Friday, January 11, 2013

The first year of the Pérez Molina government

The news over the past few days has been filled with stories about the change of command in the government. The President has declared that he is closing the National Fund for Peace (FONPAZ), due to charges of corruption, and dismissing the current head of this agency -- who is a member of the same political party, the Patriotas. I won't go into the details of the scandal about misuse of funds, but the government has declared that agency will be shut down. It was established in 2000 with a mission of eradicating poverty and extreme poverty -- and clearly it has not been successful in achieving that goal (whether or not it was actually ever given sufficient funding or mandate to do so is obviously a larger issue, and whether any government agency is actually capable of addressing deeply-rooted issues of structural inequality and extreme poverty is also highly debatable).

Monday the president completes his first year in office, and looking back, it's been a bloody, miserable year for most Guatemalans. Unceasing attacks on social movements and anyone who raises a dissenting voice, both in the media and physical attacks by police, the army and private security guards at the installations of transnational companies involved in hydroelectric and mining projects. More displacements or threatened displacements of communities whose land lies where these government-backed transnationals want to start or expand operations. At the same time, the government seems to be radically rewriting the social contract through legal and legislative means. They instituted a "fiscal reform" which means that community organizations, NGOs and associations (the legal structures governing what we would call non-profits or CBOs are different, and the category of "association" is something particular to Guatemala) are subject to increased scrutiny regarding their finances. These measures are couched in the language of transparency, cleanness and anti-corruption but they are basically about surveillance.

Over the past year the Ministry of Education has announced that they are changing the terms of the educational system, or specifically how teachers are training, and extending the "magisteria" (the course of study for teachers) to 5 years. This has caused a lot of anger on the part of students currently enrolled, and also parents. When I was here in August, I first learned about this the hard way -- when I set out to travel to the Boca Costa, and was passing through the town of Salcajá, a few kilometers outside of Xela, and found the main  highway crossing blocked by students at one of the secondary schools who were outraged about the proposed measure. The anger has increased over the past year, and students and parents throughout the country have been holding meetings, staging protests, and apparently for Monday, when the new program is supposedly to officially go into effect, there is a massive protest planned. Again, this initiative is described by government officials as something that is necessary to bring Guatemala up to par in terms of teacher training, and thus is couched in the language of "modernization", "advancement", "development" and "progress" -- all words which have an unpleasant ring of colonialism and top-down bureaucratization. It is not clear, for example, what happens to the students who are currently enrolled in 4-year programs.

The government also succeeded in passing a telecommunications law in December that granted another 15 years of the use of radio frequencies to the media monopolies that currently have licenses -- while failing again to take any action on the initiative to legalize community radio, and decreeing harsh prison sentences for those who criminally misappropriate the radio spectrum. And apparently the Congress is scheduled to discuss a proposed reform to the criminal code. I haven't seen the details of what has been proposed, but my friends on the left all think it is pretty ominous. 

Oh, and I nearly forgot about the increase in electric rates, and the privatization of water.  On top of this, there was a chilling story in the New York Times a few weeks ago about the real threat that bio-fuels pose to subsistence farming in Guatemala -- the backbone of rural economies. When corn and other crops are siphoned off for bio-fuels, there's obviously less corn available for eating, and Guatemala has gone from being self-sufficient in corn production to relying upon imports for about 30% of basic consumption needs -- and this only in the course of several years.  Land that is devoted to the production of bio-fuel crops is also land not available for cultivation. And while poor peasant farmers might see a short-term advantage in selling their land -- say, to a company that wants to grow African palm -- they usually don't end up with enough money to purchase arable land that they can then farm, nor are there enough jobs to employ all the people who have been displaced (whether forcibly or voluntarily).  So the solutions are working in a maquiladora or some other "free trade zone" employment (i.e. internal migration) or migration to another country.

Oh yes, and I also forgot that the government declared about a week or two ago that the international legal proceedings concerning genocide were only valid for events that took place after 1987  - which was when Guatemala signed the international conventions. Or rather, the government declared that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH) only had jurisdiction over events that occurred after 1987. Since the most intensive campaigns against the civilian population and most of the massacres occurred between 1981 and 1983 (not to say that there weren't massacres and killings both earlier and later, but those were the worst years), this means that the brunt of the genocide, according to the Guatemalan government, would never be adjudicated in an international tribunal and the majority of victims and survivors would not receive justice.   

Meanwhile, the number of deportations of Guatemalans from the United States reached a record in 2012.

Not a pleasant picture, overall. But as I have written earlier, there has been a corresponding "uprising" (the word "levantamiento" in Spanish doesn't quite carry the connotation that "uprising" does in English -- it's not quite taking over the state or intending to do so, but "lifting themselves up", responding, making their presence felt) or series of "uprisings", popular unrest and protest.  Also, many groups and communities are working through legal means -- bringing cases in the Guatemalan courts and also in international legal institutions like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It's hard to see what might be the results of these. The United Nations has issued declarations concerning the situation(s) in Guatemala.  When the Special Rapporteur of the UN on the rights of indigenous people, James Anaya, was here, he issued an informal statement that was reported in the press. But those seem to have little impact.

On the bright side... well, two days ago, the court in Santa Eulalia released 8 of the community leaders in Barillas, who had been detained since the events in May. After the killing of one anti-megaproject activist on May 1, the community erupted and several community leaders were arrested and shipped off to prison in Guatemala City. Within the movement, they have been referred to as political prisoners. So, apparently the court convened in Santa Eulalia two days ago and in the afternoon declared that these eight leaders were free to go. However, the court hasn't lifted the arrest warrants out for another twenty or so community leaders.

No comments:

Post a Comment