government came to power, the country has witnessed increased militarization, and also increased popular mobilization.  For the last few months, people have been talking and debating about some proposed constitutional reforms put forward by the party in power. Communities have been expressing their discontent, but those have mostly fallen on deaf ears.  When I was there in August there was some discussion about the proposed reforms -- I attended a fairly large meeting of K'iche' and Mam leaders from Quetzaltenango's communities, and the proposed reforms were one point on a long agenda, and the general sentiment was that folks were against them, as they roll back some of the guarantees that were set forth -- if not exactly complied with -- in the Peace Accords. 

Todos Somos Barillas
At the same time there has been renewed protest against the mining companies and other "mega projects" that would, in the view of many, wreak havoc in highland communities and bring few lasting benefits.  For the past few years the residents of Santa Cruz Barillas, a town in northern Huehuetenango, have been organizing in opposition to a hydroelectric plant -- a project directed by the Spanish-owned company Hidro Santa Cruz. There was a community consultation in good faith in 2007, but plans for the project continued. This is not uncommon: communities hold "consultations in good faith", vote overwhelmingly (like 98% or more) against a project, but the project proceeds. The good faith consultations are a popular consultation process that I described earlier -- according to the ILO Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples, there can't be any "development" projects in indigenous communities without the consent of the community and an open, transparent process of community consultation. Although the government does not recognize these consultations as binding, or grant them any official status, the popular consultation model has been an important organizing tool in indigenous communities, and do provide an opportunity for popular participation, but also grassroots mobilization. The usual model is a large public assembly in local communities: for example, the good-faith consultation in Chinique, which I attended in March of this year, consisted of open-air meetings in each of the 33 communities (cantons, aldeas and other rural settlements) that are official recognized as comprising the municipality. I only saw the public meeting, but they were obviously preceded by conversations, by organizing and passing along information about the project, since the actual consultation was fairly formalized and did not involve a lot of discussion. More time was spent signing people in, giving instructions, physically arranging people in gender and age-segregated rows for the count, and then having everyone sign the "acta" at the end, than anything else. 

SInce the project had not been halted, there was continued opposition in Barillas, and in mid-2011, the company began to bring in security forces, equipment and machinery, and the security guards were apparently very belligerent and threatening toward residents, creating an atmosphere of hostile and confrontation (need I say that the private security forces were armed? It is not uncommon for private security guards to be armed in Guatemala -  one of the the cafés on Parque Central in Antigua where I often had coffee had an armed guard on the premises).   The company had  brought legal charges against community leaders. The protests heated up last fall around and after the elections. There were some acts of sabotage against the company's installations and the equipment and machinery that had been put in place to start construction. There were rumors that the company had gotten orders of capture against 23 community leaders. Then early in 2012 there was a meeting between the new local government, the company representatives and community leaders to reach a solution, but five days later heavy machinery began to arrive, and that provoked another round of protests. 

In late April a dead dog was discovered near the company's installations. Investigations by the police determined that it had been killed by a home-made bomb on the hillside near the company's installations and that the bomb had been made by the company's security forces. On May 1, community leaders who were out walking encountered a pickup truck filled with armed men (who later turned out to be guards hired by the company) who opened fire. One man was killed and two were wounded. One of the wounded was a man who had refused to sell his land to the company and had been outspoken in his opposition to the hydroelectric project. 

The community erupted, 5000 people marched to the town center, and the government sent to the army to occupy the town. 12 community leaders were arrested and taken off to a distant jail to await trial.  What was interesting and important about Barillas is that people used social media -- particularly Twitter and Facebook -- to spread word about the army occupation. Within hours, indigenous rights organizations were posting denunciations and statements on Facebook, and launching a national and later international  campaign (largely through Facebook) to put pressure on the government to pull back the army and end martial law. The slogan,  "Todos y todas somos Barillas" (we are all Barillas) spread like wildfire over social media, and the government was eventually forced to retreat. The use of social media and the internet is not precisely new in popular struggles, from the Ukraine to Iran to Egypt.  Cell phones are ubiquitous in Guatemala and, as I have noted in previous blogs, at any public event in Maya communities -- from a wedding to a local school's "indigenous princess" pageant -- the air is thick with people recording the event on their phones, digital and video cameras, and photographers jostle with each other for space and good camera angles. Guatemalans have taken to Facebook and Twitter in droves; in the past year half of my close friends in my small village where I lived have signed up for Facebook. Much of what they post is very localized and personal, focused on their families, and daily lives. But civil society organizations are also recognizing the importance of website, blogs, and Facebook for disseminating information and for popular mobilization. 

From Todos Somos Barillas to Todos Somos Toto
This long introduction is to set the stage for where I started this posting, with the vote in Totonicapán against the constitutional reforms.  There have been marches and mobilizations and blockades, both local and national, throughout the year. October is the month of the official celebrations of the Día de la Raza (day of the race), October 12, ostensibly a celebration of the "discovery" of the Americas, the Central American counterpart to Columbus Day. But through the indigenous world in Latin America, it is referred to as the Day of Indigenous Resistance or the Day of Mourning. I don't know if the protest at Cuatro Caminos was planned as a lead-in to the October 12 actions -- since I know that many of the new and old social actors in the indigenous movement were planning to participate in the October 12 march in Guatemala City. The community radio folks had planned to mobilize a contingent; back in August, I was at a meeting where the organizers were proposing a national gathering of radio activists, and the idea was to hold it on October 11, and to have it relatively close to the capital (instead of in San Mateo, where the workshops have often been held, since that is about 4 hours away), so that they could arrange bus transportation to get everyone to the march in the capital, and then people could find their way home after that, since buses depart from Guatemala City to all parts of the country. Their intention was to continue to raise the issue of the government's failure to pass legislation authorizing community radio stations, and to protest the proposed legislation that would impose penalties and jail time for those broadcasting without a license.

In this context, the authorities in Totonicapán organized a blockade of a major highway intersection at Cuatro Caminos. Highway blockades are a very standard form of socio-political protest in Guatemala. Everyone with a grievance -- from bus drivers who are unhappy about fare increases to secondary-school students angered about changes in the degree requirements for a teaching certification -- blockades highways to promote their cause. As students at a highway blockade in Salcajá told me in August, "If you don't block highways no one listens to you." Or at least that is the belief.

As I noted above, this peaceful (according to the organizers) "occupation" of the highway crossroads was attacked. Cuatro Caminos is a busy, congested place. It is where the major national and international highway, the Panamerican Highway, CA-1, meets the secondary highway that connects the city of Totonicapán with Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala. All around the intersection are stores and restaurants, ranging from auto repair shops to chain restaurants like Pollo Campero, mom-and-pop eateries, and much more. Although there is no physical structure that could be called a "bus terminal", it is where many inter-urban buses stop and discharge or pick-up passengers, and along the Panamerican Highway near the crossing, there are always half a dozen or more buses parked and waiting to ferry people to Huehuetenango or Guatemala City and other locations.  Many buses don't go into the terminal at Xela, so depending upon where you want to go, if you are heading to or from Xela, it is likely that you will have to change buses, or at least stop, at Cuatro Caminos. So, outside of the main roads around Guatemala City, this is about as central a location as one could pick to block traffic and make a point.

There were some confrontations with the local police, who then called upon the army, who arrived and opened fire.  Again, information about the attacks spread within moments via social media and the internet and again, Facebook and other social media were used to mobilize outrage and a public response to these actions. The slogan that had emerged in the army occupation of Santa Cruz Barillas -- "todos somos Barillas" -- was quickly adapted to "todos y todas somos Toto", and the events in Toto were a main focus of the indigenous movement's contingents in the October 12 march. There were a lot of images circulating through Facebook and other online sources: photographs of the government photoshopped so that the officials were dripping with blood, and dozens of online posters, many linking the genocide of the armed conflict (and President Otto Pérez Molina's involvement; as Lieutenant Tito, he was a leader of the secret forces, the G2, that were responsible for many of the massacres in Quiché and other highland areas). 

The night before this march, however, when the community radio people were mostly gathered at a conference center near San Lucas, Sacatepéquez, about 30 km. outside city, the MP raided the station at Doble Vía. Of course, most of the people at that station, and all the stations, were not in San Lucas. Only a few representatives of each station were in attendance, since there wasn't enough funding to bring everyone from every station -- and of course, there was no desire for all the stations to cease broadcasting to attend a conference. Apparently, there was an alarm system at the Doble Vía headquarters and neighbors came out in response, and the officials did not take ALL of the equipment, but they did seize the transmitter. The transmitter was not only an essential apparatus, as it would be for any radio station, but that specific transmitter had historic and emotional value. It was the transmitter that had belonged to the clandestine radio of the armed resistance that had been hidden on the slopes of the Tajamulco Volcano. Tito Recinos, one of the founders of Doble Vía, had been the chief broadcaster of the guerrilla radio, and when the conflict ended, he retrieved the transmitter and, several years later, installed it in Doble Vía. So, while there is a fundraising campaign underway to put Doble Vía back on the air, and it seems likely that the station will start transmitting again soon, it seems highly unlikely that the government will ever return the transmitter. 

Without being too conspiratorial, it hardly seems that this was a random raid by the Ministerio Público. Tito is well known nationally and to a degree internationally as a leader in the community radio movement, and he has never hidden his credentials as a former guerrilla; in fact, he is very proud of his involvement in the armed struggle although he usually reminds people that most of his work was as a broadcaster ("I exchanged my gun for a microphone", is how he often phrases it). They do raid other stations, and not all of them ones that have been at the forefront of the national movement, but the circumstances here are suggestive that this was an effort, however clumsy, to silence protest. Doble Vía has been able to garner support from international sources; when I was there in August the station was involved in constructing a major expansion of its facilities, to include a conference center complete with dormitories and a kitchen, so that they could house gatherings of community radio people without having to send people to a hotel in Xela, and feed the visitors on site (in the workshops I attended, we walked a short distance up to Tito's house where his wife, mother and other relatives prepared food that was served on some long tables set up in the patio).