Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Solidaritywith political prisoners

There are  things that cannot be planned, and today´s  visit to see Don Ermitaño  çLopez, Saul Mendez y Rogelio Velasquez was one of them. Yesterday in my retturn journey from Barillas, where I had spent the previous night and morning, I had the chance to meet Cesia Juarez, an energetic young woman whose father, Don Chico Palas, is one of the nine leaders from northern Huehuetenango who has been unjustly and, many of us would say, illegally imprisoned for months  --and in the case of Saul, Rogelio and Mynor Lopez, years.   We had wanted to meet up and it turned out that she was traveling to Huehuetenango, and I wanted to get back to Santa Eulalia, which is along the way, so we decided to journey together. In the course of the 2 and a half hours we spent together on the bus, she told me that there was going to be a ¨"concentration"  (rally, gathering) in Huehuetenango in support of the political prisoners and demanding their freedom. This month, January, there are several hearings in some of the legal cases against these men, and so some of the indigenous rights organizations wanted to use this moment to put some pressure on the government--this is also the week that the new government is inaugurated. I hadn´t known about the event but decided to go, and so I got up at 3 and hopped on a bus that passed by my friends´home in Santa Eulalia at 3:45 a.m., heading for Huehuetenango. There were later buses but my friend Lorenzo suggested taking the early bus and arriving in time to have breakfast before the protest was supposed to start at 8. 

The bus deposited me a few blocks from the Parque Central of Huehuetenango at around 6:30  and after walking around for a few minutes ahd checking out the action --at that hour, vendors arranging their wares and people lining up in front of the office where people pay their taxes, car registration fees and all other kinds of state-mandated payments -- and repaired to a nearby restaurant to eat breakfast. I then wandered back to the square after a leisurely meal but couldn´t see much sign of activity, until Cesia texted me and told me where people were gathered. 

Nothing much was happening yet - it was about 8:30 when I met up with Cesia --  and we chatted with some of the organizers, and then went off to have coffee, waiting for the invocation for the event. An aqíq (Maya priest or guia espiritual, spiritual guide) made a small altar with incense and flowers, but nothing much was happening. We were sitting at the cafe waiting for our beverages when I saw some movement and ran back across the street. Someone asked me where Cesia was because they wanted representatives of the families of the prisoners and apparently she was the only one who was able to make it. I ran back to fetch her and we asked the cafe to hold off on our coffees and then rejoined the people on the square  for the invocation. I will report later on the proceedings -- there are a short press conference, announcing that people would be in the square for several days, with music, performances, collecting food and money for the prisoners and their families, and signatures to pressure the government, and then several representatives of different communities where there either have been political prisoners or resistance movements spoke, until close to midday.  Francisco, one of the people coordinating the activities, explained that there were also pens for sale --pens that had been decorated by Don Taño with messages against mining and hydroelectrics, in defense of water and freedom for the prisoners. I bought two (and later a dozen at the request of friends in the Guatemalan immigrant community).

Cesia suggested that we try to make a visit to the prison where three of the prisoners are being held, and explained that it was only a few blocks away. She also suggested that we bring cameras and see if we could take photos or even record an interview with the men. Since she had press credentials and I did not I gave her my camera bag and I just carried a pad and pen. I was surprised at the difference between the prison here and the preventivo in Guatemala City. Here it´s a small jail, right in the middle of town, and you just walk in t he front door into a couryard and ask to speak to an official. No line, no multiple inspections (there are inspections for official visiting hours). Cesia explained that we were from the press, that we were at the solidarity activity in the square and wanted to bring a message from the prisoners, and mentioned that previously the prison had permitted messages to be recorded. The official who spoke with Cesia said that if we hadn´t requested offiical permission we could not record video but that we could take photographs and Cesia could take notes on the interview. We waited a short while and then the guards brought the three prisoners out -- hands secured behind their backs with handcuffs -- and allowed us to speak with them. 

They all looked somewhat tired, which is understandable, but they grew more animated as they spoke. They allowed us to embrace them, although they could not embrace us back as their hands were bound. Cesia explained who I was and asked if any of them had met me before. Don Taño and I noted that we had met under different circumstances, in some of the meetings and activities in Barillas. We showed him that we had one of the pencils he had made, which we were using to take notes. The guards stood behind them, but did not make any effort to remove themselves from the range of my camera lens, or in any way interfere with my photography. Cesia first spoke, greeting them and explaining about the rally or occupation taking place in the square, saying that they were an inspiration and heroes, and emphasizing that their families needed them, that the community needed them and that she hoped that we would soon see them free.

I was surprised when she asked me if I wanted to say something, but I quickly explained that I had been following their cases and those of the other prisoners, that I had recently been to see Rigoberto and one of the things that he had said that impressed me was his statement that solidarity did not run only in one direction, from those outside the prison to those inside the prison, but also from them to us. That I knew that the struggle they were waging was not something that had started last month or last year but one that had deep historical roots, starting with the Spanish invasion, and that as a gringa I was very well aware of the part that my country had played in all of that, with the support of the coup and the support of the military regimes. I don't quite remember how I brought in Lorenzo and the repression of the radio station in Santa Eulalia  (I obviously was not taking notes on myself). I also said that there was support for their plight from outside the country, from the Guatemalan immigrant community, especially some of the Q'anjob'al communities in the U.S. Afterwards, each of them spoke, starting with Rogelio, and then Saul and then Don Taño. The guards allowed us to talk with them for probably 20 minutes or more in total -- I was not watching the clock but I know we went well beyond the 5 minutes we had originally requested. Cesia took notes and when she sends them to me I will translate them. In brief, they each sent thanks to everyone who was supporting their cases, and reiterated that defending water was not criminal, that they had done nothing wrong, and that they hoped to regain their freedom.

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