By Tim May
Over the summer Guatemala was rocked by massive protests which brought the country to a virtual standstill. A ‘Paro Plurinacional’ (Plurinational Strike) was called on 29th July, and thousands of Indigenous protestors took to the streets and blocked major highways. These protests eventually wound down in September, but the tensions which instigated them remain unresolved, and are likely to flare up again at short notice.
Protests of this nature have been occurring with increasing frequency over the previous decade. The root cause is the continued structural inequalities which the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996 failed to address. During Guatemala’s 36-year long armed conflict, Guatemala’s US-backed military committed acts of genocide against the country’s Indigenous Maya population, who represented the vast majority of the conflict’s 200,000 victims. Many Guatemalans hoped the conflict’s resolution would signal the end of the country’s entrenched racial hierarchy and the violent treatment of Indigenous communities. Their optimism proved to be misplaced.
On the one hand, the Peace Accords did lead to a number of reforms which granted greater cultural recognition to Guatemala’s Indigenous population. The state also ratified the ILO-169 Convention, guaranteeing Indigenous communities the right to prior informed consent. However, Guatemala’s criollo (European descended) elites as represented by the powerful business coalition CACIF (the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations) blocked the more revolutionary aspects of the accords, most notably any meaningful redistributive policies.
As the Latin American Studies scholar Charles Hale (2006, p.31) argues, the multicultural reforms simply remade “racial dominance in a gentler, less offensive, and more sustainable guise”. Guatemala’s criollo elites refused to concede any real economic or political power, and this limited progress is reflected by the fact that Indigenous Guatemalans are three times as likely to live in extreme poverty than non-Indigenous Guatemalans. Their life expectancy is 13 years shorter, and 95% of those under the age of 18 who migrate are Indigenous. Indigenous peoples are also massively under-represented in Congress, where despite comprising over half of the population, they have managed to win only 13% of available seats.
Not only have Guatemala’s racial inequalities remained intact, but Indigenous communities are facing increasing violence. The Peace Accords paved the way for a host of neoliberal policies, including the 1997 Mining Law which decreased the amount of royalties from 6% to only 1%. These policies led to a wave of extractivist development in mining, hydroelectricity, and agribusinesses, which has been accompanied by state policies of militarisation and criminalisation. Despite Guatemala’s ratification of the ILO-169 Convention, Indigenous defenders of territory are being targeted through anti-terrorism legislation. This extractivist onslaught is the most significant attack on Indigenous communities’ way of life since the military’s scorched earth campaigns of the early 1980s.
These repressive conditions are maintained by what is known as the ‘Pact of the Corrupt’ (Pacto de los Corruptos), that is the close alignment of CACIF, politicians, drug cartels, and public authorities. This elite network has little interest in relinquishing the exploitative status quo which has kept the country’s Indigenous majority in a state of precarity for the last 500 years. The same cannot be said of Guatemala’s Indigenous communities, who have been increasingly vocal in their opposition to Guatemala’s colonial governance.
Frustrations came to a head in 2015, when massive anti-corruption protests led to the collapse of the government, and the eventual jailing of former President Otto Pérez Molina. At this point, real structural change felt possible. However, this opportunity was exploited by Jimmy Morales – a former comedian and political outsider. He was carried to the presidency on a populist anti-corruption platform, but unfortunately, he proved just as corrupt as his predecessor. In 2018, he was investigated over illegalities in his campaign financing by CICIG (the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), the UN-backed body responsible for Molina’s earlier prosecution. In response, and with CACIF’s support, Morales deployed tanks around CICIG’s offices in Guatemala City and terminated its operations in a move which some decried as a ‘soft coup’.
Under the watch of incumbent president Alejandro Giammattei, the situation has only worsened. The ‘Pact of the Corrupt’ have led an assault on the rule of law, taking over Guatemala’s public institutions to neutralise dissent, evade justice and guarantee their impunity. They have already co-opted the Electoral Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Constitutional Court, and they are using these public institutions to pursue and repress journalists, independent judges, and civil society. Recently, a new Guatemalan Law on NGOs was passed, allowing the government to close down NGOs which are deemed a ‘disturbance to public order’.
Over the last year, discontent had been building over the government’s inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In November 2020, when the Guatemalan Congress voted to decrease funding for health programs, outraged protestors set fire to the Congress building. Several months later, evidence of corruption emerged over President Giammattei’s procurement of the Sputnik V vaccine.
The 2021 summer protests however were triggered by the sudden dismissal of Juan Francisco Sandoval, the head of FECI (Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity), the country’s anti-corruption task force. Sandoval was leading investigations into corruption over the vaccine rollout. After being dismissed, he fled the country over fears for his life. As the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, Sandoval threatened the interests of the ‘Pact of the Corrupt’. His dismissal thus signalled the removal of one of the few remaining protections against their monopolisation of power.
It was Sandoval’s dismissal which triggered the Plurinational Strike and calls for President Giammattei’s resignation. However, this summer’s protests were driven by more than just discontent over government corruption and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, they stem from a deeper frustration with Guatemala’s systemic inequalities. Unlike the anti-corruption protests of earlier years, these protests were led primarily by peasant organisations and ancestral authorities.
More than just the resignation of individual politicians, these Indigenous organisations are demanding a complete refounding of the state through the creation of a Plurinational Constituent Assembly. They are pushing for the transformative promises that the Peace Accords failed to deliver. Until these conditions are met, Guatemala will remain a powder keg – the slightest spark will set it alight one more.
Tim May holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Durham. He currently works for a Guatemalan-based NGO working on social justice.
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