Guatemala protestors torch Congress

By Mike Phipps

Hundreds of anti-government protestors stormed the national Congress building in the capital of Guatemala on Saturday night, setting fire to it.

It was an angry response to the parliament rushing through a budget earlier in the week, as the country was recovering from Hurricane Eta. The storm sparked landslides which killed more than 100 people earlier this month. Rains from Tropical Storm Iota then flooded already devastated regions of the country. People took refuge in shelters, some of which had cases of COVID-19.

The virus has caused more than 4,000 deaths in Guatemala. Health workers labour under poor working conditions, with salaries not paid for weeks. Those who speak out are often fired.

The budget, negotiated in secret and passed at breakneck speed, increased MPs’ allowances, while cutting $25 million from the fight against malnutrition – later restored. Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world. Half of all children under age 5 have stunted growth.

It also reduced the human rights ombudsman’s office budget by $2.5m and cut the judiciary’s budget almost in half. One commentator observed, “Movements of Indigenous survivors of genocide and other atrocities during the 36-year civil war point out the budget doesn’t include funding for a promised peace commission to replace three institutions the president shut down.”

In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan military carried out a policy of genocide against indigenous people in the highlands under the pretext of fighting leftist guerrillas. Over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed.

Thanks to the work of the country’s Truth Commission, which sifted through tens of thousands of submissions and years of documentation, it was determined that 93% of the atrocities committed during the conflict had been the work of the armed forces and 83% of the victims had been Mayan.

The Guatemalan military’s war on the landless Mayan community in the early 1980s involved acts of unbelievable cruelty. One documented case was a massacre of over 200 villagers by government soldiers in the village of Las Dos Erres in 1982. According to the US-based Human Rights Watch, the abuses included “burying some alive in the village well, killing infants by slamming their heads against walls, keeping young women alive to be raped over the course of three days.”

This was not an isolated incident, but one of over 400 massacres documented. In another outrage, the army crammed its victims into a small house which was set on fire with grenades. Some 250 people were killed. In 2004, the government of Guatemala admitted to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights that the regime had practised a strategy of genocide.

The US was deeply implicated in all this.  Despite a suspension of military aid to Guatemala under the Carter Administration, covert support continued. In 1982, President Reagan resumed arms sales to the regime of Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt.

Human Rights Watch went so far as to say that “the Reagan Administration shares in the responsibility for the gross abuses of human rights practiced by the government of Guatemala.” The CIA worked inside the Guatemalan army at this time, operating torture centres and helping to run a unit responsible for thousands of killings.

The recent closure of official peace institutions which had originally been created to provide justice to victims has made the survivors very angry. They claim the government is deliberately reneging on legal commitments enshrined in the peace accords that ended the 1960-1996 civil war.

Even after these historic accords, the repression of indigenous communities continued. Many of the affected areas have been remilitarised. There have also been repeated attempts in Congress to approve an amnesty for the perpetrators of the genocide.

“We are left in a country with no commitments to peace and with no commitments to human rights,” said an activist in CONAVIGUA, a human rights organisation founded by women whose relatives were killed or disappeared during the civil war.

Last week’s budget provoked anger for other reasons. “The opposition says the budget prioritises big infrastructure projects to be handled by companies with government connections and overlooks the social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” reported the BBC. “They are also angered by what they describe as major cuts to education and health spending.”

A day after the Congress building was torched, the Speaker of the Congress announced the budget would be shelved. Protestors, meanwhile, are now pressing for President Alejandro Giammattei to resign. Vice-President Guillermo Castillo agrees.  He has also spoken out against the budget and said that both he and Mr Giammattei should step down “for the good of the country”.

Conservative former prison chief Giammattei was elected president last year on a 42% turnout in what the international press branded as an “unpopularity contest.”  His campaign was characterised by the repeated use of foul language and uncosted populist policy proposals. Allegations emerged of links to narco-traffickers in the country.

In office, Giammattei’s administration designated $1.4 billion to cushion the economic impact of the COVID pandemic. However, months later only a fraction of the promised funds had been disbursed, and workers in the informal sector—up to 70% of Guatemala’s economically active population—have been largely abandoned.

The Guatemalan healthcare system, ranked as one of the most ill-equipped in Latin America, is also overwhelmed. Under pressure from the private sector, Giammattei reopened the economy prematurely and the pandemic remains rampant.

As elsewhere, protestors’ anger is directed not just against the current government but the entire corrupt business and political elite in whose interests the country is run. “It doesn’t matter which government – they’re all the same,” said one protestor.

The government was quick to denounce the attack on Congress as a “terrorist act”. That aside, the huge protests were largely peaceful, yet were nonetheless tear gassed by police, who made arbitrary arrests.

Five years ago, non-party protests drew tens of thousands onto the streets and brought down Guatemala’s corrupt government. Today’s protestors are angry at the lack of progress, while the social and economic crisis has worsened, forcing tens of thousands to migrate north.

Mike Phipps is a member of Brent Central Labour Party who has lived in Central America and studied it over many years.

Image:   Ixil women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide against the indigenous Ixil people in the 1980s. Source: Guatemala 4, GHR 16. Author: Trocaire from Ireland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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